One member of the Surry County Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2017 doesn’t quite look the part.
He’s short, stocky and doesn’t move very fast. But he’s been around for some special moments. He watched his niece become the leading basketball scorer in her school’s history. He watched from the dugout as his nephew’s baseball team competed for the 2014 1A state championship.
And in his own field, he’s the G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time).
The Hall of Fame makes history this year by inducting its first athlete from the Special Olympics. And in the Foothills region, that can only mean one person.
Neal Joyner has had a distinguished career, bringing home medals from both local and state games for decades.
Neal’s parents, Dorothy and Eugene Joyner, have a shadowbox display on a wall in their Copeland home.
Inside are more than 80 medals collected in 40 trips to the State Games in Raleigh.
“And he’s earned a few more since then,” said Dorothy, as the total now stands at an even 90 medals.
Neal, now 47, said he was just 8 years old when the Special Olympics launched in Surry County in 1978.
In that first Olympic games, Neal, who has Down’s Syndrome, said he competed in the Frisbee throw, softball throw and arm wrestling.
He would move to other events as he grew older such as the 25m walk, 50m walk, standing long jump and then team basketball in the 1980s with Roger Stampler as his coach.
Neal liked basketball, said Eugene, and he could shoot three-pointers, but as he’s gotten older, his eyesight has suffered and made it hard to catch the ball.
Eugene explained that Neal doesn’t like it when strangers invade his personal space; it makes him feel claustrophobic and anxious. Sometimes during the games, the defender would get too close to Neal, and it would make him panicky.
Eugene said he gave Neal a tip: “If the defender is all over you, rather than get upset, why not just pass the ball to a teammate?”
At the State Games one year in Raleigh, this young man was all over top of Neal out at the three-point line, practically giving him a bear hug, Eugene said. Neal just turned his back to the guy and flung the ball backward over his shoulder. The ball went swish right through the net for a three-pointer.
Later Neal expanded into swimming and found some of his greatest success, bringing home many medals.
That first year, the indoor pool at N.C. State was like a boiler room, said Dorothy. There were pipes running across the ceiling.
“Hottest place I’ve ever been,” echoed Eugene.
Neal has also competed in bowling, tennis skills and in 2013 added bocce for the first time.
Neal was pretty good at bowling, said Eugene, admitting that he lost several games to his son over the years.
Back in the early years, Neal attended the local games with students from his school. Then after he finished school, Dorothy and Eugene kept the tradition going by taking him themselves.
Neal gave a big thank you to his parents for traveling places with him.
“If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t still be in it today.”
Asked what he first liked about going to the State Games, “I was happy to be away from home, give Mama and Daddy a break,” he said. It was a chance to meet new people, good coaches.
To go to Raleigh, Neal would ride with some fellow athletes on a bus, Dorothy noted.
Neal said they would watch movies, listen to music and always have a good time on the bus.
Every year there is a opening ceremony on Friday night, said Dorothy. It’s a big affair and looks amazing.
“You know how at the Olympics the athletes march out by country?” she asked. At the Special Olympics, the Surry County contingent walks out together, too.
On Friday night, there is dance, and the parents said they let Neal go on his own to that so that they don’t cramp his style. One year, he was named prom king of the dance and got to have his photo taken all dressed up.
He likes getting his photo taken, Dorothy said. Usually there is a pageant queen at the games, like Miss North Carolina or Miss Teen North Carolina, and Neal loves to get a photo with the young lady.
“He loves earning those medals,” said Dorothy. One time he just missed the top three and got a ribbon instead. He was so upset he threw the ribbon on the ground. She said she and Eugene had to take him aside and explain that lots of people were competing there and plenty of them never won a medal. After some further conversation, and a little prayer to stay humble, Neal was okay with fourth place.
“I had a wonderful experience in Special Olympics” said Neal. “I am proud to be a Olympic hero, and I hope young ones to follow my footsteps like (I) did in Special Olympics over the years. I had wonderful experience over 40 … years. It’s been wonderful; I am so glad I got in Special Olympics.”
Older folks at Lifespan — a program for those with developmental and intellectual disabilities — will run up to the Joyners and tell them how much they enjoyed Special Olympics when they were younger, said Eugene.
“A lot of these athletes age quickly,” said Eugene. “Many of those from the early days have passed on now.”
According to one book on Down syndrome, the average life expectancy is between 50 and 60 years of age, and as high as 40 percent of patients are born with a heart defect.
Neal might not be able to play basketball anymore, but he is still able to compete in many events at 47.
Dorothy said the whole family wanted to give a big thanks for all the coaches and their efforts over the years.
“I had some good coaches over the years,” said Neal.
“Also, I want to thank all my family supporting me and being there for me. They always come to the county game and the state game, and they are the best family.”
In addition to his parents, Neal thanked his older brother Donald, sister Sharon and their children.
Neal has certainly repaid the favor. Folks in the area are very familiar with Neal after years of him following his two nieces and nephew to high school sporting events.
Cassidy Joyner earned all-state status in softball, holds the Surry Central scoring record for basketball and made All-Conference three times for volleyball. She likely will join her uncle in the Sports Hall of Fame one day.
Her older sister, Whitney, also racked up multiple All-Conference honors through volleyball and softball. Now she is a teacher and coach at Surry Central.
Their cousin, Weston Payne, was the starting second baseman and second hitter on East Surry’s 2014 baseball team that won 30 straight games to start the season and finished second in the state.
Neal also thanked his sister for helping him get a position in her company, which he’s now held for 24 years.
“Sharon got me on the job when she came back in ‘93,” he said of his place in the mailroom of Inmar Enterprises.
Neal was working most of the day all along, but he was promoted to full-time in August 2009 and now holds the title of senior mailroom specialist with a company that employs close to 1,000 people, said his proud papa.
And now his family has even more reason to feel proud as Neal accepts his place in the Sports Hall of Fame.
Jeff is the news editor and can be reached at 415-4692.