GOSHEN — Neal Young couldn’t walk the laundry hamper down to the basement and make it back up the stairs. Sometimes, he didn't feel like getting out of bed. Sometimes, he felt like he was spiraling down a black hole he was never going to escape.
The 28-year-old Goshen College men’s basketball coach never thought this would happen. All of it. The mass. The cancer. The chemo. The pain. The depression. The dependency. The loss.
He needed his wife, Maggie, who he affectionately refers to as “Mags,” to take care of him for most of January 2014 as his chemotherapy treatments tried to zap the life right out of him.
“It was right there in January,” Maggie said. “Just,” she paused, “really, really difficult.”
She didn’t know when it would end. Her worst fear was that the man who she knew as a cheery, upbeat, enthusiastic, energetic basketball coach would never come back.
Neal likes to joke he received some of the worst news of his life while sitting in one of the nicest recliners he’s ever seen.
Maggie, on the other hand, doesn’t think the joke is so funny. As Goshen College assistant head coach Michael Hunter says, Neal has always been able to joke, throughout everything.
It was June 3, 2013, approximately 2 p.m. Maggie and Neal had just moved to Goshen three days earlier. Neal had landed his first collegiate head coaching job in mid-April as the Goshen College Maple Leafs had hired their former assistant back to be the head man.
The couple had never owned “expensive” furniture, but after getting a house, the two were ready to settle down and make some visits to “nice furniture stores.” That day, it was Sofa Select in Mishawaka.
The day the young couple moved, Neal had a biopsy done on a mass in his chest. The mass was only discovered after his doctor, Dr. Sanjeeb Khatua of Plainfield, Illinois, decided to do a chest x-ray on Neal, who had gone in before the move with the hopes of getting a prescription to feel better from a cold.
Neal said Dr. Khatua would later say he had no real reason to do the x-ray. He just felt compelled to do it.
The results showed he had a mass. He needed a biopsy.
Just after plopping down in a recliner in Sofa Select, Dr.Khatua called.
“Twenty-eight year-old healthy people don’t get cancer,” Neal said. “So I just assumed – they gave me like a list of things it could be. Cancer was the last thing. I just assumed it was one of the other five things.
“I never, I never thought in a million years I was going to get the phone call that it was the real deal: You have cancer. I didn’t think that at all.”
Maggie sensed the severity of the conversation. She made Neal get up and leave the store. While back in their car, the worst possibility became reality: Neal had lymphoma. Within 24 hours, he needed to be in Chicago at the University of Chicago Hospital to start receiving chemotherapy.
Maggie immediately started crying. It’s the only time Neal remembers her breaking down in front of him. Neal told her it would be okay. He’d be fine. He was sure.
And it was Neal who would call his parents and Maggie’s parents, the Goshen Athletic Director and his assistants. He told all of them he would be fine. He never even thought about the possibility of dying. He was more concerned with comforting those around him.
“Anytime I would say the words, it was very difficult to get out of my mouth,” Maggie said. “There were so many unknowns, I didn’t know what was going to happen after that.”
At 8 a.m. June 4, Neal was checked into University of Chicago Hospital to start his chemotherapy treatments. He’d stay for 10 days.
When then-junior guard Stefon Luckey heard about his new head coach’s diagnosis, he knew it wasn’t good.
He had only met Neal once before, sitting in on his initial interview with the college. But he could tell the young coach was full of enthusiasm.
When he and all of his teammates received a group text from Neal saying he had cancer, Luckey knew immediately it was going to be a bad season.
“When we found out about it, we was devastated as a team,” Luckey said. “We didn’t think it was, like, real. We were kind of shocked. It was crazy.”
The teammates started calling each other, trying to pull together. It came in the middle of the offseason, one of the few bright spots.
The timing looked like it might work out. Goshen’s first game wasn’t until Nov. 1 for the 2013-14 season.
One month after Neal’s 10 days in the hospital, he received the best news he could possibly receive: He was cancer free. The initial treatment had cleaned all of it out before it reached his blood stream.
“All this stuff happens, and you’re just like, ‘Man, yeah, I got cancer, but it could have been a lot worse,’ Neal said. “My wife and I really believe a lot that stuff was divine intervention. The fact that I got the Goshen job, because that made us have to move. And then the fact that I had a little bit of sickness, because then I went to the doctor, and then he did that chest x-ray.
“Had that gone unchecked, it would have eventually spread to my blood and it would have become leukemia, and then it would have been a lot worse.”
