Big Tree nurse and husband are heading to Vegas for SB LVIII
Nine years after she was paralyzed from the chest down as the result of an icy sledding accident, Columbia nurse Kathleen McDonald, and her husband of six years, Kory, are going to Super Bowl LVIII thanks to an incredible act of selfless generosity.
Rusty Drewing Toyota in Jefferson City conducted a Facebook contest for two tickets to Sunday’s game that pits the Kansas City Chiefs against the San Francisco 49ers for NFL supremacy. The gift package also includes airfare and hotel accommodation for three nights. The ticket winner had to accurately guess the final score of Kansas City’s AFC championship clash with the Baltimore Ravens. Guessing the passing yardage for Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was the tiebreaker.
Candy Neuner came up with the best guesses and learned she was the winner.
And she promptly gave away the prize.
The story spans back to the life-changing sledding accident, a long and loving history between the Drewing and Neuner families, a former Columbia television sports director, and the offensive line coach for the Missouri Tigers from 1989 to 1991 — Andy Reid.
In February 2015, Kathleen, then 20 and a junior at MU, and her sister opted to enjoy a Mizzou snow day with some sledding on the big hill across from the Country Club of Missouri. They were going to meet Kathleen’s then-boyfriend, Kory, at the top of the hill.
Kathleen recalls, “We decided to go down one time while we were waiting.”
The snow-covered ground was especially slick, and their sled picked up more speed than they’d anticipated. They crashed into a tree. Kathleen’s sister sustained a bad concussion.
“I was laying on my back and it felt like my legs were sticking up in the air,” Kathleen remembers. But her legs were flat against the ground. “I knew something was wrong.”
Someone called 911, fire rescue crews and paramedics arrived quickly, and the blurry memory in Kathleen’s mind has images of firefighters planning how to get her up the hill. She remembers lying in the snow, asking a rescue crewman, “Will I be paralyzed forever?”
Kathleen suffered a spinal cord injury to the T6 part of her spine, leaving her paralyzed from roughly the chest down.
“Pretty much everything changed after that,” she adds.
‘Right By My Side’
Fast-forward just a few years and Kathleen and Kory were married on New Year’s Eve 2017.
“He’s been right by my side the whole time,” she says. Along the way, Kathleen attended nursing school at MU, and she now works as a registered nurse at Big Tree Medical. She had a son, Brooks, two years ago and is expecting a second baby in April.
Kathleen says Kory, a physical therapist with Mizzou, is her biggest encourager. A lot of her resiliency comes from him.
“He’s the one who’s like, ‘I think we can do this,’” Kathleen says. “We just kind of figure out how to do things you want to do but figure out how to do them in a different way.”
In the meantime, not long after the sledding accident, Brian Neuner heard Kathleen’s story from someone at church, and that Kathleen was known as a person who selflessly helped others — but now needed additional support and the help of others. Brian said he was so moved that he called on an old friend — Andy Reid — and asked if the coach would consider sending Kathleen a letter of encouragement.
Reid, head coach at Kansas City since 2013, said he was glad to oblige, and he emailed Kathleen a message of inspiration and encouragement.
Reid was the offensive line coach for the Missouri Tigers from 1989 to 1991. Neuner was the sports director and host of “This Week in Mizzou Football” for KOMU-TV, Columbia’s NBC affiliate. He and the coach became fast friends and have continued to keep in touch and remain part of each other’s lives.
“We just hit it off. He trusts me, which is the greatest attribute for a journalist,” Brian explains.
Reid left MU for an assistant coaching job with the Green Bay Packers and when he got his first NFL head coaching gig with the Eagles, Brian said they began communicating more frequently.
“I was his link to so many people he had coached in college,” Brian adds. “He enjoyed getting updates on what his former players were doing.”
When the Neuner’s son, Clayton, turned 10, Andy Reid had a phone conversation with the boy, learning that Clayton played quarterback and wore the number 10. A few days later, a package showed up from the Philadelphia Eagles. It was an official Eagles jersey the No. 10 stitched on the front and back. Across the shoulders, “C. Neuner” was hand-sewn, just like an NFL player’s jersey.
“Pretty cool gift for a 10-year-old,” Brian says.
When Reid got the Chiefs head coaching position, he and Brian had more contact and visits, and opportunities to link former players, old friends, and even former neighbors.
“One of my favorite memories was being at Joe Machens Ford” — the Columbia dealership that Rusty’s father, Gary, co-owned — “and visiting Gary,” Brian recalls. “Coach Reid called my cell phone just to check in. I said, ‘Hang on, there’s someone I want you to say ‘hello’ to — you’ll remember him from when you coached at Mizzou.’” Before handing the phone to Gary, Brian said “Andy, say ‘hi’ to Gary Drewing.”
