The Yellow Jackets, whose recruiting effort was led by future Atlanta Falcons coach Jerry Glanville, appeared to be the frontrunner for a while. But that was before Bobby Pope, now Mercer's athletic director and then a local TV sports anchor, made a call to an old friend, Alabama assistant coach Pat Dye.
Dye made the trip to Macon at Pope's urging, but he wasn't impressed right away.
"Pat said I think he's too short, and I asked Pat, ‘How tall are you?' We saw him play in Warner Robins, and Pat absolutely fell in love with him. Jerry Glanville really got upset with me because Neil went to Alabama. Jerry didn't speak to me for about a year. But that's all right, I wanted Neil Callaway to go to Alabama. (Glanville) was kind of crazy back then, too."
Pope might have irked Glanville, but he made a lifelong friend in Callaway and Tuesday the pair will go into the Macon Sports Hall of Fame together as part of the Class of 2006. Callaway's put down strong roots in Macon before bolting for Tuscaloosa, Ala.
He was born in Macon to a father who ran filling stations and tire businesses and a mother who was nurse. After Callaway's father died when he was 7 years old, he and brothers Roger and Kirk were raised by Mary, an active member in the Central booster club.
"They called her the Warden," Pope said. "She ran a tough ship on Neil for sure."
Neil was the only of the Callaway boy to take to football, and he did it immediately and vigorously.
"I would say if he's not the most dedicated, he's one of the most dedicated young athletes I ever saw come through high school," said Tommy Mixon, Central's defensive coordinator at the time. "He was a tireless, tireless worker, and he worked seven days a week, year round trying to make himself a better football player. He was really the backbone of that team."
Callaway still counts himself lucky to have played for high school coaches like Steiner, Mixon and Gene Brodie, he said.
"I'm sure, growing up without a father, being around the male influences was enjoyable and made an impression on me," he said. "I imagine that had a lot to do with it."
The Bulldogs, who have employed Callaway since 2001 when Mark Richt took over the program, never were a strong contender in his recruitment, he said.
"I don't want to say anything ugly, but Georgia was kind of struggling at the time," Callaway said. "As it turned out, in 1976, they beat us pretty good, but if you were to compare the two programs at the time, Alabama was on top of the world and Georgia was back and forth."
Playing linebacker and offensive line for Steiner at Central in the early ‘70s, Callaway had grown accustomed to winning football games, and the lure of winning pulled him to Tuscaloosa, Ala. Callaway knew the Crimson Tide had won three SEC titles and one national title during his last three years of high school, and that's about all he knew about the school.
"I knew Joe Namath played there, I knew Bart Starr played there, and Leroy Jordan," Callaway said, "but I couldn't have told you anybody else who played there. I didn't know anybody."
At Alabama, his career didn't follow a smooth arc, but he became the picture of a team guy, not to mention an example of Bryant's notoriously physical workouts.
After playing sparingly as a linebacker as a freshman, Callaway was moved to offensive tackle, where he was scheduled to start as a sophomore until a broken leg in preseason camp ended his season. As a junior, he was moved to defensive end, where he was again expected to play his senior season. That time, a broken jaw suffered before the season resulted in a redshirt year. When his senior season finally rolled around, Callaway was moved back to offensive line, and he earned the team's Frank Thomas award, which goes to the most outstanding Crimson Tide athlete.
Despite the rough ride, four years under Bryant convinced Callaway that college coaching was how he wanted to make a living.
"Coach was a great man obviously, a great coach, a very powerful coach," Callaway said. "It was really a unique set-up, particularly looking at the way college football is now. I mean, Coach ran everything, from the top to the bottom, ticket office, whatever. If there was a decision to be made about anything, he made it."
Coaching always came naturally to Callaway, Mixon said.
"On defense, we didn't worry," Mixon said. "He called every defensive alignment in the huddle for us. Actually, he probably knew more than we did. He knew everything we were trying to do. We were always just real comfortable having Neil out there on defense. It doesn't surprise me at all how well he has done. He's 110 percent at everything he does connected with football."
Dye liked Callaway as a coach as much as he liked him as a player and hired him immediately out of Alabama as a part-time coach.
"I was lucky," Callaway said. "At 24 years old, I was coaching offensive line in the SEC (at Auburn). Coach Dye was extremely good to me."
In the 33 years since Callaway left Macon for good, he has lived some of the SEC's most interesting stories, from the dominance of Alabama under Bryant in the ‘70s, to the rebuilding of Auburn's program in the ‘80s, to the rebirth and subsequent implosion of his beloved Crimson Tide at the turn of the century to the Bulldogs' resurgence now.
As a player and coach, he has one national championship and 11 conference championship rings.
"If you want to see a winner, you take a look at Neil Callaway and see how many championship teams he's been involved with," Pope said. "He's one of my favorite people. He's never forgotten where he came from. He could call me anytime, and I'd do anything for him, and I think that goes the same way."