But Neal wasn’t finished. The treatment plan, despite being cancer free, called for three more years of chemotherapy. He’d have to go to Chicago once a week for a year for chemo. Then once every 30 days.
He’d have chemo put in directly via a port in his chest. He’d also have to have spinal taps where chemo is injected directly into his spine, “which is as lovely as it sounds.”
He sarcastically jokes about being such a lucky guy for having one of the longest treatment plans.
However, he was convinced he could still coach the team. After starting treatment in the summer, he said he thought he’d be fine when the season rolled around.
The treatment meant for his first year as a head coach, he’d have to spend significant time away from his team. The coach who enjoys getting into it and firing people up would instead have to spend his first year in charge in a hospital bed on a chemo drip once a week.
When Hunter came in to interview for one of the assistant spots, Neal couldn’t give him a walking tour of the campus. He was too weak that day.
He also wouldn’t get to mow the yard or shovel snow at his new house. He was always too weak for that.
And perhaps hardest of all: He was told the possibility of having children was most likely out of the picture until treatment was over.
Sometime in the end of August 2013, Neal died.
Two minutes later, he came back to life.
He was receiving a dose of pegaspargase. He was only scheduled to receive it four times during his three-year plan. This was the third time.
“The first time I got it, nothing really happened,” Neal said. “The second time I got it, I had a slight reaction to it. And the third time I got it, I died. That was rough.”
His father-in-law, Dave Noonan, had taken him to Chicago that day. Maggie went most of the time, but when the school year started, it was hard for her to make it all the time while teaching at Prairie View Elementary in Goshen.
Neal and Maggie both say Dave was the perfect person to be there in the crisis because he remained more calm than anyone else in the family would have.
As soon as the nurses started the drip of pegaspargase, Neal could feel something wasn’t right. He tried to get up, but he couldn’t. He managed to press the nurse call button, and his favorite nurse, Natalie, came rushing to his side.
He managed to get out, “Hello, there’s something…” And then he passed out.
His heart stopped for the next two minutes. He died.
When he woke up, he said it felt like he had 30 people around him, and he had no idea what had happened. His chest hurt – someone had performed CPR on him.
Natalie and nurse practitioner Claire were talking to him. He couldn’t respond. He managed to keep his eyes open.
He’d spend two days in the ICU, then went back to regular life.
Despite the experience, Neal still never entertained the idea he’d succumb. He still planned on coaching.
That was a more difficult task than he realized.
In November 2013, he started to lose his hair from the treatments. He’d shave it off when it started to fall out, because that was gross.
In December, his health started to plummet. The team did, too, picking up just one win in the month. At the end of 2013, the team was 4-11 heading into January.
“Beginning of December, I really started to feel it, like big time,” Neal said. “By the end of December, I was shot, completely shot. Mentally, physically. Just couldn’t do it anymore.”
Luckey knew his head coach was deteriorating. The energy wasn’t there.
“He got kind of chill,” Luckey said. “You could tell something was wrong.”
The morning of Jan. 21, 2014, he woke up and struggled to get out of bed. He called his dad, Jon Young, and told him he didn’t think he could coach his team against Indiana Wesleyan that day. Jon agreed.
So he texted one of his best friends, Jeff Clark, the associate head coach at IWU, “Hey. Sorry. Not gonna be at the game. Takin’ a leave. Can’t do it anymore.”
“It wasn’t tough in the sense I knew I couldn’t do it,” Neal said. “But admitting I couldn’t do it was incredibly tough.”
He handed the coaching duties over to his assistants. He wouldn’t return for the rest of the season.
Hunter, now Young’s top assistant this season, says he remembers the IWU game as a blur.
“The kids were obviously in shock,” Hunter said. “They didn’t know what to expect or what was going to happen. We tried to talk to them before, but there’s just no way to handle that when you lose your head coach.”
At this point, Neal said it started to reach its worst. Several of his physical capabilities were taken away as the treatments wore on him.
“I might as well have been paralyzed,” he said.
“There was a span of a few weeks where I was totally dependent on Mags. For like, everything. She had to make my meals. A couple times she had to help me up. It was crazy.”
But the hardest part for Maggie was the worst side effect was one she couldn’t help. Neal was starting to suffer from depression. At first, she tried to say things to cheer him up. He’d combat that with darkness. For both of them, it was a losing battle.
“You just feel like you’re in this black hole and there’s no end in sight and there’s no hope,” Neal said.
While most teachers lamented the impact the heavy snow storms had on school days, Maggie appreciated the time spent at home. It came at the time Neal needed her the most.
