Greg McNeil got the heartbreaking phone call on Oct. 23, 2015.

His 28-year-old son, Sam, who had struggled for years with heroin but seemed to have turned the corner, was found dead sitting in his favorite chair at his home in Boca Raton, Florida. It was a drug overdose.

In the days that followed, the energetic and talkative McNeil — the man who always had a project to tackle, whether it was launching his own business, campaigning for one of the first railroad quiet zones in Ohio or simply beautifying his backyard — knew it would be easy to give in to grief and anger. To curl up in a ball or go hide in the corner.

But that's not how his parents, Dick and Becky McNeil, raised him. They taught him to stay positive and be a leader through any challenge.

Leaning heavily on that upbringing and his renewed Catholic faith, McNeil, 61, a Hudson resident and founder of 216digital in Twinsburg, decided that the first chapter of his life was over. He had a new mission: Attack the opioid epidemic through education and find solutions to bring to Northeast Ohio. In the process, he would prevent other families from going through the same pain that he continues to endure.

He founded the nonprofit Cover2 Resources, launched a podcast to shine a light on successful programs and individuals working to reduce opioid use and overdose deaths, and has helped launch several notable initiatives in the region. Along the way, McNeil — who considers himself only a “role player” — has become a driving and recognized force in bringing awareness to the opioid battle.

“It's not unusual to see families who have lost somebody close to them who want to create something good out of that tragedy,” said Jerry Craig, executive director of the Summit County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health agency, who has known McNeil for several years. “But the extent to which he's gone — traveling all over the United States, having the courage to approach people who may appear to be unapproachable and asking them for their views and their perspectives all the way from policy wonks in Washington to treatment centers in Florida to normal everyday people — it's very unusual.”

 

The tragedy

 

The McNeil family was devastated when Sam, the youngest of three children, was found passed out in the basement of their home with a needle nearby in 2010. They had no idea that he was addicted to heroin.

“That was a huge shock because in my generation that stuff wasn't around,” McNeil said. “You didn't see that stuff when you were growing up. The people that did that, well, you didn't know them. It was more something that you heard about in the movies and on television. ... It was unfathomable that my son was addicted.”

The family learned that Sam's drug abuse stemmed from a New Year's Eve party in 2007. He got into a fight “defending a young lady's honor” and was beaten so badly that he ended up in the emergency room and had to have three screws inserted into his face, McNeil said.

Sam was sent home with pain medication. He became addicted quickly and started seeking out OxyContin on the street. But pills proved too expensive and he turned to heroin.

He kept his addiction from his family until that day he was found in the basement.

“I had a conversation with Sam right then that he was playing Russian roulette,” McNeil said. “It was pretty emotional. As I think back on it, I reflect on a Sam who was so confident that he had things under control and he knew what he was doing when I'm sure that was the farthest from the truth.”

Sam, who had jobs here and there, was sent to the IBH Addiction Recovery Center in Coventry Township. But he relapsed.

McNeil told him to leave the house and Sam lived for a short time with his grandparents. But then he overdosed at a house in Akron.

This time, Sam was sent to a treatment facility in Boca Raton, where he stayed after the program ended. He got a great job selling parts for an aerospace company. He fell in love. And he joined and became active in a Baptist church.

Sam returned to Ohio in July 2015 for the wedding of his brother Mathew and it appeared that everything was going great for him. But, looking back, there were troubling signs.

He wasn't meeting with his sponsor anymore and he wasn't going to support meetings.

A few months after the wedding, Sam called his father and said he was expecting his first child. McNeil, unhappy that Sam wasn't married, admitted that he got a little salty with his son, but still told him that he loved him.

About two weeks later, Sam was found dead. He never met his daughter, Jahneva, who lives with her mother in Florida.

 

Greg McNeil

 

Greg McNeil, who grew up in Kent before moving to the suburbs of Chicago, was child No. 3 out of seven.

The family grew up Catholic. McNeil recalls “playing” Mass. He served as the priest, doling out communion.

“He really was a family leader,” father Dick McNeil, 90, of Kent, said.

An athletic child, he was the running back on his high school football team, racking up 636 yards in his senior year. He also was always looking after his younger siblings, especially Scotty who had Down syndrome.

McNeil and Scotty, who had a limited vocabulary, roomed together. McNeil credits his compassion and positive attitude to the example set by his father Dick and his relationship with Scotty, who died in May 2018. At a time when many people with Down syndrome were institutionalized, Scotty, who loved to tease McNeil, lived at home.

“He brought something so special to our lives that it's indescribable,” McNeil said. “All of us are running. We want to achieve something. We want to get a house. A car. A promotion at work. With my brother, there was one currency that mattered and it was love. Every single day, it was all about that and living your life like that.”

 

New beginning

 

The McNeil family flew to Florida the day after Sam's death.

At a memorial service at the Baptist church where Sam was active, McNeil vowed to take action.

“We're losing a whole generation and we want to do something to make a difference in Sam's memory,” he told the gathering.

Cover2 was launched in March 2016. The name is a reference to Sam's days playing football as a defensive back and the fact that the McNeil family thought it had the problem covered.

