What a great story about perserverence and believing in ones self. Ryan has been with GS for seven months working on catching up and has blossomed beautifully. He definitly left no stone unturned working tirelessly on his speed, agility , changing his physique, following proper nutrition and working with a linemen skills coach. He had some great camps this summer and I’m sure will get a DI offer. If given the chance we could be watching this kid in the NFL . Great job Ryan!
Carl Steward ‘In Our Backyard’: Monte Vista High football player making most of abbreviated prep career
By Carl Steward
Contra Costa Times columnist
The best offensive linemen are always pushing forward. Ryan Neil, an 18-year-old senior guard at Monte Vista High, knows that better than anybody.
He kept pushing forward through a two-year period of his life that very nearly undercut his dream in a sport he so dearly loves.
Growing up, Neil was one of the best multisport athletes in the Danville area, but because of his size, his specialty was football. Now at 6-foot-6 and a well-tapered 280 pounds with room to grow, Neil had a chance to be a prospect on every NCAA Division I college’s list if he had played four full seasons.
But after his first season at Monte Vista, when he was one of the best players on a 9-1 freshman team that tied for the East Bay Athletic League title with De La Salle, Neil was dealt a cruel blow. Late in 2008, he started getting headaches. A subsequent exam determined he had a juvenile pilocytic astrocytoma (JPA), a slow-growing benign tumor at the back of his brain.
The tumor was the size of a pingpong ball and required four hours of surgery to be removed. Fortunately, it was located where neurosurgeons at UC San Francisco Medical Center could get at it, and it was successfully extricated in January 2009. The initial prognosis was that Neil could return to play sports — including football — after a six-month recovery.
But the latter didn’t happen. The physical pain of the surgery lingered beyond six months, and when Neil couldn’t play sports, depression ensued.
“You have to know a little bit about Ryan presurgery,” said his father, Mike Neil. “Almost from the day he was born, he was just a happy-go-lucky kid. I used to call him the Pied Piper. Kids would flock around him. He just brought everybody up. But after the surgery, the best way I can describe it is he went dark.”
Without football, and with so much school time missed, his ambition withered and he felt like a lost soul.
“It took me out of my element,” Neil said. “It changed who I was. I was sort of unsure who I was. It was very confusing, and I felt very angry even though I didn’t know what I was angry at.”
Neil didn’t play football as a sophomore, and he played sparingly as a reserve on the varsity basketball team. He returned to football as a junior but wasn’t cleared to play until midseason. Even then it was a struggle, and he barely played.
“He couldn’t go through periods of practice without his head hurting bad,” Mustangs coach Craig Bergman said. “He’d have to take his helmet off and stand on the sidelines while his teammates went through drills, so he didn’t get much playing time.”
It didn’t help that his parents didn’t really want him playing football again.
“I love the game just like he does, but I love him more,” Mike Neil said. “I just didn’t know what it would be like for him to be able to play again. It was a scary time for us all. I wasn’t for it. But emotionally and psychologically, it was so important to him, he loved it so much, with a great deal of reluctance I said OK. I just held my breath.”
On that count, it helped that Neil’s UCSF neurosurgeon, Dr. Mitchel Berger, was a former Harvard defensive end who signed a free-agent contract with the Chicago Bears in 1974 but turned to medicine when he didn’t make the team.
“More than anybody we talked to, Mitch understood Ryan and how badly he needed football,” the elder Neil said. “But he was also the most conservative, and when he finally released him to play, it was easier to accept.”
Near the end of his junior year, Neil had a physical breakthrough. He changed to a different medication, and the headaches stopped. Shortly thereafter, his outlook changed, as well.
He told his father and Bergman that he was rededicating himself to football and school. He began pushing forward with a vengeance. Ever since, he has been trying to cram three years of preparation to play college football into one short senior season.
Neil attended camps and combines — including the prestigious Nike Football Camp at Stanford — during the summer, all the while going to summer school to make up scholastic credits at Monte Vista. He trained with a physical therapist in addition to regular training with the team.
He vividly recalls the exact moment he knew he was ready to go full-bore. It occurred during a preseason scrimmage against San Ramon Valley.
“It was the third or fourth play, a run play, and I just pancaked the guy who was over me,” he said. “I was lying on top of him and I don’t know what came over me, but I just started to yell as loud as I could. I didn’t say anything, I just screamed and flexed all my muscles. It was one of the happiest moments of my life … because I knew I was back.”
Bergman said he has been overwhelmed by Neil’s determination since the season’s outset.
“He’s really taken a new leaf,” the coach said. “He’s got good friends, he’s working hard on the field and the weight room, and he’s working hard in the classroom, too. He’s really squared away. He stays after, getting extra running in on his own. And even though this is really his first year playing, he’s gotten better every game.”
But is there enough time to impress the scouts from Division I schools? Bergman thinks so. He said he has seen linemen from the EBAL with less potential than Neil wind up as starters in major college programs.
“He’s got good feet, he’s strong, he’s a smart kid,” he said. “He just needs more playing time because he has the skills. He’s getting a lot of looks now, and I believe somebody’s going to take a chance on him, because you can’t coach 6-6, 280.”
Said Neil, “I was nervous coming into this season. I thought I wasn’t going to be able to deal with the time that I lost. But I’m feeling amazing out there. The first game was sort of fast, because it was really my first game playing since freshman year. But since then, every game has slowed down more and more.”
Neil said that when college coaches ask him about his surgery, he is up front.
“I understand that some might be worried or see me as a risk,” he said. “I hope that coaches realize that I’m out there. If I wasn’t OK, I wouldn’t be. I’m more than OK.”
Regardless of where the future takes Ryan, Mike Neil simply marvels at his son.
“I wish I’d been half the man he is now when I was that age,” he said. “I am just in awe of him.”
Neil said he isn’t bitter about the lost time and what it could ultimately cost him getting to play at the college of his choice.
“I feel like people are making a bigger deal out of this than I see it, because I just live my life day by day now,” he said. “Maybe two years ago, I probably would have said, ‘Yes, I’ve been cheated, I’ve been robbed.’ But now, it’s what happened and I’m done with it.”