I knew Phil Neel before I met him. I just didn't know it.
I remember, as a small child, being fascinated by the unique covers on Auburn football programs. As I grew older, I came to admire them even more - the fascinating detail, the humor, the little hidden messages.
The unique tiger on those program covers would eventually become Aubie, the immensely popular Auburn mascot.
Eight years ago, as I prepared to publish my coffee table book, I tried my best to get Mr. Neel to do a drawing for the cover. I thought for a time he was going to do it, but in the end he decided against it. I was disappointed.
Mr. Neel - that's all I ever called him - died Wednesday. He was 84 and an Auburn icon.
I came to Mr. Neel when I worked at the Birmingham Post-Herald as assistant sports editor in the mid-1970's. He was the staff artist - most newspapers had them then - and a fascinating person. He sent two sons - Mike and Rick - to Auburn to play football. They played well and represented their family even better.
Mr. Neel was proud of his work, but he wasn't one to brag on himself. But it didn't take much effort to get him to brag on his family.
Steve Wilson, a linebacker who finished his career in 1972, was Mike's roommate. Mr. Neel was a frequent visitor. Wilson remembers a kind and gentle man with a heart of gold and a spine of steel.
"He had an influence on all of us," Wilsons says. "He was like a second father, just a wonderful person. If he told you something, you knew that's the way it was. He was solid as a rock."
Mike and Rick, their mother Lou and their sisters Cindy and Mary lost the most, but all of us who knew, admired and respected Mr. Neel suffered a loss Wednesday.
Mr. Neel will be remembered as a unique talent, an extraordinarily gifted artist. Those who knew him best will remember him more as an extraordinary man.