By Cristiana Votta
The crowd watched in shock and awe as Donald McNeil lay there, unable to move. McNeil had been paralyzed from the neck down in an instant.
They say in times of despair, true inner strength can be spotted in great athletes. That was the case for the 197-pound sophomore. After facing a harsh misfortune, McNeil returned as a stronger wrestler than ever before.
Memorial Day weekend of 2007 marked a tragic time in McNeil’s sophomore year of high school. He was attending a tournament in Virginia for Team Connecticut, and his family had packed up and traveled down in support. The stakes were high for McNeil that weekend. He faced tough competition, such as a two-season undefeated senior from North Carolina whose streak he was able to break in an instant.
The last day of competition was labeled “Greco-Roman Day,” which is similar to what is seen in the Olympics today. McNeil had never wrestled in this style but felt confident. By the end of the day, he had won a few matches and was left with one last competitor.
With just 10 seconds left on the clock of his last match of the tournament, McNeil was thrown into the air and rigidly slammed head-first onto the mat.
“When it first happened, I didn’t really know what was going on or how severe it was,” McNeil said. “When the doctors started talking to me, I realized how bad it really was.”
McNeil began wrestling at the age of 8 after being inspired by both of his parents. McNeil’s father, Andy McNeil, wrestled for Brown University, was a New England champion and also a finalist in the Olympic trials. Betsey McNeil, his mother, taught in a high school where the wrestling coach expressed interest in giving McNeil’s career a jump start. He was willing to see what McNeil was made of.
With a bit of guidance from his father, McNeil would set foot on the mat for the first time.
“It was obvious from the start that Donald was a natural,” Betsey McNeil said. “He had great hips, a funky style and he absolutely, positively loved wrestling.”
The drive for victory and enthusiasm would be a big part of his wrestling success for years to come.
“Wrestling is a sport that you just need to have your whole heart in to be good at,” McNeil said. “You have to be willing to put everything into it — you can’t be half in and half out. It’s taught me that you have to be motivated in everything you do in life.”
McNeil’s first two years of high school were spent at King Phillip in Wrentham, Mass., where he won a state championship at the age of 15. McNeil’s status was well known as he was nationally ranked.
After his two years in Massachusetts, McNeil took his talents to Wyoming Seminary in Pennsylvania for another three years in order to prepare for his career at Rider.
The extent of the damage from the hard fall that left McNeil unable to move would remain a mystery until an ambulance rushed him to the hospital. There, the family learned that McNeil’s C5 and C6 vertebrae were fractured and dislocated, and he had suffered a harsh spinal cord injury that would require immediate medical attention and emergency surgery.
“The waiting was torture,” Betsey McNeil said. “It was six hours of surgery, and we later found out that it was a life-or-death situation.”
A week after the initial injury, McNeil was sent to Spaulding Hospital in Boston where he underwent extensive rehab for over a month. He was unable to do any of the things that once came so naturally to him. Most importantly, he needed to learn how to walk again.
Just eight weeks after the initial injury, McNeil walked independently out of the hospital and returned home to his family.
During his time at Spaulding, his mother stayed by his side and provided essential support for a full recovery.
“There was a chair that converted into a bed, and that is where I slept every night,” Betsey McNeil said. “I think being with Donald all the time helped me to stay strong and keep my sanity.”
The doctors considered his recovery a miracle.
“Dr. O’Connor said that only .017% of spinal cord injuries recover the way that Donald’s did,” Betsey McNeil said. “As a spiritual person, I know we were blessed.”
Back At It
Approximately eight months later, McNeil returned to school and everyday activities and just four months after that, he did the unthinkable: The once-paralyzed athlete decided to take his talents back to the mats.
Although fear struck his family members, they knew they couldn’t deny him his love of wrestling.
“While Donald was recovering, I was hoping that he wouldn’t want to wrestle ever again,” Betsey McNeil said. “It was very easy to tell his father that I didn’t approve, but Donald came to me. He said, ‘Mom, Dad said that if you don’t approve of me wrestling then we are going to have a big problem. It’s all I have been working toward and it is why I worked so hard to get well.’ What could I say?”
After endless hours of work toward recovery and numerous trips to the doctor, he was cleared two short weeks before the state wrestling tournament. There was no doubt in his mind about the obstacles he would face.
“I was motivated to get back as soon as it happened,” McNeil said. “I didn’t realize it was so bad that I might not even be able to walk again. I was just determined to get back and wrestle again.”
One year after the big injury, McNeil won a national tournament and went back to competing with a new spark. He feels that the injury has helped him to grow as a person in numerous ways.
“Obviously it was a horrible injury, but I learned a lot from it,” McNeil said. “It really made me thankful for what I have and what I was able to do.”
Although struck with this tragedy, the McNeils stayed committed to their sport.
“We are a wrestling family,” Betsey McNeil said. “I believe that wrestling gave Donald the strength and determination to fight and get well. Donald, his dad and their commitment to wrestling is legendary.”
Although the injury was a setback that would keep McNeil in Wyoming Seminary an extra year, his hard work and determination continue to pay off.
In his first year of college, McNeil attended the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where he red-shirted for a season until the program was cut. He had seriously considered becoming a Bronc during high school and luckily enough, there was still a spot for him on the squad at Rider. He felt confident in his transfer and is still happy with his decision.
“The program here at Rider is much better,” McNeil said. “We work a lot harder and the coaches focus on getting everyone better, not just a few kids.”
Coming in as a sophomore sociology major at Rider, McNeil has been honored by the CAA multiple times. In his first season as a Bronc, he was on the CAA All-Freshman team. This year, he was third in the CAA and ranked 29th in the NCAA coaches’ poll. McNeil also made an appearance in Iowa for the NCAA tournament after qualifying as a 32nd-round pick.
He was among four of his teammates at the NCAA tournament as he fell to second seed, 197-pound Quentin Wright of Penn State.
“I’ve been training for these opportunities my whole life,” McNeil said. “I don’t know how to put any of it in words. It’s just incredible.”
His coaches feel confident in his ability and his direction.
“Donald has made a big jump in his understanding of wrestling at the collegiate level,” Associate Head Coach John Hangey said. “I expect him to make many more jumps and put himself in a position to become one of Rider’s next wrestling All-Americans.”
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