The following article originally appeared in the November/December, 1988 issue of Sharing the Victory, then the print publication of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
His mother fancied him a swimmer; he fantasized becoming a golfer. Almost by accident, Neil Lomax became one of the most prolific passers in NCAA history and is today considered one fo the NFL’s premier quarterbacks despite playing on mediocre Cardinal teams.
Remarkably, considering all the attention, his faith has stayed strong.
“The great moment of my life is still, and always will be, that beautiful night in high school when I became a Christian. Football stardom has to stay in perspective. Some NFL players put all their bucks in cars and houses and jewelry, then a rookie comes along who’s one step quicker and they’re history.
“Football can’t be your god. Girls can’t. Cars can’t. Money can’t. All that stuff is temporary but your relationship with Christ goes on forever.”
Neil’s mom was a fine swimmer for the Multnomah (Oregon) Athletic Club and wanted Neil to pursue the sport too. At age six he broke former Olympic gold medalist Don Schollander’s park pool record in a –yard race.
“But Neil saw that swimmers had to get up at six to workout before school,” chuckles his father, “and he said, ‘No way.’”
Neil grew up on little league football, basketball and baseball but dreamed of someday becoming a gold pro. “I had books about all the greats and Jack Nicklaus was my idol.”-
His athleticism was most appreciated on Lake Oswego High’s baseball diamond where his 85-90 mph fastball earned him 2nd team All-State honors as a senior. His curve ball was mean enough to attract letters—but no scholarship offers—from several NAIA schools.
Neil had turned out for football as a freshman but was too slow for a running back, too small for a lineman. The coaches asked if he could throw and he performed passably enough to start on the frosh squad. He made the jayvees the next year, then started on the varsity his last two seasons. The offense was run-oriented, however, and Neil spent so much time handing off that he told friends to attend the warmups if they wanted to watch him throw.
His senior year he threw for seven touchdowns total. His senior year at Portland State he would throw for seven in one quarter!
“In high school I thought I was the cool cat on campus. My junior year I was invited by a senior girl to our spring dance. I felt pretty cocky and drank too much champagne and was miserably sick. My date thought I was a jerk. I got kicked off the team and suspended from school. After that night things began to change. I wasn’t happy with myself and knew if I had to fill my life with alcohol I must be pretty empty.”
Neil filled the void that summer by accepting Christ. His brother Mitch had become a Christian and the transformation impressed him. Once over-competitive and self-centered, Mitch exuded a new spirit of compassion. “I saw it wasn’t fake,” said Neil. “I wanted that too.”
He attended Young Life and FCA “because it was the social thing to do.” At YL’s Canadian Malibu Club that summer, everything he’d been hearing about God came together.
“About eight of us from Lake Oswego accepted Christ that week and decided to stick together and turn the entire school around. But the world was tougher than we’d imagined.”
Neil did make an impact by bringing teammates—and inviting the opposing team—together for pre-game prayer after his coaches were forbidden to.
He also began giving God credit and sharing his favorite verse at the many functions he addressed: “Whatever you do or say, let it be as a representative of the Lord Jesus, and come with Him into the presence of God the Father to give Him your thanks” (Colossians 3:17)
Neil’s football coach, Boyd Crawford, persuaded his Portland State counterpart, “Mouse” Davis, to take a chance on the unrecruited Lomax.
“Neil wasn’t the kind of athlete you’d say was going to be a great college or pro player someday,” Crawford recalls, “but I felt he could help PSU because he had all the physical tools. And he also had character.”
Coach Davis loved to throw. All Neil had to do was prove he could.
“It wasn’t easy. I’d drive out to the Vikings’ stadium that summer and throw with some of the players and a lot of them would back away when it was my turn. I was scared and threw a lot of ducks. It was embarrassing.”
But he didn’t duck the challenge. He began the season fifth string and started with three games left. His first outing he passed for 374 yards and three TDs in just three quarters. Three years later he’d amassed 939 completions (an NCAA record), 13,220 yards and 106 TDs. At one time he held 90 Division 1-AA records.
Ironically, one problem his senior year was what to do if you’re too good. PSU clobbered Cal Poly-Pomona 93-7 and was accused of pouring it on—yet Neil had played less than a half! Two weeks later they annihilated Delaware State 105-0. Neil’s first seven passes all went for TDs.
“Do you feel sorry for the team you beat?” he said afterwards. “Our job was to execute but later it seemed a joke. It hurt both teams. It was hard to take questions like, ‘What were they, a school for the blind?’ Every play I go all out to execute the best I can. That’s what good players do. I’m sure it’s not a problem I’ll face again, not in the NFL.”
It hasn’t been. Neil was initially projected a high first-round draft choice but a shaky performance in the East-West game sent scouts home shaking their heads. Under the San Francisco 49ers’ Bill Walsh, Neil rebounded in the Senior Bowl, was voted MVP and drafted in the second round by St. Louis in 1980.
As usual, he started out last. “I think we were all skeptical of him in the beginning,” remembers retired ace receiver Pat Tilly. “After all, we had a quarterback who’d been with us 14 years and all of the sudden they’re trying to replace him.”
As usual, Neil won over his new teammates. He replaced Jim Hart late in his rookie season and has been irreplaceable since. His first start was against the then powerful Cowboys in 100-degree heat in Texas Stadium. His first pass was picked off. Then he was planted head first into the Astro-turf by Too Tall Jones—and sacked twice more.
“But I’d made up my mind to play with all my heart and soul as long as God was opening this door in football. If I failed, I knew he had higher goals for me and that I’d be excited to find out what He had in store.”
Neil finished that game with 295 passing yards, including a 95-yard TD toss to Tilley. The Cards lost but won four straight under Neil to make their record respectable. They’ve struggled to play .500 since, but Neil has withstood coaching changes and media criticism to become ninth on the NFL’s All-Time Quarterback Ratings.
He earned the Cards’ MVP in ’81 and ’84. He’s played in the Pro Bowl twice. He became only the second player in NJL history to pass for 450 yards or more twice. He owns four of the team’s five best passing yardage days. Last season, statistically, he produced the second-best season ever by a Cardinal quarterback.
His seven years in St. Louis, Neil enjoyed the city but not always some of its more vociferous fans. “I had my own radio show and some of the calls were just too much. I’ve had my share of negative comments and can suck it up. That’s part of the game. But when they cut down the Cardinals, they’re cutting me down. When they criticize the team, they’re criticizing me.”
He welcomed the move to Tempe, Arizona last winter and even agreed to relocate from his Oregon home. He continues to donate $200 to FCA (he was named its “College Male Athlete of the Year” in 1980) for every TD he throws. And he’s tickled to be playing on grass again.
“The move has been exciting and positive. It’s almost like I’ve been drafted in the first round! I still face many challenges because I’ve had impressive numbers but we’re still not making the playoffs.
“According to what the world says, winning a Super Bowl would be an improvement—and that would be great. But I don’t live by the world’s standards. I’m a very content man. God has blessed me so much with a loving wife (Laurie) and a son (Nicholas Ryan). As long as I keep working and using the abilities God’s given me, then to me, that’s success.”