One of our most stalwart officials over the last 30 years has been NEAL JOHNSON. You could be at a Youth meet, an open meet, a professional or collegiate meet locally, and chances are you would have encountered his strapping presence dealing kindly and politely with athletes and coaches alike.
A native of the Bronx, Neal got involved in sports at an early age and became an accomplished basketball player. He continued his athletic pursuits as a student at St. Bonaventure University.
After college he officiated basketball and other sports as well. It was in 1974 when a turn in his life permanently involved him in a life in sports. A professional colleague and close personal friend, Herb Rosenblatt, invited him to help in starting a new initiative in the Bronx. That initiative was Bronx Special Olympics, which Herb was looking to create -- a sports organization for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, which would become eventually, the largest and most impactful sports organization in the world. This was a local genesis of the Special Olympics movement that was started in 1968 in Chicago by Eunice Kennedy Shriver.
When Neal commits to anything, he gives it everything he has. He soon became an enthusiastic organizing volunteer and an advocate for Special Olympics’ athletes and programs throughout the state and the nation. He became totally involved in the culture of the organization and became fast friends with some of its early founders such as Eunice Shriver and Rafer Johnson. He helped springboard the effort to continue hosting the Special Olympics World Games, both Summer and Winter, here in the USA. Since 1979 when the games were hosted in Brockport, NY, that has happened 11 times since.
It was during all this time that Neal got involved in becoming an active Track & Field Official while keeping a business career and volunteering in all the Special Olympic events and fundraising activities as a member of the Board of Directors of Special Olympics New York (SONY). He worked many meets as a Throws official, a clerk, and eventually became a fixture locally as a starter.
In 1997 Neal was tasked by the Board of SONY with doing a search for a new President & CEO. While he was inquiring of them just what they were looking for in a candidate, they pretty much stated, “someone like you” and they offered him the job. He willingly accepted and Special Olympics became not an obsession, but a profession.
Consequently, from 1997 through 2017 he served as the President and CEO of Special Olympics New York. It involved working during the week in Schenectady, New York (while traveling all around the state as well) and commuting home to Kinnelon, New Jersey for the weekends. Something tells me Neal knew how to drive anywhere in New York State without having to use any GPS or road maps. It was not just the Special Olympics program he committed to. Indeed, he expanded their mission, encouraging the growth of “Unified Sports” throughout the schools in Central New York, Northern New York, and the Capitol District. He helped this program to soar when he established a partnership with the New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association to get “Unified Sports” as a mainstream activity. The program has grown to become a big success over the last ten years.
When Neal was “back home” on the weekends, he was always lending a hand at our local Track meets as well as National and International events for Special Olympics. He was an International Starter for three SO World Games. He was recognized internationally for his experience and commitment to Special Olympics, and was asked to lead both officiating and coaching clinics globally including in China, Japan, Singapore, Ireland, Jamaica, Greece, Austria and across the USA by Special Olympics, Inc.
Because of his strong resume, he began to apply for and got accepted to officiate at numerous USATF National events, both as a throws official and as a Starter.
As an indication of his leadership abilities, he has been assigned as a Chief Starter at USATF Indoor, Outdoor and Under 20 National Championships. He also has served at several USATF Indoor Combined Events Championships as a Starter and a Coordinator.
In addition, other national distinctions recognized Neal’s career. In 2014 at the national convention, the USATF National Officials’ Committee honored him with its John Davis “Humanitarian of the Year Award”. That same year, his Alma Mater, St. Bonaventure University, awarded him an Honorary Doctorate (Ped.D) in tribute for his contributions to teaching through his service to the Special Olympics movement.
In 2017, Neal retired from Special Olympics New York, ending a brilliant twenty-year career. He came right back home to help us with his usual enthusiasm and was there helping us in earnest before the Covid-19 lockdown. He cannot be with us today because of some temporary health issues. But we all know that Neal always bounces back like a superball whenever he gets the chance to.
Neal, we congratulate you on this richly deserved honor and hope to see you back this season. God bless you!