Athletes with Multiple Sclerosis
“I have Multiple Sclerosis, but Multiple Sclerosis doesn’t have me.” That quote comes from Don McNeal, a two time National College Football Champion (1978, 1979) who played for Alabama under coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. McNeal spoke at the Multiple Sclerosis News and Views Conference in Huntsville, AL Thursday, 8-18-16 and shared how he and other athletes with multiple sclerosis struggled and cope with this debilitating disease.
Born and raised in Atmore, AL native, McNeal was a star on the Escambia County High School football team. After high school, he played football for Alabama University under coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. In addition to helping his team win two National Championships, McNeal was Captain of the Team in 1979 then drafted as a defensive back by the Miami Dolphins in 1980. McNeal played in two Super Bowls with the Dolphins: Super Bowl XVII in January 1983 and Super Bowl XIX in January 1985. During those seasons, McNeal was named the Dolphins’ Player of the Year. He retired at the end of the 1989 season having played his entire pro career with the Dolphins. In 1992 he was selected as a member of the University of Alabama All-Centennial Team in 1992 and in 2008 was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in Birmingham, Alabama.
After retirement from football, McNeal became actively involved in his community. He served as a drug-rehab counselor, teacher, coach, lay pastor, board member, and frequent public speaker. He was a pastor at New Testament Baptist Church in South Florida and speaker for Power Talent. To this day, he remains active with associations that assist youth and adults.
McNeal was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2014. Multiple Sclerosis is an incurable, auto-immune disease and that damages the myelin sheath surrounding sensory and motor nerve fibers. Depending on which nerves are affected, it can cause impairment in vision, sensation, strength, endurance and coordination. It has begun to sap McNeal’s strength and coordination and he now uses a power scooter to assist with mobility. McNeal believes repeated NFL concussions brought on his ailment. He and a number of athletes with multiple sclerosis and other disorders suing the league for damages . They are not looking for sympathy. They want empathy. “There are a lot of former players who are trying to do the right thing,” he said. “I hope the NFL will do right by us.”
McNeal spoke at the Huntsville Multiple Sclerosis Treatment Conference Thursday 8-18-16 . His mission is to share hope and inspiration with those facing Multiple Sclerosis. “Coach Don Shula always told me no matter what, always show your class,” said McNeal. That meant standing tall and facing what was to come with poise and grace. “That’s what I’m trying to do here.”
McNeal, ever the optimist, refuses to feel down about it, but turns his energy toward helping others. A man of deep religious faith, he still spends three days a week at Dade Christian School in Miami Lakes. “He has such a good spirit,” said McNeal’s wife Rhonda. “He never complains, and even picks me up when I have a bad day. His positive attitude is why everyone still wants him around here.”