Running on emotion

Mervo tries to focus after the death of longtime coach Ron Neal

Track

November 29, 2006|By Jeff Seidel | Jeff Seidel,Special to The Sun

Mervo distance runner Isaac Richardson's voice spoke volumes when talking about longtime coach Ron Neal.

Richardson talked quietly, in an almost reverential tone. The senior believed in what Neal taught him over the years. More than that, Richardson always appreciated the comfort of Neal's presence by the track.

But the former Mervo coach collapsed after suffering a stroke during the team's appearance in last February's Class 3A-2A state championship meet at the Prince George's Sports & Learning Complex in Landover and died nine days later at 47. This forced Richardson and the other Mustangs to deal with a painful void in their lives.

FOR THE RECORD - Wednesday's Varsity winter preview section listed indoor track performer Quantika Stepney with the wrong school. She's from Mergenthaler Vocational Technical School in Blatimore.
The Sun regrets the errors.

"It's been kind of empty [since]," Richardson said. "To have something there your whole life, and then not have it be there feels kind of strange."

Those associated with the Mervo track program are working at moving forward, something that's been a painful task because Neal had been at the school for so long.

Neal competed at Mervo under longtime coach Freddie Hendricks and then joined the program as a coach in 1978, where he stayed until his death.

An old-school coach in many ways, Neal wasn't the most demonstrative person. He often stood off to the side of the track and kept an eye on everything going on with one goal - often grumbling good-naturedly about wanting Mervo athletes to keep improving, regardless of the cost.

"No matter what we did, he always said, `You can do better,' " Richardson said with a laugh.

Hendricks retired in July 2004 after 32 years coaching track and field at Mervo. He and Neal were two of the driving forces that did so much to build Mervo into one of the top public school programs in the state. They helped start a track club in the summer and did many things on their own to help Mervo students move forward in the sport.

In fact, Hendricks said that on the day of the state meet in February, Neal purchased several drinks and oranges for his athletes to have during the event. Neal did things like that on a regular basis, often paying out of his own pocket to make sure his athletes got what was necessary.

By chance, Hendricks worked as an official at the state meet where Neal collapsed, and then came out of retirement to help the Mervo coaches keep things going in the spring. He'll help again a few days a week this season.

"The kids took it pretty hard at first," Hendricks said. "It's still probably prominent in their minds. These kids really had a good working relationship with him."

Mervo coach Garfield Thompson ran for Neal during his high school days and grew to appreciate him even more when coaching together. The Mustangs have developed a strong support system of coaches over the years who work to help the athletes and lean on each other, and Thompson often looked to Neal for answers.

Thompson said coaches and athletes often had to explain what happened to Neal when alumni came back to the school to visit last spring - something that often made everyone even sadder.

"It's just a funny feeling; it's just different," Thompson said. "The presence that he had was so strong. He knew everything."

Most people who ever dealt with the Mervo program viewed Neal as a constant, someone who always would be right by the track, right there to answer questions or solve problems. It was a role Neal relished, even though he was known to act like a grumpy teacher at times.

"They have a tremendous support system over there," city schools athletic director Bob Wade said. "But they will truly miss him because you could set a watch by him. He was always there at a certain time, and they could call him for advice."

Their love of Neal will force Mervo athletes and coaches to confront some difficult emotions when going to this winter's state championship meet at the Prince George's Sports & Learning Complex - returning to the place where their coach collapsed.

The Mustangs haven't returned to the building since that night. It was a difficult evening as Neal got sick early in the meet and news of what happened trickled out slowly among the Mervo family while athletes tried to stay focused and compete.

The Mustangs will return to the site earlier this season, for the Montgomery Invitational, but competing in the state meet Feb. 20 will be different .

"Your coach passed away, and you have to come back to the same building," Mervo athletic director Patricia Johnson said. "That's [tough because] he was a legend, and we miss him."

Thompson, Hendricks and Richardson all said team members haven't directly addressed what their thoughts will be on that day, and none of them is sure they will. They all agreed emotions are going to be churning for everyone. They also said that, even three months ahead of time, wondering how they will deal with it is a difficult question.

Richardson hesitated a few times when trying to consider what might go through his mind that day. His voice was soft but clearly showed how he believes his former coach is still watching.

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