Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning digital reporter who joined the News 4 team in 2020. See more of his work here.
Julie McNeil says her husband was “just extra” when it came to his beloved Buffalo Bills. And like so many in the extended family of Bills fans, Brett McNeil was especially optimistic about next season, and the chance for a real Super Bowl run.
“We tease about it a little bit now,” Julie said Monday morning. “We say Brett sold his soul so they could win. He was so excited that Tom Brady left. We were going to get these shirts that said, ‘You dig?’ For Stefon Diggs.
“We’re Bills fans. That’s what we do. We spend our offseason planning for football season. Before the season, we’d always go to the Bills store. We had to have new gear. You don’t want to wear old gear for the new season. He said it’s tainted.”
Julie laughed at the memory. You can only cry so much, after all. There will be no new season for Brett. No more pre-game tailgates at Abbott and Allen (which they renamed Josh Allen) with Mike Pitillo, his long-time coworker at West Herr. No more game days in the old Maguire Club at New Era.
On Easter Saturday morning, after a brief battle against the merciless Coronavirus, Brett died at Millard Suburban. He was 48.
How could such a thing happen? But that’s what too many Americans have learned over the past several weeks. COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate. Yes, most of its victims are older people, often with underlying medical conditions. It also takes younger people who are seemingly strong and healthy.
Brett was a former football star at Turner/Carroll High in Buffalo. He played semi-pro football and was part of a championship team in Hamilton. He was a devoted husband, son and father. He had five children: Kamron and Logan from his first marriage; Tony, Susie and Michael from Julies.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Julie said. “He’s literally strong as an ox. Brett gets up in the morning, he goes to the gym, then he goes to West Herr and works 12 hours. He’s a 48-year-old man who is otherwise healthy. We belong to Jada Blitz Fitness. That’s our gym, that’s our home, our family.”
Brett’s mother, Rosemarie McNeil, recently underwent major surgery for an issue with her carotid artery. She was briefly in a coma. Family were praying for her to make it. Soon after she recovered, her son was fighting for his life on a ventilator.
“I’m experienced dealing with loss,” Rosemarie, 77, said. “But when your son gets to be 48, drug-free, an athlete, you don’t expect him to go before you. I feel sorry for Julie. She told me they really should have lived to be old together.”
Brett and Julie met as teen-agers, right after high school. They dated for a time, but went their separate ways. She went into the Army. He wound up in the auto business. Then, about 10 years ago, she walked into West Herr to look for a car and rediscovered her old love instead.
“Yeah, just like a movie,” Julie said. “We reconnected when we were single and we never looked back. We created this life for us where we have this family. His ex, my ex, we’re all friends. The kids, it’s one big family. It’s sad. It’s so, so sad.”
It all happened so quickly. On Saturday, March 30, they went to their cabin on Lime Lake. They planned to return on Monday morning so she could open her restaurant, Ziggy’s Taco & Subs in the city. But on Sunday, Brett told Julie he wasn’t feeling well and ought to get back home.
On Monday, Brett asked Julie to take him to WellNow for a checkup. They said he had pneumonia and should follow up with his own doctor. She called and the doctor said he should go to the emergency room.
Julie drove to Millard Suburban, dropped Brett off at the emergency entrance and told him she would wait in the parking lot, since they probably wouldn’t keep him there. More than two hours, he called her.
“Go home,” he said. “They’re going to keep me.”
A couple of days later, Brett told Julie he’d be coming home soon. He was breathing fine on his own. At around 2 a.m. on Friday morning, he called and told her they were taking him to ICU and putting him on a ventilator.
“You OK?” Julie asked. “Yeah, don’t worry,” he said. “OK. I love you.”
That’s the last time they spoke.
“He took a big turn for the worse Saturday and they said he probably wouldn’t survive,” she said. “For the next week, he went up and down and up and down, and early this Saturday morning they called. Despite all the ‘efforts and maximum supports’, his pulse ox was only 17 out of 100. Brett’s gone.”
“They let me come up and gowned me up. I said my goodbyes. They turned the machine off. The machine was living for him. He died in less than a minute.”
Rosemarie McNeil said her youngest son, Sam, asked his 12-year-old boy what he would miss most about Brett. “He said, ‘I’ll remember how he always lit up any room he walked into’,” her grandson replied.
Julie, who is on the school board at Cleveland Hill, was reminded of that when a friend, Theresa Zielen, asked for donations on Facebook. Zielen was looking to raise $7,500 for the McNeils. In two days, 702 people had contributed more than five times that — $37,278 at last count.
“I’m overwhelmed at the amount of people who have reached out to us,” Julie McNeil said. “You look on-line, you can’t imagine. In a time of such uncertainty and scariness, for people to come out and support our family. When I look at the names there, I don’t know 90 percent of those people.They’re just Buffalonians. It is Buffalo.”
Yeah, that’s Buffalo. Many of those people, no doubt, are Bills fans, who are renowned for reaching out in a crisis. The McNeils traveled all over for Bills games. One year, they met Pinto Ron in Tampa. Brett was a huge fan of Pancho Billa, the famed Buffalo fan who died of cancer last May.
“Brett loved Pancho Billa,” she said. “I said, ‘But he’s not even from here’. He goes, ‘It doesn’t matter, Julie. It’s actually extra special that he wasn’t from here’.”
(You can donate to the McNeil fundraiser at facebook.com/donate/1843483669119097)