Mervo coach Neal dead at 47

Fixture at school guided track, cross country teams

High Schools

March 03, 2006|By EDWARD LEE | EDWARD LEE,SUN REPORTER

Ronald Neal lived with his mother and son and often talked to his younger sister in Cleveland.

It turns out that Neal had a much larger family.

The Baltimore track and field community grieved yesterday after learning that Neal, who had coached the track and field and cross country teams at Mervo for 27 years, died Wednesday night of complications from a brain aneurysm.

Neal, 47, died about 8:30 p.m. at Georgetown University Hospital, where he had been staying since Feb. 20 when he collapsed in a restroom at the Prince George's Sports & Learning Complex in Landover during the Class 3A-2A state indoor track and field championships.

Neal never woke from a coma, but he did open his eyes once on Monday, according to his mother, Gladys Neal, who was on the ground floor of the hospital when officials called her with the news.

News of Ronald Neal's death spread quickly through the track and field community in and around Mervo, Digital Harbor coach Lutalo Bakari said.

"The track circle is a small and intimate circle," Bakari, a social worker who brought several members of his team to Mervo to aid the school's grieving athletes, said. "We're still one family. It feels like one of my family members has passed away."

Words like family, father figure and mentor were used by many people who discussed their relationship with Neal.

Perhaps the most devastated was Freddie Hendricks, who stepped down as the Mustangs' head coach in 2003 after 31 years and had hired Neal to join Mervo's coaching staff shortly after he graduated from the northeast Baltimore school.

"It feels like I've lost a son," Hendricks said from North Carolina. "I used to call him a walking encyclopedia because when you asked him about stats or who ran what event - and not even just limited to our team - he knew everything."

Bakari said Neal called several colleges last spring and asked them to consider offering an athletic scholarship to former Digital Harbor thrower Gerome Jones.

Mervo junior middle-distance runner Daniel Lee said he cried when he heard about Neal's death.

"He was cool to me," Lee said. "I could talk to him about anything - any problems in the family or in school. I felt comfortable being around him. He was a coach and a mentor."

Garfield Thompson, another Mervo coach, said he will remember Neal's generosity around the athletes. On the morning of the state indoor track and field championships, Neal gave Thompson $50 to buy drinks and athletes for the team.

"I said, `I'm not going to need this much. I'll spend half of yours and put some of my own in,'" Thompson recounted. "But he said, `No, just keep it and use it for the kids.'"

Stories like those warmed Gladys Neal's heart. Neal, who is taking care of her 17-year-old grandson Joshua, said she sat by her son's hospital bed and implored him to regain consciousness.

"I told Ron, `You've got to come through and see Joshua walk across the stage in June,'" an emotional Gladys Neal said of her grandson, who is a senior at Mervo and a member of the school's debate team.

But after a while, Gladys Neal said, she relied on her faith in God.

"If you really love somebody, you've got to let him go," she said. "It was selfish of me to want Ronald to stay here just so I could feel comfortable. It was hard, but it was time for me to let him go."

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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