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Dean McNeil quit soccer, and that's alright

McNeil, who led the OAC in all major statistical categories for goalkeepers last season, chose not to play his senior year. (photo/ ONU Sports Information)

Dean McNeil’s hair is much longer now.

Dark brown tufts poke out of his pink The 1975 hat -- “does this one work? I can wear an ONU one if you want,” he asks me before we take the portrait photo for this story. “That one’s just fine,” I say -- and he now has a shadowy beard that he strokes when he likes.

When he likes.

That’s the thing. Dean McNeil does what he likes now.

That’s not to say that he didn’t before; the athletically built, six-foot-one McNeil used to tease opponents with his feet, dribbling the ball outside of the box until he found an open man, mere milliseconds before it appeared as if an opposing defender would have snatched the ball.

From 2016: Finding peace in the penalties: Inside the conflicted mind of Dean McNeil

He played loose, especially for a goalie, and he played well. He led the OAC in every major statistical category for goalkeepers last season, although he was left off the first-team all-conference list.

He allowed just 13 goals in over 2,000 game minutes, playing the most minutes of any goalie in the country during the regular season, and recorded 12 shutouts. His team lost just twice last season, making it back to the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year.

“I believe he’s one of the best keepers in the country,” coach Brent Ridenour said last year before ONU’s tournament game. “We believe in him, and he’s a big part of our success. We wouldn’t have the record we have this year, or 12 shutouts on the season, if it wasn’t for Dean.”

But for all his talent and glory, Dean wanted none of it. And this year, his senior year, he has let go of all of it.

Dean McNeil quit soccer. And he doesn’t care what you think about it.

***

Dean knew well before the end of the 2016 season that it would be his last.

He knew by the first week of October, when the team began conference play. He didn’t tell anyone, but his teammates always wondered.

After all, he did try to quit after his freshman season until a few upperclassmen convinced him to rejoin the team, luring him with NCAA Tournament aspirations and the trip to Italy that the team would take before his junior year.

With 15 seniors on last year’s roster, including seven all-conference players and first-team All-American Matt Kinkopf, McNeil said that the team considered last season to be their prime chance for a deep tournament run.

“I think there really wasn’t any doubt that in our career, our junior year was going to be our year to win it,” McNeil said. “And I felt like that’s why we were recruited, was for 2016.”

The team’s title run was cut short, however, as they lost to sixth-ranked Calvin (Mich.) in the first round. Northern finished ninth in the country, climbing as high as third before their first loss in late October.

Then the guessing game began. While McNeil had made his decision much earlier, he didn’t officially tell his teammates that he would be quitting until January (although three of his closest friends on the team knew before then).

“After junior year, after we lost, I kind of felt like the guys were thinking, ‘So, is he coming back?’ I don’t think they were really sure,” McNeil said. “They definitely knew that I didn’t want to play and that I was considering it.”

McNeil told Ridenour via email, and the two exchanged a couple of brief, “cordial” messages, according to McNeil. The former goalie described their relationship as “strained,” and left it at that.

“I don’t know how he felt about it, I’ll never know,” Dean said of Ridenour’s reaction to him quitting. “We haven’t had a conversation since and probably won’t.”

Ridenour declined to comment for this story.

But the reason why McNeil quit was much bigger than his former coach. It’s the same reason why he switched from being an engineering major to an education major during his freshman year, not because he couldn’t handle the academic rigor of the engineering college -- he took Calc 3 as a freshman, which is an optional class for engineers -- but because he said it “wasn’t what I enjoyed.”

For the last three years of his career, Dean McNeil did not enjoy soccer. He dreaded the practices, even some games.

McNeil is also alarmingly in-tune with his own interests; and not only that, but he is also willing to abandon societal pressures to choose what makes him happy, over what might make everyone else happy.

At the age of 21, he has obtained what most strive for, but never reach, their entire lives. Dean McNeil is completely, and unashamedly, himself.

***

During Dean’s last year of soccer, he tried really hard not to punch the goal post after he let up a goal.

It was a bad habit that he had formed over his college years, and during his sophomore year he nearly broke his hand by doing so. But that was the intensity with which McNeil played the game, and the hand-smashing was a manifestation of the years of stress that built up inside of him as a goalkeeper.

“Mentally, it’s exhausting,” McNeil said last year. “With the other positions on the field, you have a hundred or two hundred chances to make a play in a game, and if you mess up twice, if you mess up five times, it’s not that significant. But as a goalie, I have maybe 15 or 20 [chances], so if I mess up four or five times, that’s a huge portion of the opportunities I had.”

