Stamp faces brave new front

Stampeders o-lineman Jay McNeil and his wife, Tara, pose with their son Cuyler yesterday at their...

Stampeders o-lineman Jay McNeil and his wife, Tara, pose with their son Cuyler yesterday at their home. McNeil, who is set to receive the President's Ring from the Stamps organization tomorrow, publicly stated that Cuyler was diagnosed with autism. (Sun Media/Darren Makowichuk)

ERIC FRANCIS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:38 AM ET

The tears in Jay McNeil's eyes suggest the news hit every bit as hard as losing his father at age 11.

Even harder than the 18-wheeler that careened into him at age 25 and should have taken his life.

"My son..." started McNeil, pausing to deliver words no parent wants to utter, "has autism."

On the eve of accepting his second-straight President's Ring as the Calgary Stampeders' most inspirational player on and off the field, McNeil chose to pay tribute to his greatest inspiration by going public for the first time with the battle being waged by his four-year-old boy, Cuyler.

"When you get the news that your kid is autistic, it's devastating," said McNeil yesterday, wiping tears from his cheeks.

"But I wouldn't change it for the world. Every day we thank God for bringing him into our lives. He's the best kid you could ever ask for. He's got the best attitude and is the gentlest kid. He doesn't ever want to hurt anybody. He just wants to have fun."

It was more than a year ago McNeil and wife Tara noticed Cuyler's affinity for counting, which led doctors to send him to a developmental pediatrician.

"We knew he liked letters and numbers but we just thought he was a smart kid," said McNeil, who wasn't told of the diagnosis until last fall.

"When they sat us down to tell us it was hard -- I teared up. But when I was driving home I called my mom to tell her and I finally broke down. Thing is, I wouldn't want him any other way. We loved him and thought he was an awesome kid beforehand and it doesn't change who he is."

Autism is a developmental disability stemming from a disorder in the central nervous system. It can affect children by delaying social interaction, language or play.

"Most people wouldn't know -- we kind of haven't really said a whole lot," said McNeil, 36, who has registered Cuyler in a regular school for next year.

"It can range from mental retardation to kids that don't talk and may never talk.

"He's high functioning so we're pretty fortunate that way.

"There are lots of e-mails going around about autism and one from a mother who said she'd give anything to hear her son say 'I love you.' Cuyler will. As far as intelligence, he's as smart a kid as you'll find at that age."

Thankful he lives in Alberta, which has the highest autism funding in Canada, the London, Ont., native says 30 hours of one-on-one work with two aids every week has helped Cuyler make huge developmental leaps since September.

A longtime spokesman for CUPS who has made regular appearances at charity functions throughout his 13-year career, McNeil says he and Tara want to get involved with Autism fundraising.

Fortunate enough to have won two Grey Cups while playing in front of a handful of the game's top quarterbacks the last 13 years, the 300-lb. Stampeders offensive-lineman also feels blessed to have escaped death after experiencing two high-impact car accidents within an hour.

"My Jeep hit black ice and rolled end over end twice and then on its side," said McNeil of the 1996 accident on a North Dakota highway.

"The cops came and we were waiting for a tow truck and an 18-wheeler slid on the same ice and crushed all three cars we were in.

"I was sure the cop next to me was dead -- he was slumped over the wheel and unconscious and I didn't have a scratch on me. I was definitely lucky to be alive."

Despite his son's battles, not a day goes by the five-time all-star doesn't realize how charmed his life has been.

McNeil is revered by teammates and a fan favourite on a model franchise that will honour him at noon tomorrow with a soldout luncheon at the Convention Centre sure to get emotional when talk turns to his family.

"Whenever things get tough I think about Cuyler," said McNeil, only the third Stamp to win consecutive President's Rings as voted by teammates (the others being Alondra Johnson and Danny Barrett).

"He's easily the most inspirational thing in my life. Everything Tara and I do we think of him first. We just want to give him every chance to succeed."

Just like his big daddy.


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