The media report the death and destruction caused by the opioid epidemic. McNeil wanted Cover2 to be different. He wanted to highlight the positive work that people are doing to combat the problem and showcase successful initiatives. His goal was to educate and advocate for struggling families.

Since the first podcast in May 2016, he has recorded nearly 250 episodes with the help of producer D.J. Nivens. The podcasts are recorded in a conference room at his Twinsburg business. One wall is covered with photos of Sam.

The podcasts — the first one is a six-minute, 25-second introduction to his family's story — have been played more than 67,000 times.

“The voice of parents and families who have lost loved ones to the opioid epidemic must be heard,” said McNeil, who also has worked with the Addiction Policy Forum in Washington, D.C., and is critical of the Federal Drug Administration and pharmaceutical industry for their roles in the crisis.

Through the podcast, he has interviewed government leaders, addiction specialists, researchers, journalists, law enforcement officials, judges and authors from around the country. The lineup has included “Dreamland” author Sam Quinones, “American Overdose” author Chris McGreal, U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman, former Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services Director Tracy Plouck, and former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett. All the interviews are available at https://cover2.org.

“These are best-selling authors,” McNeil said. “These are senators that I'm interviewing. These are leaders. These are people who have come up with creative programs. These are writers for the Washington Post. These are guys who are on ‘60 Minutes.’ I'm interviewing these people. I'm a Dad. I'm a grieving Dad. How's that possible?”

 

Taking action

 

McNeil, who reconnected with his Catholic faith after being estranged for more than two decades thanks to the Rev. Steve Agostino at the University Parish Newman Center at Kent State, isn't just talking about the epidemic. He's finding innovative solutions and then researching and advocating for them.

“What he's chose to do is game changing for a lot of us,” Hudson High School Principal Brian Wilch said.

When McNeil heard about the “Quick Response Team” concept — when authorities visit the homes of people who overdose and encourage them to seek treatment — he arranged a workshop to bring the initiative to Northeast Ohio. There are now 10 teams in the region.

When he heard about strips that addicts can use to test whether their heroin is laced with fentanyl, he advocated for the Free Clinic Needle Exchange in Cleveland and Summit County Public Health in Akron to invest in them.

When he learned about Drug Free Clubs of America, which rewards high school students when they pledge to avoid drugs, he encouraged local schools to launch programs. Hudson City Schools now has one of the largest clubs in the country.

When he heard about the idea of placing boxes containing life-saving naloxone, a drug used to reverse opioid overdose, around similar to defibrillators, he approached the city of Green and the boxes are now provided free to hotels along Interstate 77.

When he learned about a new free app NaloxoFind that locates the nearest naloxone in a 2-mile radius in case of an overdose, he became an advocate for the fledgling project.

“He cares about helping other people and he cares about doing it at a community level," said Jamie Messenger, a chemical dependency counselor who runs Drug Safe Hudson. “How can I truly bring change to my community? That's what I've seen Greg do on such a big level.”

In 2017, McNeil won a Trailblazer award from the county Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health board for his efforts.

Donna Skoda, commissioner of Summit County Public Health, called McNeil a partner and a powerful, persuasive advocate who does his research.

“He does the work of 20 people,” she said. “My heart breaks for him some days because I know the pain he must feel. But he keeps going inch by inch.”

 

Motivation

 

It's easy to understand what motivates McNeil. He and Sam had talked about Sam eventually helping others when he achieved sobriety.

But what drives McNeil — who likely would be golfing more or spending more time at his place on Portage Lakes if not for Cover2 — to this degree, giving so much of his time and own money?

“He loves doing it. It's important to him,” his wife Lori Barber said. They recently celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary.

For him, it's his way of coping with the pain. It's also in his nature. His family and those who know him say when confronted with a problem, he doesn't complain. Instead, he seeks solutions.

For example, in 2008, when he and his Hudson neighbors were tormented by train whistles at the nearby railroad crossing at Twinsburg Road in Macedonia, he led the charge to bring a federal quiet zone to the area — a process that took a couple of years. He was hailed as a local hero.

McNeil admitted that his family was ill-prepared to deal with Sam's addiction. Cover2 is a second chance. He wasn't able to save Sam, but perhaps he can save others.

“As opposed to saying, ‘Oh, why me?’ or anything like that, he wanted to know the answers,” his son Mathew said. “He felt that there was a lot of information just after my brother passed that is important for other families to know about. That’s the whole point of Cover2. For him, that’s what my brother would have wanted.”

McNeil's father Dick — his mother Becky died in October 2017 — said the work also allows McNeil to feel close to his son.

“Greg feels like Sam is looking down on all his efforts he puts forth and he's smiling,” Dick McNeil said.

His family is certain that the rest of McNeil's life will be devoted to helping others affected by opioids. He agrees.

“The concept that this is going to go away in my lifetime, while it would be tremendous and phenomenal, I don't see that in the cards at all,” McNeil said. “I wish I could be more optimistic than that. There's much work to be done. Much work.”

 

Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or rarmon@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @armonrickABJ.