That moment was especially significant because the Drewing and Reid families were neighbors when Reid coached at Mizzou.
“It was fun to listen to the former neighbors reconnect after several years,” Brian says.
The Drewing and Neuner families go back to the early 1980s when their fathers worked together at Capitol City Ford in Jefferson City. Gary was the general manager. Brian’s father, A.J., was the parts and service manager. In 1982, Joe Machens approached A.J. Neuner about joining the Ford dealership in Columbia, and A.J. was given oversight of parts, service, and the body shop at Joe Machens Ford.
As Brian recalls, Machens was having health issues and asked A.J. if he knew anyone who might be interested in becoming his partner. A.J. introduced Gary Drewing and Joe Machens.
“The rest is Missouri automotive history,” Brian says. Gary ran the business’ front end; A.J. led the back. “They were best friends with unmatched work ethics.”
Brian and Candy were married in 1990. He said they watched Gary’s sons, Rusty and Gary Jr., “grow up before our eyes.” They were both “very intelligent and athletically gifted,” Brian says. Rusty was a star on the Columbia Hickman football team and Gary Jr. Soared on the soccer field. And Gary was “like a second dad to me,” especially after A.J. passed away in 1998, when it came to career and business situations.
The Neuners forged lasting friendships with Rusty and Gary Jr.’s families.
“After his father passed away two years ago, Rusty asked me to be a pallbearer,” Brian says. “It was one of the greatest honors I have experienced.”
That brings the story to February 2024. It was the Drewing/Neuner friendship that “presented some challenges” when Candy won the Super Bowl package with her correct predictions, Brian says. Rusty told them that Candy won it “fair and square,” and the contest was played out publicly on the Rusty Drewing Toyota Super Bowl Facebook page.
Brian says Candy was excited to win, especially since 17 is her favorite number and that was the correct number of points the Chiefs scored in the AFC Championship game. But Candy said she preferred to pass on accepting the prize.
“Rusty wouldn’t have it,” Brian explains. “He appreciated Candy looking out for his contest’s reputation, but he emphasized that she had won and said, ‘It’s yours to do with it what you want.’”
It Had To Be A Nurse
That settled it for Candy. She and Brian decided to give the gift to someone who is a Chiefs fan and would “get to experience something they had never done before.” And it had to be a nurse. Candy has been a nurse with MU Health Care for 33 years.
“She understands the sacrifice and commitments nurses make on a daily basis, and their efforts often go unnoticed,” Brian adds. Kathleen McDonald was the first name that came to mind. Brian says they wanted to honor “a nurse who had overcome a tragic accident that left her paralyzed but didn’t shake her spirit.”
Speaking on behalf of his bride, Brian says Candy holds deep admiration for Kathleen and as a source of inspiration for others as Kathleen does not let the sledding accident define her. Another factor in the decision was Candy’s appreciation of Rusty’s commitment to the communities where he lives or does business.
“He is a very generous person and an extremely successful business owner,” Brian says. “She wanted to do something to make Rusty proud. After all, he is the one paying for the Super Bowl prize.”
Kathleen says she has been the beneficiary of numerous acts of kindness and support from people in Columbia. But the Super Bowl gift was overwhelming.
“They didn’t have to do that,” she adds. Kathleen had a chance to meet with Candy and Brian, as well as Rusty, when she and Kory accepted the Super Bowl prize Saturday morning at Rusty Drewing Toyota in Jefferson City.
“Just to see the look on their faces,” Rusty says. “I think they had trouble believing it was real.”
And Rusty still has difficulty grasping the act of giving away tickets to the Super Bowl.
“I’m just completely blown away. Truly it’s one of those things that hits you to your core, just seeing that selflessness in wanting to pay it forward, to give somebody else the experience of a lifetime,” he says. “The fact that they wanted to do that truly melts my heart.”
And She’s A ‘Swiftie’
Brian texted Coach Reid about Candy’s decision to give the Super Bowl package to Kathleen. Reid, the only coach in NFL history to win 100 games and appear in four consecutive conference championship games with two different franchises, responded, “That young lady will have the time of her life.”
And that’s what Kathleen expects.
“There’s going to be a lot of red. Just a lot of excitement,” she says. “I’m packing all my Chiefs gear. And hopefully, the Chiefs win.”
For those who are wondering, Kathleen is also “a pretty big Swiftie.” She’s enamored with the much-publicized romance between the queen of pop, Taylor Swift, and Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce.
“What’s not to like?” she asks, wondering why the romance has any detractors at all.
Rusty will also be at Sunday’s Super Bowl and hopes to meet up with Kathleen and Kory at Allegiant Stadium.
“They get to go to a Super Bowl and watch the team they love,” he says. “They are going to have the time of their lives.”