October 26, 2007

McNeil readies to retire

Star lineman’s career will end with this season

By Michael Petrie,
Calgary Herald

From the moment Jay McNeil wakes each morning, it’s easy for him to find reasons not to play football.

It starts with a shooting pain in his backside.

“It’s hard for me to get up,” the Calgary Stampeders’ elder statesman says Thursday afternoon. “I have this pain in my right hip and it takes about 45 minutes for it to go away.

“Some days, it almost brings tears to my eyes because it hurts so bad.”

But greater inspiration for life after football is next to him in bed — his wife, Tara — and down the hall — their four-year-old son, Cuyler.

Throw in a good job at Trinidad Drilling and you see why McNeil has decided to retire after this CFL season. All 13 years of service have been devoted to the Stampeders.

“It’s something that’s been a big part of my life for a long time and I’m going to miss it,” he says, looking around the locker-room after practice. “But I know it’s the right thing to do.

“In the past, even when things were going tough, I’d still enjoy the games. I’m not enjoying the game as much as I used to. I find it harder to get myself up. Eventually I do, but it’s like, ‘Here we go again.’ The only reason I could really find to come back was to be a part of the locker-room because the thing I’m going to miss the most is being with these guys.”

With that being the lone enticement to stay, retirement was a no-brainer. At 37, he’s had a fantastic career that includes four Grey Cup appearances, two championships, five West Division all-star nods and three all-Canadians. On Wednesday, he was named the team’s outstanding offensive lineman for the sixth time.

In each of the past two seasons, Calgary teammates honoured him with the President’s Ring for leadership work on the field and in the locker-room. There’s nothing more to accomplish in football.

“What pretty much sealed the deal was after we played in Toronto (in July),” he says. “Tara and Cuyler came to the game and then for four days off, we went up to my family cottage in Ontario and spent time with my mom, my sister and aunts and uncles and stuff like that. I felt, ‘This is what it’s about, being with your family.’ I’d been away from mine for so long during football seasons, it’s time to start paying attention to them. Cuyler still talks about that weekend at the cottage today. It’s clear he thrives better when we’re both around him more. I want him to thrive, so it’s easy.”

The McNeils discovered last summer Cuyler was diagnosed with autism. It threw them for a loop, but they’ve learned about the disease, adapted and created an environment where the youngster can flourish.

Coincidentally, Cuyler was at Stamps practice with his kindergarten class Thursday, the same day his teary-eyed father told teammates this would be his final season.

“When he was young,” says McNeil, “I could justify not being around all summer and not doing too much because he really didn’t know any better. Now, he wants to do ‘this and that’ and we just can’t do it. He’s just getting to the point where he can enjoy the fact that I play football. But what’s more important — that I play football, or him thinking it’s cool that I’m around more? I’d rather he remembers the special times we have during the summer, going camping or doing whatever.”

McNeil’s absence obviously will be felt by the Stamps organization.

He left a massive, positive imprint on the team, representing it with pride and excellence.

“There comes a time in every man’s life where you have to make a decision because you can only play so long,” says quarterback Henry Burris, who looked up to McNeil when he joined the team in 1997. “Jay’s been such a great leader for myself and so many guys in this locker-room, on and off the field. And also how he’s made the transition from the football field to the business world here in Calgary.

“Just hearing this news, I know guys are going to fight their tails off to make sure we end this thing on a good note.”