Every now and then, Footy delivers an unforgettable “I’ve been there” moment.
Neal Daniher walking the guard of honor on the King’s birthday was one of them.
After helping nine celebrities take to the MCG ice bath for Big Freeze 9, Daniher moved to the wings of MCC members and Melbourne and Collingwood lined up to honor him.
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Daniher has been battling motor neurone disease (MND) since 2013. “The Beast” has deprived Daniher of the ability to speak, but he can still walk on command. His steps in the honor guard on Monday sent shivers down the spines of every player, as well as the 83,578 people in attendance – many of whom wore the blue beanies.
He received hugs from Melbourne captain Max Gown and coach Simon Goodwin.
Everyone on the ground stood to give Daniger a standing ovation, paying tribute to her courage and unwavering determination to not only fight the disease, but also to raise awareness around her.
“I was very emotional,” Demons player Alex Neil-Bullen said foxfooty.com.au after the match. “It’s one of those pinch-me moments when you’re playing footy in this situation, to see the impact Neil has had on the footy world and the wider community.
“You really try to make the most of the moment because you’re not always going to be a footballer so you have to make the most of the opportunity.”
Magpies coach Craig McRae also said he was “a bit emotional to see how he went”, adding that anyone who witnessed Daniher’s walk would “appreciate him”.
“He’s been an inspiration to so many people… They call him ‘the beast,’ and unfortunately, there’s no good outcome for most of those who have this disease. So he’s a great role model to live in the moment, ticking off bucket lists and being positive,” McRae said. “My God, for a guy who’s been through that and struggled…he’s been amazing.
Goodwin confirmed after the game that the guard of honor was a joint idea between Melbourne and Collingwood.
“We wanted to get to know Neil. He’s been doing this for nine years and he’s raised over $70 million for the fight – it’s an amazing thing he’s done and he’s still fighting. He is fighting for the right cause,” Goodwin told reporters.
“He’s very inspirational, especially for the Demons, and he’s given a lot to our club. We were very inspired by it.”
Now in its ninth year, the Big Freeze has become one of the most important fundraisers in the AFL calendar.
By halftime of Monday’s match, FightMND had raised more than $2.3 million for Big Freeze 9.
Neil-Bullen said the Demons were “so pleased” to have Daniher as an ambassador for the charity.
“It’s something that’s grown every year for nine years,” Neal-Bullen said.
“I think everyone knows someone who has been affected by MND. For my part, I learned a lot about it. I didn’t know too much when I first went to Melbourne, but over the years you learn a little bit more and how it affects people at different speeds.”
Goodwin said the lessons he and others in Melbourne have learned from Daniher have been “just amazing”.
“Over the past nine years we have been very fortunate as a football club and as players and staff to hear these lessons. “He has touched our hearts again all week,” he said.
“His lesson about opportunity: No matter what happens, no matter where you are in life, there is always an opportunity in front of you. That’s why we went very hard with the players today.
“The recognition, the standing ovation from the whole MCG crowd, he’s such an inspiration and we love him so much.”
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