Tennessee Vols senior safety LaDarrell McNeil is one of the most experienced players on the football team, but nothing compared to the news he received before the start of the season that he would possibly have to give up football altogether from instability issues with his neck.
Then, just a couple of weeks later, after missing the first two games of the season and visiting with his doctors in Texas, McNeil was given the all-clear to return to the field and re-join his teammates for the Western Carolina game.
The emotional roller coaster has definitely been crazy for McNeil, his family and everyone within the Vols football program. But the return to Neyland Stadium Saturday night made it all worth it.
Although McNeil only had one tackle in the game, he also made a pivotal interception which set up a Jalen Hurd touchdown on the ensuing drive.
And while a single interception might not seem like much, to McNeil and everyone on the roller coaster with him, it was the climax of the ride.
“It was very exciting,” McNeil said after the game. “I wasn’t expecting to make a big play or catch any interceptions tonight. I was planning on just easing my way back on the field and getting the feel back for it. But when I made the big play it got the sideline hype. It got me hyped. I was jacked. It was a great feeling.”
Welcome back, LaDarrell McNeil. Nice "oskie" block from Dimarya Mixon to get him inside the 10. pic.twitter.com/2rGwv2w0Xk
— Rocky Top Insider (@rockytopinsider) September 21, 2015
While McNeil was out, sophomores Todd Kelly Jr. and Evan Berry stepped up and showed they were both more than capable of being reliable in the defensive secondary. But McNeil is a senior leader and will be needed to help the Vols defense the rest of the season.
Berry knows how much returning to the team meant to McNeil and said he gave his teammate some encouragement before the game.
“He wasn’t timid,” said Berry. “He was a little nervous at first and I kind of talked to him and said, `You have done this for four years, it’s the same old game. Just go out there and make plays.’ And he did exactly that.”
In his nearly four years at Tennessee, McNeil has played in almost every game – only missing one his freshman year and the first two of this season.
His experience and leadership are both highly valued, and head coach Butch Jones praised McNeil for his refusal to give up when the future seemed dim.
“It’s a great story of resiliency, perseverance,” Jones said. “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 in to the fold.”
Going from being told one minute that his football career might be over with, then to being told he can still play, followed by a welcome back interception has been both emotionally exciting and exhausting. But his teammates made sure he was never alone through it all.
“It was a moment during a team meeting and I was cleared to play,” said McNeil. “Everyone was standing up and clapping because they kind of knew what I had been through. 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.”