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McNeil finds his second chance

580 days ago
Brian Rice | Tennessee Athletics
Photo: Tennessee Athletics

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- What do you do when the one thing you have worked for all your life is suddenly taken away?

What do you ask for? What step do you take next? LaDarell McNeil faced that question after an injury in training camp. But McNeil's story is not about a career, a dream, coming to an end. Because McNeil got to answer an even better question. What would you do if it was all given back? If you had a second chance to live the dream that you thought had been taken away?

And what did he do with his return? Would you believe he made a play that helped win the game? It was one of those special moments in life where the reality is so much better than any fiction could have been.

Teammates streaking down the sideline, sacrificing their bodies on blocks to make the moment even more special, to get person that they had helped through the journey get a little closer to the end zone.

Write that in a script and even the most sentimental of Hollywood executives would not approve it. Not realistic. For McNeil, it was a moment that made everything he had gone through worth it.

The Play

McNeil has had the strong safety position on lockdown for most of his four seasons at Tennessee. There are battles all over the field for positions, but look back at safety and that spot belongs to him. He entered training camp having started 22 consecutive games, 31 of the last 32.

He has also been a star contributor on special teams, which is where he was, on kickoff coverage, in the preseason practice that nearly changed everything.

"I was running down and had a big collision trying to get around a block," McNeil said. "My head snapped back and I felt tingling and numbness."

It cleared up almost immediately, but trainers were still concerned. A preliminary exam raised some red flags, leading to further tests. An MRI revealed an injury to his neck that doctors felt may require surgery before he could play football again.

McNeil got the news while preparing for another practice. Shoes tied, pads on, covered by a non-contact jersey.

"I was hoping for good news, that everything was fine," McNeil said.

It was not. Doctors presented McNeil with several options, most of them involved his football career being over. Surgery that left a chance for his career to resume in a year was on the table.

"I could hang up my cleats," he said. "Time to pursue my other career, my other dreams."

But Tennessee's medical staff sought out additional opinions and options for the senior. Just as it was their responsibility to his well-being to take him off the field, they were equally as anxious to find a way to grant him the opportunity to get back on it.

For the time being, though, the football career of LaDarrell McNeil was in the past.

"So much came to my mind," he said. "I was emotional. I thought about how hard I had worked, even how hard I had worked just that day preparing for the first game. I couldn't take it.

"It was hard and it was a lot to think about and take in. Unfortunately, you do have to thing about what's going to happen next, but that's the situation I was in.

A Football Life

McNeil came to Tennessee from Dallas, Texas. The cliché is that football is not just life in Texas, it is much more important than that.

It is a cliché because it is true. And if that statement was an earthquake, its epicenter would be Dallas.

"I was born in football," McNeil said. "I live and die by football. That's all we do. The first thing we see is football and I've loved it so much. It's the things that come with the game that make you fall even more in love with the game. Things like my teammates, my coaches, the situations and obstacles that you have to overcome. The game, it teaches you life."

His dream was launched with a standout career at Wilmer-Hutchins High School in Dallas. He was rated a 4-star prospect by every major recruiting service after a senior season that saw him make 124 tackles and earn an invitation to play in the prestigious U.S. Army All-American Game in San Antonio.

He came to Tennessee and made an impact right away. He started the final six games of his freshman season in 2012 and racked up Freshman All-SEC honors. He would start all 12 games of his sophomore season and 12 of 13 as a junior.

His dream was now his reality, until that practice. For two weeks, McNeil was preparing for a life without the game he loved.

"You think about it, and I've worked all my life to this point and it's taken away from me that fast," McNeil said. "It was a tough time for me mentally. It's hard because you question everything."

The teammates that made him love the game were right there to support him even without it.

"I just kept him uplifted, kept his head held up high, kept him around the team," Cameron Sutton said. "That was the biggest thing, to keep him around his brothers on the team, around football. A guy like that, you can't take football away from him. It means so much to him."

But then, the Tennessee medical staff had received a second opinion on McNeil's MRI.

"They told me there might be an opportunity for me to play again," he said. "That was the best news I had heard in a couple of weeks. I asked everyone to pray for me."

Of all places, the specialist was back in Dallas.

"I was anxious about the results and doing so much praying and all the guys were praying for me," McNeil said. "I was prepared for whatever he told me, either way. If he told me I couldn't play anymore, I was ready for my next option. If he told me I could play, then I knew I had to give it my all because I couldn't take another day for granted."

It would be his hometown where his second chance at his dream would also be born.

"He said there are a lot of guys playing in the NFL that have had this injury," McNeil said, recounting the meeting. "I had healed so fast and so strong that he didn't recommend the surgery. He wanted me to heal up some more and get another MRI and go from there."

The Best Gift

McNeil woke up on Sept. 3, his 22nd birthday, still unsure if he would ever play football again.

His phone rang, with head coach Butch Jones on the other end of the line.

"He told me he was praying for me and that he wanted to wish me a happy birthday," McNeil recalled.

But there was more.

"I want to be the first to tell you, you're going to be cleared to play," he said, recounting Jones' words. "I just felt like a part of the team again. I had my senior year back, I could focus back on football, instead of life without it."

He made a call to his position coach, Willie Martinez, who responded with jubilance. He told his family, friends and teammates. And those teammates were ready for him to be back with them.

"When I first walked in the locker room, everyone was jumping and screaming," McNeil said. "They told me they loved me and they were happy for me."

The moment was bigger than just McNeil.

"That was very emotional for us as well," Sutton said. "We were glad to have him back, and we were jumping and hugging him."

He was not yet ready for game action, but having him back at practice lifted the spirit and the attitude of every player out there.

"It speaks volumes for the closeness of the football team, but also for the respect that he has amongst his peers," Jones said. "He has great character on and off the field."

The Moment

McNeil missed the first two games of the 2015 season as he worked his way back to being fully cleared for contact.

He made his season debut against Western Carolina, not in his usual starting spot at free safety, but very much in the rotation. Catamount quarterback Tr. Mitchell missed the memo with under 5:00 left in the second quarter.

Sutton forced his receiver to the inside, allowing McNeil to step in front of Mitchell's pass and take it 57 yards the other way. His teammates cleared the way for the return to the 8-yard line, setting up a Jalen Hurd touchdown.

"That play felt great," he said. "When I caught that interception, I felt great. I felt like I was back. It was a wonderful feeling with all of the support from everyone on the team."

It made an impact on his head coach as well.

"It's a moment I'll never forget," Jones said. "With what he's been through over the last month, to get back on the field with his teammates and then be able to make a play that had an impact on the game. Then watching the effort of all of the players blocking for him and watching the excitement for him for that play."

Count his teammates among those impressed as well.

"It was amazing," Sutton said. "The adversity that he has been through, we were excited to have him back out there with us. He's so important, so valuable to the team and the impact that he had against Western Carolina, he's back like he never left. It was amazing seeing him get that interception and chasing him down the field trying to find guys to block."

More than just his impact on the field, Jones was excited to just see that familiar smile that McNeil flashes so frequently that was missing during the time of football uncertainty.

"He has a smile that is always uplifting," Jones said. "To see him smile again and enjoy putting his pads on and going to practice. Football is very fragile and you never know when it can be taken from you. Those are the moments that really create perspective about how special it is to play this game each and every day."

The play against Western Carolina is only the start of the answer to what is next. The second chance has been granted, now comes making the most of it, however long it is.

"I'm going to give my all every single day, every single game," McNeil said. "I'm going to give it my all and take nothing for granted."

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