Cancer took 11-year-old Ross’ life in 2013, but his impact on those around him, and hockey, lives on
By Greg Bates, Special to AHAI
Ross MacNeill always knew how to lighten the mood.
Standing next to his hockey coach Mike Cecala on the bench, MacNeill would drop plenty of hilarious one-liners during a game. The 11-year-old wanted to suit up for games but he couldn’t. The youngster who was losing his hair and fighting the battle of all battles was always on hand to cheer on his Admirals Hockey Club team out of Glen Ellyn. He was the team captain who turned into Cecala’s assistant coach and little helper.
“With his condition, he spent a lot of time on the bench and he always kept me entertained,” Cecala said. “He was the wittiest little guy in the world. He would just say the funniest thing and would just make me laugh whenever I was coaching, that’s for sure.”
The Admirals had a great run that year. Ross was his teammates’ inspiration.
“Everyone knew what was at stake and it was his last season, so to speak, and we went all the way to the championship game,” Cecala said. “The kids around him rallied and the kids were right there for him the entire time.”
About six weeks after watching his teammates compete in the title game, Ross lost his nearly four-year battle with cancer. He passed away on May 13, 2013.
“He was a leader in every sense of the word and the strongest person I’ve ever met to this day,” said Cecala, who coached Ross for five years.
Ever since the day Ross was diagnosed with pediatric brain cancer, he was an inspiration to everyone whom he was fortunate to cross paths with.
His diagnosis came as a surprise. Ross was experiencing sporadic headaches during hockey practice, so his parents brought him to the hospital on July 3, 2009. A routine MRI revealed a brain tumor at the base of his skull.
“It was a stunning change in our life; it was a stunning moment,” said Ross’ mom, Kim MacNeill. “I had what I felt was a very healthy little boy.”
The aggressive medulloblastoma required immediate surgery and a rigorous course of chemotherapy and radiation. The next 30 days was a whirlwind for Ross and his family. Each morning, Ross traveled to Children’s Memorial Hospital in downtown Chicago for chemotherapy at 5 a.m. Immediately after, he went crosstown to Northwestern Hospital for radiation.
When the school year approached, Ross was still undergoing treatment. Still in his pajamas after a round of chemotherapy and radiation, he told his mom he wanted to be at school for his first day of second grade. Ross and his mom were in the parking lot of the hospital when Kim called the elementary school principal and told her they were going to be driving to school but didn’t know if they would make it on time for the start of the first class.
“The principal said, ‘We will not leave the blacktop without Ross,’” MacNeill recalled. “Those kids waited on the blacktop to go inside until he showed up. That’s who Ross was.”
Cancer didn’t slow down Ross from attending school or playing hockey. His friend and teammate Jackson Dieden said cancer didn’t change Ross.
“He was the same as he had always been,” Dieden said. “I don’t know how he did it. If I got cancer, that would be miserable. He always found a way to be happy, which is why he was always a good guy to be around and why he’s had such an impact on all the other kids who have went through what he went through.”
Hockey was always important in Ross’ life all the way until his passing. It was a brotherhood that he loved.
“For Ross, he already had that connection and had these boys and girls that he was skating with that he loved,” Kim MacNeill said. “I can’t recall he ever voiced the words, ‘This is important in my life.’ But clearly the way he lived, hockey was important to his life. I think it was also a way of keeping him mentally and physically strong to go after this what I refer to often as the ultimate competitor is cancer — certainly brain cancer for a child.
“Hockey brought so much joy to him.”
That fall after going through chemotherapy and radiation, doctors determined that Ross was cancer free. However, the family knew that every three months when Ross had to head to the hospital for an MRI the cancer could return. Unfortunately, in 2010, the cancer came back in a new spot in Ross’ brain. The family opted for a new stem cell replacement, which worked. But by fall 2011, the cancer was back. A clinical trial kept the cancer at bay through spring 2012. In February 2013, the cancer returned for the fourth time. This time there wasn’t anything more the doctors could do. The disease was terminal for the 11-year-old.
“On the day that we got a phone call from his physician that said there’s nothing more we can do for Ross so now we will just keep him comfortable until he passes away — by the way as a phone call for a parent, there’s no way I can describe for you how that feels when you hear those words,” Kim MacNeill said. “But then, our family told Ross we had just gotten that news and he did not cry, he did not get hysterical, he did not get sad. He said, ‘Thank you. I know you did everything for me you could do.’ Then he said, ‘Please promise me you will not let another child go through what I’ve gone through.’ And we made our pinky promise and then we had a snack and watched Tom & Jerry cartoons. That’s what normal people do.”
Ross was so strong throughout the entire process. He never wanted to miss school or hockey. He never surrendered to the battle for his life.
“I can tell you as an adult as well as his mother it was stunning every day and such a privilege to just step back in his shadow and watch him,” MacNeill said. “I know I will never witness that again. It changed my life. It changed so many peoples’ perspectives whether it’s kids or adults who still to this day. ‘I had a rough day. I got some rough news. I had a change in my life that didn’t make me happy.’ Then I thought of Ross.”
Ross impacted so many lives in his 11 years on the Earth. His fun-loving and charismatic attitude made him such a great person to be around.
“He put everything in perspective that life is about living every day and making the best of it and keeping your head up. That’s the impact he left on me,” said Cecala, choking up. “Anyone who knows me personally knows what Ross meant to me and I live every day for him pretty much. Everything that’s good in a person that you’d want to emulate was Ross.”
“He had a vibrant personality, just great character,” Dieden said. “I don’t know anybody who knew Ross who didn’t like him. Everybody who knew him wanted to be his friend.
“Ross was one in a million. You’re never going to meet anyone like him in your life. He was a great influence to be around.”
That pinky promise Ross made with his mom led to the formation of the Ross K. MacNeill Foundation. The non-profit organization raises money for pediatric brain cancer research through a variety of events. Its biggest fundraiser is the annual Ross K. MacNeill Memorial TOUGH Hockey 3v3 Tournament. In the first year in 2014, $53,000 was raised. The event has gotten bigger every year since. The foundation has raised over $350,000 since its start.
With it being the fifth year of the tournament, it will be held at the MB Ice Arena, practice facility of the Chicago Blackhawks, on Saturday, August 4th.
The Blackhawks have been instrumental in the success of the hockey tournament. Some players and coach Joel Quenneville have been in attendance in the past.
The tournament is open to boys and girls ages 6U-18U. Along with hockey, there is a silent auction, raffle and other events. For more information and to register, log onto r33m.org.
Kim MacNeill, who is the president and co-founder of the foundation, is always extremely busy during the hockey tournament, but she always finds time to watch some of the action and reflect on her son’s life.
“One of the hardest things is to look out onto the ice and see boys that I remember as mites and now they’re 16, and I won’t see my son at 16 years old,” MacNeill said. “That’s one of those very bittersweet moments when you look at them coming in the gate and they aren’t little guys anymore. They’re young men. And they show up, they show up for their buddy.”
Ross had a lot of buddies. A number of them now play in the hockey tournament in his honor. Dieden, who has played in the tournament every year, knows his friend would love knowing the tournament is impacting so many lives.
“Ross was a very charitable person,” Dieden said. “He donated to the homeless all the time, so the fact that there would be an opportunity to do sport he loves as well as help out a good cause, he would be ecstatic over it.”
“Ross would be so proud of his hockey brothers,” his mom said. “He would not at all spend one minute thinking about himself or thinking that the tournament was in his memory. He was never that kind of little boy. He would just be very proud his hockey brothers were helping keep the promise.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
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