On a humid, rainy August afternoon last summer, defender Jamie McNealey was about to separate an attackman from the ball at midfield, something he had done more than a hundred times in his 13-year lacrosse career.
Instead, McNealey broke his neck.
"There was a minute left in the game," said McNealey, who was playing for Easton against Kent Island in the Eastern Shore Lacrosse Open. "I had like a 15-yard run on the guy, but I just wanted to hit him hard enough to keep him going forward. But he started to twist, and my head hit around his rib area."
"At first, I didn't feel anything, but then I realized I was paralyzed on my left side," said McNealey. "I was real tired, exhausted and felt the beads of rain on my right side as I laid there. At one point, I felt real peaceful, maybe like I was courting death. Then I looked up and saw myself standing over me. Maybe it was one of those out-of-body experiences. But, from that point on, I knew I was going to play lacrosse again."
McNealey will play defense for No. 6 Johns Hopkins (3-1) at Homewood Field on Saturday (2 p.m.), when the Blue Jays play No. 1 Virginia (6-0).
McNealey, a 6-foot-1, 160-pound senior from Severn School, won't start. He probably won't play much either, because he's still at least a step away from the form that made him a starter in 1989 and 1990.
But McNealey, 22, said he doesn't mind. Seven months ago, doctors thought he might not walk again, much less play lacrosse.
"If he did walk, I didn't think it would be normal," said Thomas Ducker, one of McNealey's physicians. "What you see is one remarkable recovery by a person who wasin good physical condition and, like most athletes his age, he thinks he is invincible. I wouldn't want to play with lightning twice."
Ducker attributes the recovery to a number of factors, including the quick initial diagnosis, McNealey's condition and perseverance, modern technology and "a good team of doctors."
On the day he was injured, visibility was so bad that McNealey had to be transported to Johns Hopkins Hospital from Chestertown Hospital by ambulance instead of helicopter.
McNealey slept the entire four-hour ride, only to wake up while doctors were running him through a CT scan.
"I'm inside this huge, long tube, and I don't see anyone," said McNealey. "I'm strapped down, so I'm starting to get a little nervous. Then, from nowhere, I hear this voice though a speaker say, 'Please don't panic, please keep perfectly still.' I say, 'Oh, oh, maybe I'm dead. Or maybe I'm in the Twilight Zone. Where's the music?' I was about to go crazy."
The CT scan was followed by five hours of X-rays before McNealey was operated on the next morning. Doctors used bones from McNealey's hip to fuse two vertebrae his neck.
Three days later, McNealey was walking with the aid of a walker. On Day 5, he used a cane and began physical therapy.
"I knew I had to push myself a little bit if I wanted to play again," said McNealey, whose father, John, was an All-America defender at Johns Hopkins in the late 1950s. "People didn't want me to get too emotionally involved, because they didn't want to see me get disappointed if I had a setback. But I was spending a lot of time using those Nautilus machines and squeezing putty balls."
Three months after the accident, McNealey walked (without a limp) into the Johns Hopkins lacrosse office wearing a neck cast and told coach Tony Seaman he was playing again in the spring.
"Everyone was shocked at first to hear about him," said Johns Hopkins junior attackman Dru Burns, one of McNealey's friends. "We were really sad about it. He kept telling everyone he was coming back, and we would say that was great. But, deep in our hearts, we didn't think he would."
Seaman said: "In all honesty, no, I didn't think he would come back. But, if you paid attention to his body language, the tone in his voice, you should have known he was going todo it."
A lot of the doubts were erased when McNealey started jogging in November, followed by pickup basketball games in the Johns Hopkins gymnasium.
"Every week or two, he would drop by and say, 'Coach, getting better. Definitely coming out,' " said Seaman.
McNealey missed the first two weeks of the Blue Jays practices in January before doctors felt he was ready.
"The first week back I had all the adrenalin flowing," said McNealey. "I thought I did really well, and I wanted to make that first hit. I knew that I could play, and, if there wasany doubt, the doctors would have told me."
"I think he wanted to be hit, and the guys didn't feel they had to take it easy on him," Seaman said. "Jamie's return was an inspiration."
But there is still room for improvement in conditioning. And McNealey admits that, because he has lost a step, he is playing defense too much with his stick.
Seaman said he is not deliberately holding McNealey out of the lineup -- he's played about three minutes this season -- and that McNealey is only one player away from possibly starting again.
"At times, it has been frustrating in the first month of my lacrosse return," said McNealey. "But, in retrospect, I can handle stress a lot better, and my faith is stronger now. A lot of things could have happened to me that could have paralyzed me for the rest of my life, a wrong move here or a twist there. I appreciate life much more now.
"But the harder I work at lacrosse, the more I feel it all coming back. I'm really looking forward to the second half of the season."