Playing goalie in soccer is comparable to being a closer in baseball -- when you’re in the game, you better come through. There is little margin for error, if any.

That stress wore on McNeil, who played soccer since the age of seven and was a goalie since the age of 10.

“When I made a save, I was just doing my job,” McNeil said. “And when I didn’t make a save, I messed up. So every time a goal was scored, yeah, it’s the whole team, but it goes on your stats. And the stats didn’t mean anything to me, but I think it just symbolizes the idea that a goalie is always going to take a goal more personal -- and if they don’t then they probably shouldn’t be goalie.”

“Taking that -- every goal that goes in for 10 years, knowing that you might have been able to do something more, or thinking that you should have done something more -- it really wears on you.”

McNeil played soccer 10 months out of the year while attending Medina High School, as he played for club teams when he wasn’t in season at school. Over time, McNeil said that the stress -- which he termed “mental baggage” -- started to layer.

“It’s hard to say what it’s like unless you’re in the net,” McNeil said. “I think it’s really a personal thing. And I know there are goalies that love goalie and it’s their favorite position in the world, but the fact that one mistake can equal one goal, for me personally, it really affected me.”

By the end, McNeil was not afraid to admit that he did not like soccer. But ultimately, McNeil was far more talented than his backups (heck, he was far more talented than most goalies in the country), so he played nearly every minute.

McNeil, who found himself dreading the sport more and more, got to play, while his eager backups watched from the sideline. This killed him.

“To be honest, I felt really awful that I didn’t want to play. I knew that I was the best goalkeeper on the team, and I knew that I cared the least about playing,” McNeil said. “Michael Sowers? Michael Sowers wanted to play. Ameer Mubarak wanted to play. And all the guys on JV, they all wanted to play, and they would have given anything to be in my spot. I didn’t want it, but I had it anyways, and I was the best choice for the team. It sucks that’s the way it was. I hated it.”

Despite the numerous pressures pulling McNeil away from the sport, however, it was still hard to detach. Soccer had been Dean’s central identifier for as long as he could remember -- before he was anything, he was Dean, the soccer player -- and removing himself from the game was more complicated than one might imagine.

For a while, after quitting, Dean McNeil was lost.

***

Sitting next to me on Dean’s futon is one of his friends and roommates, Seth Ricker. Ricker is a senior mechanical engineering major and recently quit the soccer team as well, just a few weeks before they were scheduled to start practice in August.

“Can I say something real quick?” Ricker chimes in.

“When you’re a student-athlete and you’ve been a part of the game for so long and you’re finished -- whether or not it’s because you quit or your career comes to an end -- I definitely think there’s a sense of identity crisis,” Ricker said. “Like you have to find yourself for x amount of years as this person, and I think there’s a lot of issues that come after that.”

Because McNeil quit in January, he has had more time than Ricker to ‘find himself’ after soccer. For Ricker, the aftershock is still fresh and the void of time and energy that soccer has left is still yet to be filled in completely. Both, however, are still in the deeply introspective process of self-identification.

“It’s just that it’s not all there is to life. You’re not a soccer player, you’re a person,” McNeil said. “I’m Dean and I’m figuring out what Dean likes to do. If Dean doesn’t like soccer, then Dean shouldn’t do soccer.”

Without soccer, McNeil has been able to work long hours at Viva Maria restaurant, saving up money to travel the world and study abroad, as he did last summer in Chile.

McNeil is an Education/Spanish double-major, and he used the Chile experience to immerse himself in a different culture and broaden his perspective on the world. He has a map of Chile in his room and Spanish phrases scribbled on his whiteboard, and he gleams while talking about last summer’s trip.

“I’m starting to figure out who I am as a person and what I’d like to do, and what I think I want to be. I’m just starting to live in a way that is working towards those goals,” McNeil said. “I don’t have all this free time because it’s taken up by other things, but I’m just living life. And I think people think that sports are life, when you’re playing them -- especially soccer players. Super-competitive youth soccer players are playing soccer nine to ten months out of the year, and it just seems like that’s all you know. But there’s more to life than college sports.”

Dean McNeil chose to take time for himself, to indulge in his own interests, and to begin life as Dean, the person instead of Dean, the soccer player. But as challenging as it is to detach from that former life, it is just as challenging for others to understand why one might do so.

