RIP Tom McNeely

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Bidding farewell to a genuine champion

By Joe Fitzgerald  |   Thursday, October 27, 2011  |  http://www.bostonherald.com  |  Columnists

mcneelytomTom McNeeley, who died two days ago at 74, will be remembered in the record books as the Arlington heavyweight who punched his way to a 1961 title shot against the champ, Floyd Patterson.

“Tommy was big in this town when the game was big in this town,” Joe DeNucci, the retired state auditor, once ranked fourth among the world’s middleweights, recalled yesterday. “But what he did after he stopped boxing is what lots of us are proudly remembering today.”

McNeeley, who would have celebrated the 25th anniversary of his sobriety this Christmas, was never reluctant to share his own experience, strength and hope with anyone caught in the merciless throes of addiction.

“When my career ended,” he said, upon the death of local boxing icon Al “Red” Priest a decade ago, “I went through some bad times. Red and my father were good friends; they came out of Greasy Village over by Central Square.

“He made sure I had a place to work, but he also took me under his wing, talking to me about my drinking, reminding me I had a family and saying, ‘You know, Tommy, your dad wouldn’t have liked what you did the other night,’ the way an old friend would.

“When you see me today, you’re looking at a miracle, and I owe so much of that to Red. Put it in the paper; it’s the truth.”

As years went by, McNeeley became that kind of friend to countless others during a 30-year career with the Department of Correction.

“He worked in very personal ways to keep inmates away from drugs and drinking,” DeNucci said. “He used that job in such a beautiful way.”

But when his own son Peter, who fought Mike Tyson, fell into the clutches of substance abuse, too, Tommy saw it as the fight of his life.

“There were no holds barred in our conversations,” Peter, who was with Tom when he died, said yesterday. “He was honest and straightforward with me my whole life. He wasn’t just my father; he was my best friend, always in my corner. Whether I won or lost, whether I’d gotten into trouble or did something good, I’d get a hug and hear, ‘Peter, I love you.’

“Last Saturday, when the end was near, I took my daughter to a playground in the South End. A man who was there with his son introduced himself and asked my name.

“He said, ‘Is Tom McNeeley your father? I met him when I was in Norfolk (prison). There were no racial barriers with him; he reached out to everyone. No one will ever know how many of us he helped set straight. Forget boxing, man; that man was a champion of life!’ “

Indeed he was.

Goodbye good friend, and God bless.