MONROVIA, Ala. (WHNT) - Bo Jackson, Mark Ingram, Neal Burch… three of the best backs to every carry a football. What, you’ve never heard of Neal Burch? After you read this story, you’ll never forget him.
On a beautiful September evening, the Monrovia Middle School Hawks host the Discovery Middle School Panthers for a 7th grade football game. Sonny and Shannon Burch sit in the stands to support their 13-year-old son Neal. He wears number 98. He’s a Monrovia Hawk.
On the sideline, a team mate asks Neal, “What are we going to do Neal? We gonna win? “Neal replies, “Go Hawks! Win!”
Neal’s a little hard to understand. He had a stroke at birth, so he is developmentally delayed. But that hasn’t stopped him from living life to the fullest. His mother Shannon says, “He loves people. He just loves to be a part of things.”
Neal Boy, that’s what they call him, was watching some kids play football last year when he told his dad he wanted to play football. He said he wanted to be a Hawk. Sonny Burch told his son he’d ask.
“I was a part of sports growing up and had that team family and I want him to have the same thing,” said Sonny. He said the worst thing they could do was say no. The principal said if Neal could pass the physical, they’d make it happen. He did and they did.
Brandon Smith is the head coach of the 7th grade Monrovia Hawks football team. “You can tell he's excited and it excites me and the rest of the kids to see how much it means to him." Brandon adds, “He's been a blessing for our team to have him out there. We feel like we're lucky to have him.”
Sonny and Shannon Burch just want to give their son the same opportunity as other kids. Neal Boy has played rec league basketball, soccer and he’s on the Special Olympics swim team. But he’s now a Monrovia Hawk.
“And it's just beautiful to see. And not only for him, but for his teammates,” says Robin Kramer. She teaches special needs students at Monrovia. She says being on the team has really boosted Neal’s confidence.
And on the night the Hawks played the Panthers, he needed a little extra confidence. Because of his fragile condition, Neal can’t take a hit, so he watches and supports his teammates from the sideline. But the Monrovia and Discovery coaches and players decide the game is more than just about who wins. It’s about getting Neal Burch on the field for one play and making sure he has the biggest game of his life as a Hawk.
Coach Smith sent Neal in with a running play. He got the ball and ran for a 60-yard touchdown. The Panthers didn’t try to tackle him. They ran along with Neal and the other Hawks making sure number 89 scored a TD!
Coach Smith was as proud as Neal’s parents saying, “He was a little hesitant to begin with but as soon as he saw that end zone, that's probably as fast as I've seen him run. He was excited. You could see just a huge smile when he came over to the sidelines.”
Neal’s teacher was watching too. “I had tears rolling down my face. That was such a proud moment to see him because to him, he scored. He scored a touchdown. He made his team, the Hawks, proud and he was a part of that team. And that's what it's all about, being a part of the team.”
It was a moment in Monrovia football Neal Burch’s parents will never forget. Neither will anyone who was at the game. Even though the touchdown didn’t count on the scoreboard, it counted where it mattered most. Neal Burch’s score was about making his dream come true.
“The sportsmanship that was shown, it was great for him and I think our kids and their kids probably learned a lesson. I know I certainly did as well,” said Coach Smith.
When the game ended, the Hawks beat the Panthers 22 to 18. And Neal Boy took off his pads for the last time this season. He turned to his parents and said, “Bye Ma, Bye Dad.” With those words, Neal Boy Burch ran off into the sunset to jump on the bus to celebrate his biggest and most memorable win as a Monrovia Hawk.
The Hawks have three games left to play but Neal will have to cheer them on in spirit. He’s having surgery on his both of his feet in late September, and his recovery will take about 14 weeks.