“It was really hard to focus on school, to be honest,” Maggie said. “When I went to school, I had to kind of flip a switch and think, ‘This is the time I’m at school, I can’t worry about what’s going on at home.’ Which was really hard for me.”
She tried to hustle out of school every day to race back home to him. She worried.
The two spent lots of time together that month watching Netflix, whether it was “Last Man Standing,” or “House of Cards” or a documentary about Sea World.
“If you’re looking for stuff to watch,” Neal said.
“This is the guy to ask,” Maggie said, finishing his sentence.
When doctors first started Neal’s treatment, they told him it would be an up and down ride. He’d start by feeling okay, then it’d get worse, and worse, and then, finally, it’d get better.
In the last week of February and beginning of March, Neal started to get better.
He went back to work, and started to do some recruiting. That summer, the team would land two transfers, part of 10 new players on the team for the 14-15 season.
Around June, his treatments lessened to just once a month, instead of four times a month. The smaller frequency, combined with his body’s adjustment to the medicines, helped make him feel better. He had come flying out of the black hole he had been in in January.
In the summer, Neal started doing work around the house. He decorated. He did projects. Summer 2013, he was never able to help Maggie unpack.
“The first time I mowed the lawn,” Neal said, “it was a big deal.”
The man who previously loathed going on a run or riding a bike just to exercise started to take joy in doing those things.
“I don’t think it’s possible to have your health taken away from you at the level that it was for me, and then when you get it back, not appreciate it that much more,” Neal said. “Now, it’s like, I remember when I couldn’t (exercise). So every time I get a chance to do something, there’s a level of thankfulness I have as I’m doing it.
“If I’m ever like, ‘Man, I don’t want to work out today,’ I’m just like, ‘Well, I probably should, because I can. I should probably just do it because there was a time when I couldn’t.”
Hunter, who thought he knew Neal, started to get to know a whole new man.
“Last year wasn’t his persona because he was sick and tired all the time,” Hunter said. “I felt like I knew him, until he was healthy, and then he was obviously a different person when he got healthy. That’s the exciting part of it. He was able to get his energy back.”
Luckey has never appreciated getting yelled at more than he has this season.
Last year, Neal couldn’t yell. This year, he’s able to fire up his troops the way he wants to.
“He’s just very active with us,” Luckey said. “Engaged in everything. Last year he was silent.”
The assistants did the yelling for Neal last year. He’d whisper to them what he wanted to yell.
Now, Hunter said chuckling, Neal does all the yelling.
“It’s night and day,” Hunter said. “It’s night and day.”
The team’s record is, too. After finishing 5-25 last year (4-15 while Young was head coach), the team is already 9-5 on the season.
“Coaching is so much more fun when you have the amount of energy that’s required to do it,” Neal said. “My personality, I’m energetic. I enjoy being around people. I like being around my players. I like being around my assistants. I like spirited debate.
“Last year, none of that was there. I had no energy to spare. Everything I was trying to do, it was the bare minimum. When you’re not able to be yourself, it’s hard to enjoy things.”
Maggie watched him give a speech during a game in early December and saw his face turn beet red from the energy he was putting in. She’d never been happier.
When the team beat Grace by one point in overtime Dec. 6, Maggie, who against the odds is pregnant with the couple’s first child and is due May 4, cried.
“I’m just so happy for him and the guys and the way they’ve worked together,” she said. “Just the drastic difference from last year to this year sometimes just brings tears to my eyes thinking about where we were and where we are now.”
And it was Luckey, the senior captain, who hit that game-winner against Grace.
“It’s had a big, big effect on what our success is,” Luckey said of having his head coach back.
“Can’t explain how much it means to us,” Hunter said. “He’s our head coach. We live and die with him as our head coach. It’s been just huge to us to have him back. It’s obvious.”
He and Maggie have hosted the team at their house on several occasions already this season. Neal picks the food up, and Maggie cooks it. They both enjoy spending time with the team.
“I’ve learned that our marriage is stronger than ever,” she said. “I believe that whatever comes our way, we’ll be able to conquer together because of going through something so difficult so young in our lives.”
Now, even though he still receives treatment, things are mostly back to normal in Neal’s life. Basketball. Coaching. Yard work. Time with Maggie. Everything is fine again, just like he said it would be.
“We’re winning games, and that’s fun, too,” he said. “It’s fun to win. It’s been a lot more rewarding personally this year because I feel like I’m able to coach the way I want to coach. It’s been a lot of fun.”