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Athletes need support in good or bad times

Challenges arise on a constant basis for an athlete. These challenges are what make sports fun and thrilling for those who take part in them.
But they are often extremely stressful, especially for younger athletes.
Coaches and parents expect a player to perform and produce in every aspect, on and off the field. With the added burden of schoolwork, practices, college applications and social life, young athletes are usually loaded down with mental pressure.
Often times this pressure can become overpowering and send a young person into a spiral. When things do not go the way a young athlete hopes, especially during a game, the player generally does not know a proper way to cope. The blame of teammates, coaches, friends and parents for making a mistake can often become too much.
One Atmore native knows that too well.
Don McNeal, a 1976 graduate of Escambia County High School, is one of the best players to ever grace an Atmore gridiron. McNeal went on to play for Alabama’s Crimson Tide and the legendary, Paul “Bear” Bryant. McNeal served as captain for the Tide in 1979 and was a part of two national championships.
Upon graduation from Alabama, the local athlete was drafted by the NFL’s Miami Dolphins and became a vital part of the team.
Under head coach Don Shula, McNeal played in two Super Bowls with the Dolphins, Super Bowl XVII in 1983 and Super Bowl XIX in 1985.
It was during Super Bowl XVII that McNeal learned how stressful life can be in tough situations when he found himself a pivotal part of one of the most famous plays in Super Bowl history.
With a fourth down and only a few yards left to go, the Washington Redskins controlled the ball, and McNeal found himself staring up at John “Diesel” Riggins.
Riggins had already gained a ton of yards for the Redskins, but a stop at this moment would win the championship for the Dolphins.
The ball was snapped and handed off to Riggins. As the big fullback broke through the line, McNeal was there. The Dolphins defender grabbed Riggins and held on.
Unfortunately for the Miami team, it wasn’t enough. McNeal’s hand slowly slid down Riggins’ jersey, and the Redskins runner was off to the races. He made his way down the field, and McNeal stared in horror as Riggins scored the game-winning touchdown.
As the Redskins hoisted the Super Bowl trophy, McNeal knew he should have made the stop. In one brief moment, his entire life and career changed.
People pointed fingers at McNeal, wanted him traded, fired or otherwise sent packing.
Instead of giving up in one of the most stressful times that any athlete could possibly experience, McNeal turned a negative into a positive. He gave glory to God and settled with his fate.
For the McCullough native, quitting wasn’t an option. Even though he wanted to crawl under a bed and hide, he kept going and played several more seasons.
He turned one of the most stressful moments in his life into a positive and now shares with young people all over the world the story of his failure at that particular moment. He uses it as an example that life goes on and faith holds strong.
During the years that a player graces the field, moments will come where he or she is tested, weighed and sometimes even broken. Stress will become overbearing at times, and it may feel like the entire weight of the world is on the athlete’s shoulders.
Parents, friends, family and coaches can add pressure in an already difficult time if the athlete is not supported properly.
It is important to be the rock for your player, especially if he or she is young. Be the one that will help pick him or her up when the time comes. And it will come.
Every player has a rough game or a bad play, and sometimes a rough moment could even cost a championship. Instead of pointing fingers and accenting the negatives the player already is well aware of, be the supporter.
As the athlete, hold your head up. Everyone makes mistakes and no one gets it right all the time. Things happen, things go wrong, and you are not superman.
Even the best players in the world fail at some point. One second could change the course of the rest of your life, but the bottom line is, you will fail at some point in life.
Don’t let failure steal your joy. Keep your head up and push on. Life is not about how hard you fall, it’s how you get back up and turn a negative into a positive.
The world is not always full of roses and highlights. Tough times will come.
There is a plan for everything. As a player and a person, moments of failure are something that will not always be understood.
McNeal turned one of the biggest moments of failure in his life into a moment that teaches us that God is in control and to always have faith in yourself, no matter what happens.
Do not be quick to judge others on their mistakes, lend a helping hand or encouraging word and above all always believe in yourself. Push through those tough times and find the parts of life that really matter.
In the end, it is just a game.