CINCINNATI — Major McNeil and Chris Hicks met in a Withrow High School hall this past Friday night carrying smiles as wide as the school's football field.
Handshakes and hugs soon followed. Stories were swapped. The emotion was palpable.
Friday night was the first time that McNeil, a former teacher and administrator, and Hicks, a former football standout, had connected in person since 1965, when Hicks was in the sixth grade.
"He means the world to me," Hicks said.
Hicks, a former offensive and defensive tackle, was one of four individuals inducted into the Withrow Athletic Hall of Fame last weekend.
"This type of honor I couldn't have imagined years ago when I was playing here," said Hicks, a 1972 Withrow graduate. "But this set the foundation and the building blocks for me to move on not only in athletics but also through college and stepping stones to a successful career. And I'm proud of that, and I've been blessed."
McNeil, a former Cincinnati Public Schools assistant superintendent who served as Withrow's principal from 1979-85, was among Hicks' supporters at the pre-induction ceremony.
McNeil's initial connection to Hicks occurred at the start of his education career — as a Madisonville Elementary School physical education teacher in 1965. That's when McNeil inspired Hicks, then a sixth grader, to play sports.
"Chris was always a hard worker in class," McNeil said. "He had a lot of natural interest but like a lot of sixth graders (was) kind of awkward at the time. Tremendous potential and quite frankly he paid a lot of attention to instruction, and that kind of drew me to him because I wanted to be a good instructor."
McNeil convinced Hicks to participate in volleyball and kickball along with some gymnastics and climbing drills. Even though Hicks didn't know much about football at the time, he listened.
McNeil later urged Hicks to try out for guard or tackle on the football team when he reached seventh grade at Lyons Junior High School.
That encouragement was all Hicks — one of nine siblings — needed to succeed, not only later on the field at Withrow but in the classroom, too.
"One thing about Major McNeil is he treated all the students special," said Hicks, who now lives in the St. Louis area. "At first I thought I was the only one who was special, but really he wanted every student to be successful not only from a scholastic, academic standpoint but also preparing them for a vital future, which is pivotal to the whole society. So I am thankful for him for that."
McNeil, 77, preferred to shine the spotlight on Hicks last week, but he said their interaction in the 1960s also benefited his career.
"Chris really assisted me because I was out to prove a point," McNeil said. "I had wanted to be a high school football coach, but back in that time it wasn't a simple thing for a young black man to become at a high school level. And so when I got my appointment to the sixth grade, I knew I had a lot of growth and development opportunities before me."
Hicks, 66, heeded his teacher's advice about football and eventually became captain of the Withrow football team his senior year — the same season the Tigers won the Public High School League (PHSL) title.
"Chris was among many young black men who could see a way out and up if they were athletic and if they were a good student," McNeil said.
Hicks received a full scholarship to Indiana State University, where he was a first-team Kodak All-American among other honors. In 2008, he was inducted into the Indiana State University Athletics Hall of Fame.
All of his academic and football successes eventually led to a career in environmental health and safety. Today, he is a lead consultant at Hicks-Carter-Hicks LLC, a consulting agency focused on helping companies improve employee performance, in the Greater St. Louis area.
Hicks said it was McNeil's encouraging words at Madisonville Elementary that opened a door for him athletically, academically and socially.
"He doesn't know how much that changed my life as far as becoming the type of athlete that I was when I played," Hicks said.
McNeil and Hicks lost touch over the years but reconnected in late 2019, when Hicks received word of his election to the hall of fame.
The two sat together during Friday's Walnut Hills at Withrow boys basketball game, when Hicks was formally inducted into the hall at halftime.
"You could really feel the appreciation of the inductees as well as their love of the years they spent at Withrow," said Dave Blocksom, chair of the Withrow Athletic Hall of Fame. "This was seen especially in inductee Christopher Hicks. His appreciation and enthusiasm was honest and contagious. Each inductee was allowed to have one guest sit courtside with them for the game and induction ceremony, and the fact that Christopher chose his former principal Major McNeil speaks volumes about the bond that they have developed through the years."
McNeil, who retired from Cincinnati Public Schools in 1993, said Hicks' induction ceremony was almost medicinal in nature. It gave both of them an opportunity to reflect on an important time in their young lives.
"Chris remembers things that were important to him, but at the time was conversation for me," McNeil said. "And so he's resurrected in my mind and in my heart a great deal of love and affection that I'm able to express tonight to you because just seeing Chris again generates considerable positive feelings and understanding that if you have positive input, you increase your opportunity to have successful output. Chris is an example of that, so I'm feeling great."