McNeil shows resiliency in emotional return

LaDarrell McNeil makes his triumphant return to the field in style Saturday night against Western Carolina.

LaDarrell McNeil wasn't supposed to be on the field inside Neyland Stadium Saturday.

Tennessee's senior safety was diagnosed in late August with what Butch Jones called "neck instability issues," and with the way Jones described it, McNeil would be lucky to ever see the field again.

"It was tough because I worked all my life up until this moment," McNeil said. "It was very tough for me. I'm glad I have the teammates I do. They were there to lift me up. Especially my coaches, they were there by me to support me. I'm just very grateful for them."

It's not like the diagnosis would stop him, though. McNeil flew to Texas for more testing and kept up with his conditioning, eventually becoming cleared by doctors to play again. The Dallas native fought his way back onto the field against Western Carolina, and afterwards, he fought back tears.

"I wasn't expecting to making a big or catch an interception tonight," McNeil said. "I was just planning on easing my way back on the field and getting the feel back for it."

Those plans were dashed almost as quickly as McNeil's 57-yard sprint after picking off an errant pass from Western Carolina quarterback Troy Mitchell, setting up a Tennessee touchdown and solidifying his return to a lineup he thought he might never see again.

"LaDarrell McNeil, first game back and has a big interception and a big return," a smiling Butch Jones said after the Vols' 55-10 win. "Very, very fitting for that young man. Love him and it was great to have him back."

The preseason All-SEC safety who's started 31 games in his career at Tennessee was unsure if he would ever see the field in pads again, but on Saturday, he was the one who brought an announced crowd of 102, 136 to their feet in a collective eruption of noise after snagging the interception and weaving his way down to the 8-yard line.

Jones had two things on his mind as McNeil strode toward the end zone, and both centered around the mechanics that head coaches operate under.

"The first thing I was thinking was go score, and then take care of the football," Jones said with a laugh. "But again, it's a great story of resiliency, perseverance. It was a very trying two weeks for him and his family, and then the emotion of your football career's not over with, you don't have to have surgery, and just getting him back into the fold."

The third-year head coach planned to ease McNeil back into the lineup since missing practice time with the neck injury, but it wouldn't much matter after he hauled in the play of the game — even if the score was already well out of reach.

"We didn't want to give him the inordinate amount of reps, just because he hasn't play football in a while," Jones said. "It was very fitting, though."

McNeil addressed the media after the game and choked back the emotions of the moment. It's not every day you wrestle with the fact that you might be able to perform the task you love most for two weeks, only to have those notions reversed. The whole thing is akin to jumping in a hot tub before climbing out and cannonballing into a cold pool.

The senior told his teammates about his return in a team meeting, the room exploding after he informed them he was cleared to play. They knew the turmoil he endured in those trying days and were the first ones to congratulate their team leader on his return to the field.

"Everyone was standing up and clapping because they kind of knew what I had been through," McNeil said. "They were with me through the whole journey. It was just a great feeling to hear it and just to get back on the field, to be out there with my teammates and my brothers."

LaDarrell McNeil brought the house down once again Saturday night — only this time, it was by playing football.

Which is all he ever wanted to do, anyway.

"It was a very tough time of my life," he said. "Once I heard the news, and told the news to the guys, especially the defensive backs, they were very excited. They were more excited than I was. I was just happy to be back on the field."

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