Blast defender Neely yearns for title

Veteran renown for love of life, soccer commitment


October 26, 2001|By Glenn P. Graham | Glenn P. Graham,SUN STAFF

Doug Neely was in Bali, Indonesia, doing what he's got down to perfection - living life to the fullest - when news from home came with a friend halfway into the six-week vacation back in 1989.

The team Neely started with, the Major Indoor Soccer League's Los Angeles Lazers, had shut down, and he would be moving on.

"My buddy was like, `Yeah, your team folded, and you were picked up by Kansas or something,' " said Neely, a California native who was then in the third of what is now a 17-season professional indoor soccer career. "I'm like, `Wichita?' and he said, `Yeah, I think that's it, and they're looking for you.' "

With a phone call to the States a chore and flight reservations already made, the free-spirited Neely decided to stay and surf. A deadline for an offer sheet he needed to sign had to be extended, and, as it turned out, Neely was headed to Kansas City, not Wichita.

"Whew," the 36-year-old Blast defender recalled. "At that point, I never thought I'd be able to go to Kansas City, but comparing it to Wichita? That was the first time I was away from home, and I spent two years in Kansas City. It was a cool experience."

That's Neely, a laid-back, glass-is-always-half-full guy who has played 557 games in three leagues for six teams and still has the push and skill to chase after one of his biggest wants - a championship.

"It's very important. Is it going to take away from everything? No. But, believe me, I want it more than anything," said Neely, who has never reached a championship final. "All I can do is give everything I have and hope things will work out. I think we definitely have the team here to do it. We've just got to make sure to do it."

Neely first came to Baltimore in 1991, when he had long blond hair, a headband, and the ability to get up and down the field with more spunk than his older but wiser body allows now. This second stint in what has become home away from home started in the 1996-97 season, and now, Neely works with a shorter cut, less speed and more savvy.

The four-time National Professional Soccer League all-star leaves long attacking runs now for younger defenders such as Lance Johnson, Jason Dieter and Sean Bowers, intent on staying home to provide defensive balance.

"When you get to a certain age, you have to change the way you think about playing the game if you want to continue," said Blast assistant coach Billy Ronson, who also played with Neely. "Doug gives you that game-in, game-out commitment. He's totally there. He knows and understands the game, because he's been around it for so long. He never lets you down."

Catching Neely out of position on the field is a rarity. Catching him without a smile? Even more rare. "He's always happy, whether it's 7 o'clock in the morning or right after a loss, because he keeps things in perspective," said Dieter.

For that, Neely is quick to credit his mom, Brenda, who, along with her husband, Pat, provided him with a strong support system growing up.

"I don't ever remember her being in a bad mood when I woke up, and, believe me, she had plenty of reasons to be sometimes," he said. "I just try to take that philosophy - every day is a new day, and I guess I'm lucky, because I really enjoy life and having fun."

When word spread the Blast had acquired Neely for the first time in 1991, former trainer Marty McGinty, never afraid to voice an opinion, recalled saying: "Not the guy with the long hair and headband - he stinks."

McGinty, who left the team this season to take a teaching job at Archbishop Curley, named his first boy, Neely Christopher, now 18 months old, after Neely, who would turn out to be one of his closest friends. A Super Bowl or St. Patrick's Day doesn't go by without the two having a good time.

"Dougie's a special kind of person; he's infectious," said McGinty. "He always says `please' and `thank you,' and always lets people go in front of him. He has an uncanny method of, by the time he leaves any type of social atmosphere, everybody knows him and says what a great guy he is.

"If Neely Christopher has the same kind of manners and the same kind of personality, I'll be a very happy father, and my wife feels the same way."

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