The 'Miracle kid' becomes South's king

Three-sport athlete talks journey back from rare COVID-related condition

By DONNELL COLEY
Sports editor
Posted 10/15/21

South Johnston standout Jaydn McNeill could barely walk six months ago, now he's playing a key role in the Trojans' conference-title hunt.

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The 'Miracle kid' becomes South's king

Three-sport athlete talks journey back from rare COVID-related condition

Posted

FOUR OAKS — Jaydn McNeill could barely stay in his seat as he watched his high school teammates from an unusual, sometimes unbearable, position this past spring.

The three-sport athlete was primed for a breakout junior year on the football field and baseball diamond, but instead was forced to recover from Multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C)– a rare condition associated with COVID-19 in which different body parts become inflamed.

A new-found disease at the time, McNeill was airlifted to UNC Medical Center where he would spend most of January resigned to a hospital bed dipping in and out of consciousness.

Liquid filled his lungs. Sleeping and breathing became a daily task. His heart fluttered at unnatural rhythms.

Even still, the embattled youngster found ways to tune into games and used an overwhelming support system to regain his health.

“It was a difficult process. I couldn’t even walk – it was crazy. God is good,” said a rejuvenated McNeill following South’s 62-14 win over Southern Wayne last Friday.

McNeill’s mother, Elaine Royster, says that before the diagnosis he was a regular attendee at basketball practice and games as well as football workouts last winter.

“He was doing what normal kids were doing at that time and never came to tell me anything was wrong with him,” Royster said.

But after McNeill helped guide the Trojans’ basketball team to an early-season win over nearby rival Triton, a night in which he was the only South hooper to play the entire 32 minutes, he increasingly exhibited MIS-C precursors in the days to follow.  

“The only thing he complained about that week was neck pain ... and had I known then that that was one of the signs (of MIS-C), I probably could have caught it earlier than we did,” Royster said.

Bringing the community together

With a confounding disease crippling his starting point guard, South basketball coach and athletic director Brody Massengill was hardly focused on what he was missing on the hardwood.

“Being concerned, not even for basketball, we were worried about his life and about if he was gonna make it,” Massengill said.    

“You don’t really have the words to say to your guys and your team. ... It was one of those times where you didn’t think it was gonna have a happy ending and it’s turned out the exact opposite.”

Royster says it was the bombardment of love and outreach from Massengill and the South community that played a vital role in her only child’s speedy recovery efforts.

In the midst of a divisive political climate, constant text and video messages from coaches and teammates, prayer vigils, donations and words encouragement came flooding in from people of all races, backgrounds and affiliations.

“Everybody was saying COVID is not real, you don’t need to wear a mask and this and that. But when it happened with Jaydn, the whole community atmosphere changed. You really didn’t hear anybody say anything negative,” Royster said. 

“It was like everybody was focused on one thing, and that was him getting better. ... I really didn’t realize how much of an impact my son and me was to the community, and it made me feel so good to know that my community loved us that much.”

Meanwhile, Massengill echoed her comments about McNeill’s impact on life beyond sports simply saying, “He brought us together at a time when we needed to be together.”

Getting back to ‘old Jaydn’

Before long, a new month meant a fresh opportunity for the standout speedster to return to form.

Though some 40 pounds lighter than when he came in, McNeill was eventually able to walk again and left the hospital in February, just in time to show his support during a shortened spring football slate.

“It was hard sitting on the sideline watching that season go by, but I still kept cheering them on. My teammates had me. My family had me. Everybody had me,” he said.

As he took the same approach through the end of baseball season, McNeill says his condition continued to improve. When doctors ran an MRI and various scans in June, they were encouraged and by August, he was medically cleared to fully participate in athletics again.

“It’s nobody but God who has healed his body like that. He’s a miracle kid,” Royster said.

It wasn’t long after McNeill began light individual exercises, primarily coming to the school to run routes and prepare himself for a potential return to the gridiron.

Both he and Royster give South athletic trainer Amber Breen a great deal of praise for expediting the comeback journey. 

“I love our athletic trainer. She’s awesome,” Royster said. “She’s the main part of what helped him.”

Breen especially assisted with muscle-strengthening activities during the preseason and before long, an almost night-and-day difference was noticeable.

“He took a turn right before football season where, he was still not in the best way ... but all of a sudden it’s like he walked out there and he was the old Jaydn,” Massengill said.

“Honestly, there was a point in time where I’d be lying if I said I thought he was gonna be able to come back and be his old self. But it’s one of the times that I’m glad I’ve been proven wrong.”

‘Anything can happen'

This fall, McNeill has blazed past opponents while flashing the charisma and leadership that his peers have become accustomed to the past three years.

He is tied for the team lead with four touchdown receptions, including one in last Friday’s blowout that also saw him add a kickoff return for a TD.

McNeill graciously accepted senior class homecoming king honors at halftime, and showed even more humility when speaking about how improbable it all seems.

“Every time I step on the field I think about where I was six or seven months ago ... and it just motivates me more to think about how I was,” he said.

His mother is equally astonished, and made sure to note how well Breen monitors him regularly during games to make sure his endurance isn’t declining.

“I was nervous the first two games, to be honest. He hadn’t run that hard in six months ... but it’s so amazing to see him out there now,” she said.

“I mean, in the blink of an eye, he could’ve been gone. But now, he’s making touchdowns and it’s crazy.”

The Trojans have their biggest game of the season ahead, a road matchup with Quad County 3A Conference-leading Hunt on Friday, a game McNeill says he and his teammates are charged for.

While he focuses on resurrecting what seemed like a fallen prep career, those watching the remarkable story play out in real time can’t help but marvel and wonder what happens next.

“He’s kind of living out this Jimmy V (Valvano) type of moment about never giving up,” Massengill said.

“Being convicted in faith and never giving up, it just shows that anything can happen.”

Donnell Coley can be reached at dcoley@mydailyrecord.com or 910-230-2040.

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