Camden Fairview has reached the Class 5A state playoff final two years in succession, and last year the Cardinals had a championship in their grasp with five minutes to play before Greenwood miraculously took it from them. This year, the Cards are loaded at so many positions, they fully expect to be back again in December at War Memorial Stadium playing for another state crown.
Defensive lineman Khiry Neal should be among the half-dozen or so stars being touted among the best players in Class 5A. "We didn't have anybody who could block him," Cardinals coach Buck James said of his 6-foot-5, 275-pounder and the way he was playing early last August.
Rest assured, Khiry Neal will be on the Cardinals' players minds to wherever the road leads this fall.
Around time last year, Neal was a rising sophomore defensive lineman preparing to start for a second year on a young Cardinals team that had fallen hard to Monticello in the previous 5A championship game. The team assembled for regular August preseason drills as usual, and the mammoth Neal was standing out, Cardinals coach James said.
Two-a-day practices were drawing to a close. Then, what started out as severe pain in his lower back quickly became a life-or-death situation.
Doctors first thought Neal had a lower back bruise, and along with it some dehydration. He was transported to Arkansas Children's Hospital. Unbeknown to the doctors, staph inside Neal's spinal column was taking over, but wasn't detected in the blood stream, James said. Neal's body temperature was out of control and he began experiencing seizures.
Doctors discovered the staph that had worked its way from the spinal cord into the brain stem and began treating it, inducing a coma to help Neal recover.
But the staph had hit with massive force.
When Neal awoke from the coma, he couldn't move from the neck down. The hope at the time was that some of the paralysis would subside, James said, but to this date it hasn't.
"He left here and went in Aug. 16 to Children's Hospital and came back out Dec. 21," James said recently. "He's probably been back and forth four or five times since Dec. 21."
Neal, after another hospitalization in late this spring, was able to return home to Camden on June 2, but because of the infections that can ensue with paralyzed patients, he's often back at Children's for treatment. It takes about 45 minutes to an hour to get Neal from his bed into a wheelchair. His bed is the hand-crank kind, not easy for any caregiver to manage, and the room has to be emptied of everything else to make room to move Khiry and his ventilator.
A trip to Children's is a two-hour ordeal of preparation before the two-hour drive.
"As long as he stays healthy he'll be home," James said. "What happens is he keeps catching pneumonia and has problems with his [trachea] tube."
That's just part of a problematic life for Neal, whose mother died one year before the player was struck down with the infection. He lives with his 55-year-old grandmother, Carolyn Lewis, in a small rent house, one that is too small to adequately handle him. The transportation to and from Arkansas Children's Hospital requires an ambulance.
Imagine, one day Neal was like another great athlete from Camden, former Razorback and NFL player Shawn Andrews, moving almost like a dancer on a 6-5, 300-plus pound frame. Moments later, he can't move at all. The ventilator and trachea tube limits communication, but he can post e-mails and on Facebook. Mentally, James says, Neal is as sharp as ever, keeping up with his favorite NBA players and statistics. Quiet around people he didn't know, he was known for a practical joking nature around friends, and he still maintains his upbeat personality, the coach said.
The Arkansas Activities Association's catastrophic injury insurance and other supplemental insurance took care of medical bills. It's the other needs that are a mountain for the family to overcome.
James and a host of Camden residents, as well as some friends in Little Rock, have tried to ease the burden for Neal and his grandmother, who quit work to take care of her grandson. Lewis also lost her husband not long before her daughter died of breast cancer and Neal was paralyzed.
"Not one time do you see this woman holding her head down and asking, 'Why did this happen to me?'" James said.
In the spring, James and others organized a benefit silent and live auction to help. Former Oklahoma and NFL star Keith Jackson and Miss Arkansas, Alyse Eady, emceed the event. Jermain and Erica Taylor attended, as did former Razorbacks quarterback Clint Stoerner. College and professional memorabilia was donated for auction, from former Hog stars Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Camden's Andrews, along with Ryan Mallett and former Hog basketball stars Scotty Thurman and Corliss Williamson, to Auburn football national championship heroes Cam Newton and Michael Dyer, thanks to Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. Phillies pitcher Cliff Lee from Benton donated a World Series autographed ball from 2009, when he won twice over the New York Yankees.
"We had a lot of people step up," James said. "We had 61 items. We raised over $10,000, which surpassed what we thought we'd raise in the silent auction." He said the event, which included auctioning a dinner with Jermain Taylor, brought in $40,000 total.
That was a great start toward funding Neal's needs, but James and others would love to buy a wheelchair-accessible van and a house built to the specifications required to accommodate Neal's everyday needs. To that end, the family probably needs upward of $100,000. The van would allow Neal to attend school functions, church (which he has been able to visit once, James said, for Easter), doctor's appointments or "to just leave and go somewhere," Fairview's coach said.
"His needs are life-threatening. He needs to be where he can be mobile and have activities that he can do during the school day," James said. "There is a lot of technology that would allow him to open and close doors, control the heat and air, operate a computer ..."
Ironically, Neal still receives letters from major colleges wishing him a good junior season and hoping he will consider their programs. Before his world came crashing down, Neal had been clocked at an amazing 4.8 in the 40-yard dash. "He gets these letters on a daily basis. They aren't aware of what happened to him," James said. "It makes his day when he gets those letters."
James sees Neal two to three times a week, sometimes more, bringing him the recruiting letters that pour into the coaches' office and filling him in on the team and its off-season workouts, or maybe bringing videos of spring practice or last year's games.
"It's horrible," James said, sighing, "and the thing about it is, the same staph he has, you and I have it too. It's in our noses. It's the most common staph, but one in out of every 100 people can't break it down. Khiry just happens to be one of those people."
He's also one of those people that teammates love, and they loved the happy-go-lucky big man before he was stricken. The team and spirit groups from Fairview visited Neal at Children's in the days leading up to last year's state championship game, and ACH allowed Neal to attend the Saturday afternoon contest with Greenwood, where he spent the first half in the suite area of War Memorial Stadium. He was brought down to the field in the second half, and he shared in their mutual heartbreak when a 14-point lead disappeared in the final four minutes of a 36-35 loss.
Neal will be in his teammates' thoughts as they begin practice again next month, and during the next four months, where they hope to have him with them on the sideline again, this time hoisting a championship trophy.
"If you ask Khiry he'll tell you he's doing great. He's never had a down day," James said. "He'd never ask for anything.
"I'm asking. I want to make his life more fulfilling and healthier for him. This guy had everything going for him and was taking every advantage of it. This thing hits him and he has no control over it. It's very heartbreaking to see a kid who one day could have taken care of his grandmother financially. Now, she's had to quit her job to take care of him."