A REAL INSPIRATION
JUST two years ago local teenager Chris McNeill would have found it hard to believe he would share something in common with a Premiership football.
At 17 Chris was just starting out on his journey as a footballer and eager to parade his skills on the international stage at the Milk Cup. But as he stepped out on to the pitch in Portstewart for County Londonderry nearly two years his dream was quickly turning into a nightmare.
“The last thing I remember is just the line-up when they were going through the names and then there is just a blank until the Wednesday the following week,” said the teenager in the weeks after his ordeal.
As Chris now knows he collapsed just seven minutes into the game against County Antrim at The Warren. The swift actions of medical staff at the ground and in particular Dr Healy, who was watching his son play in the same team as Chris helped save his life.
Fast forward eight months and the whole frightening incident was brought back to Chris and his family again.
This time though it was a high profile FA Cup game between Tottenham Hotspur and Bolton Wanderers. In front of the thousands packed into White Hart Lane that early evening on March 17th and before a worldwide television audience Bolton midfielder Fabrice Muamba suffered a similar fate to Chris, collapsing as the game went on around him.
The incident had a deep effect on the McNeill family with dad Denis telling reporters at the time they had all found it very upsetting.
“What we saw was what other people saw - except it was ourselves on the pitch with Christopher,” he said.
“And Christopher found it upsetting. His older sister Emma was down for the weekend with her husband. They left the room.”
Thankfully, like Chris before him, Fabrice pulled through after receiving medical attention for a full 76 minutes. And last Wednesday night the pair finally met at a recording of the Nolan Show in Belfast, where one of the topics up for discussion was the issue of heart problems in young sports men and women.
Chris got a chance to speak with Fabrice after the show and he told Times Sport he was a real inspiration for him.
“Even on a personal level you can’t help but be inspired by Fabrice, he is a great guy,” said Chris.
“But when you listen to how he speaks about what happened him and how he approaches life now, he is a real inspiration.”
As Chris sat and listened to Fabrice’s story he was amazed at how similar it was to his own experience.
“Everything he said I was nodding along to and thinking that’s exactly what I was feeling,” he said.
“People have been very good to me since the incident and I really appreciate all their concern and well wishes, but they can’t really relate to what I feel.
“Whereas with Fabrice I know he fully understands and empathises with what I’m going through as he is experiencing the same thing.”
Chris is hoping the high profile attention the issue is receiving on the back what happened to Fabrice will highlight that there is an issue and that it needs to be resolved.
“A lot of people wonder why this happens so much in young, fit people, but it has a lot to do with the likes of us pushing our bodies and training hard,” said Chris.
“When you’re young you don’t really think about heart problems, you’re more concerned with physical injuries, but it could be the difference between life or death.
“The issue has been highlighted of late which is great, but there are still too many cases. People need to be more aware of the risks and dangers and be aware of the warning signs.”
Chris praised the efforts of the Caring Caretaker, Davy Boyle, whose fundraising efforts locally helped purchase 10 defibrillators for local sports clubs.
“If only every town had a Davy Boyle it would help cut the risk,” said Chris.
“Hopefully they won’t have to be used, but it’s good to know that they are there if needed.”