“There’s definitely a stigma with quitting a sport,” McNeil said.

Of all people, Dean would know. He experienced that stigma first-hand.

***

Most college athletes are not brave enough to do what Dean McNeil did.

By the time an athlete reaches the collegiate level, they could very well be burnt out. They could dread playing the sport and wonder what it would be like if they didn’t. But ultimately, most student-athletes will keep playing for reasons that overlook their own personal happiness; I can’t let my parents down or I only have a couple years left or I don’t want my teammates to hate me.

Why does McNeil think some athletes choose not to quit a sport that they might no longer enjoy?

“I don’t think people like change. I think people are really uncomfortable with change,” McNeil said. “And they’re scared, because it’s really a massive decision. It’s something that’s been a part of your life, a significant part of your life. It was my childhood, playing soccer. And just like that, you make one decision, and you’re not playing competitive soccer any more.”

“It’s scary. You don’t know what’s coming, you couldn’t possibly know what’s coming.”

While McNeil feels lucky that his team was accepting of his decision to quit, he said that his parents took the news to heart.

“My parents... I think they had a hard time with it,” McNeil said. “Even though they weren’t necessarily happy that they weren’t going to get to see me play any more, though, they accepted it. Were they happy about it? No. Were they OK with it? I don’t even know if they were OK with it. But they accepted it.”

Dean feels that most athletes are too scared to have that conversation. After all, the parents are the ones who supported their child playing the sport, with money and time and energy, for the majority of their life. When an athlete quits, he’s quitting that endeavor for the parent as well.

“I think people are uncomfortable to go against what their parents want. And my parents mean the world to me, and they gave me way more than I’ll ever be able to repay them,” McNeil said. “But that doesn’t mean that I’m obligated to continue to do something that I don’t want to do for them.”

Beyond the fear of change and the reaction of one’s parents and peers, however, McNeil also feels that athletes who contemplate quitting fear the stigma that comes with being a ‘quitter’ -- a word seemingly associated with laziness and selfishness.

“There’s a stigma with quitting a sport, and it’s nonsense,” McNeil said. “Because you don’t quit a sport because you’re lazy -- you wouldn’t have played a college sport if you were lazy. You’re quitting it because it’s not what you enjoy doing anymore.”

Regardless of what you think about Dean McNeil, he doesn’t care. Leaning back in his desk chair, McNeil describes his new reality as “feeling like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders,” as he reflects on his decision to drop the game that defined his existence for over half his life.

No regrets, McNeil says.

***

Dean McNeil’s hair is long enough now to be tied up if he wants, which he never could have done under the soccer team’s dress code.

He has more time to work towards his goals and enjoy what he’s doing, which is more than he’s been able to say in the past few years.

“I love it,” McNeil said. “Now I have time to just be me. Before, I wasn’t being me. I was being some other person...”

“You were Dean the soccer player,” Ricker said, and both laughed in agreement.

After quitting once following his freshman year but eventually coming back, McNeil was finally able to follow his gut and pull the plug on his soccer career this year.

In doing so, he now is free of the mental baggage that comes with being a high-level goalie -- but at the same time, he had to conquer societal stigmas and internal questioning on his way to peace.

He knew that what he wanted to do would likely upset his coaches, teammates and parents. He knew that many probably would not understand why he -- one of the nation’s top goalies, playing for one of the nation’s top programs, with just one year left in his collegiate career -- would decide to hang it up.

But that didn’t matter to Dean McNeil.

When asked about what he likes about the education field, McNeil says that he has “started to doubt whether that’s what I really want to do.” While he is grateful for the experiences he’s had studying at ONU and abroad, he genuinely does not know where his career path might take him. He says that he is not sure whether he is passionate enough about teaching to survive in today’s climate.

There is a bit of uncertainty in his voice, a bit of near-maddening spontaneity.

What do you mean you have doubts?? Isn’t this the path you chose?? You quit engineering for this??

You can probe Dean McNeil for answers until you’re blue in the face. You can wonder endlessly about why he doesn’t just commit to a life plan and stick to it, like most people. You can ask yourself why he refuses to stay put.

But McNeil’s answer won’t suffice. That’s because he doesn’t follow money, or a plan, or societal standards.

Dean McNeil will go where the pursuit of happiness takes him, where each day is more meaningful and less dreadful, where he can follow his dreams. And that’s why Dean McNeil quit soccer.

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