06/16/17 — All Area -- Derek Neal

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All Area -- Derek Neal

By Justin Hayes
Published in Sports on June 16, 2017 7:25 AM

The video is a bit grainy, warped in a Zapruder kind of way, but doesn't deny full view of its principal subjects.

Some folks are just supposed to have their moment.

Such was the case on May 19, in the fourth round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association state 1-A baseball playoffs, when Derek Neal absorbed the final strike of a 7-6, panic attack-inspired triumph over Voyager Academy that propelled Rosewood High to its second east regional final in four years.

Following the pitch -- a no-frills, high-heat pink slip from fellow senior Boone Moody -- the catcher sprang to his feet, snap-released his mask toward the dugout and began stomping toward a raging infield mob that was engulfing his good friend.

After all, who else should Neal -- the 2017 News-Argus All-Area Player of the Year -- have been looking for?

Without Moody, he likely wouldn't have been there.


November 9, 2016.

The ATV, a 1,400-pound instrument of good times, lay on Neal's leg, the natural result of two teenage boys having too much bullet-proof fun in far too much darkness.

"I thought it had broken my shin in half," Neal recalled of the moment. "I reached down and felt my leg, and it was still there, but my ankle was huge -- immediately."

So too was the guilt, which raged after Moody, his spotlighting pal, somehow lifted the flipped quad from his mangled leg and organized the painful trek home.

"All I could think about... was I going to have surgery, and I'm probably done -- for a lot of things," Neal said.

And he was nearly right.

Persisting well past his prescribed 30-day recovery timeline, the swelling in Neal's ankle was relentless in scope and debilitating in nature.

Instead of baseball, there was the living room couch.

Instead of pre-game meals, there was Tylenol -- in routine, four-hour shifts, like a single-service dessert tray for the walking wounded.

And instead of meetings on the cliff with a staff he'd helped coach, there were Sportscenter marathons and infomercials about something called Flex Seal.

Baseball was moving on, it appeared, without him.



Neal can repeat the phrase now with a chuckle, but there's a graveness to it -- a deep, lumbering timbre that postures long after the words slip into silence.

"Never in my life have I seen anything like this," he recalls the man saying. "I can take my finger and touch your nerve, and your artery -- and if you'd busted either one of them, we'd be amputating your leg."

Such was the description of Neal's injury by his surgeon at Duke University's wound care unit, where the long road back formed after his family sought a second opinion relative to his plight.

But it wasn't until a few months later, on a Sunday in late January that the healing truly began, when his mother finally witnessed enough of the couch parade.

"I was still on two crutches, and Mom was like... you have to start walking," Neal recalls. "She was starting to really get worried."

And with good reason.

At that point, Neal had been in living room exile for 90 days, and if returning to baseball -- or life in general -- was was on his brain, he'd taken zero steps toward making a proper return.

With his mother's assistance, Neal moved from two crutches to just one and finally, to a cane, slightly ahead of Rosewood's start date and what many enthusiasts were hoping would be a landmark season.


When it left the bat, everyone knew.

Leading 2-0 in Game 1 of the regional final versus Whiteville, a reformed Neal sauntered into the box for a third-inning tete-a-tete with Wolfpack starter Dylan Lawson -- and in the process, nailed his comeback.

After tracing a couple of tosses through the zone, Neal found one to his liking and turned on it with a force held captive since November. Initially, there was confusion over whether or not his effort glanced the foul pole.

But Neal knew.

And as both dugouts pondered the effort, Neal ran it out, like Maris did all those years ago on his 61st -- with class, a nod to his coach at third, and a slight limp for home.

Comeback complete.

It was the kind of moment a Hollywood writing room wants to include as its third-act high hat, after the story's hero has met with and overcome a spell of adversity that would buckle a normal human being -- but they don't.

It's just too much, they say.

But not for some folks, who despite any and all manner of daunting odds, are supposed to have their moment.