Lamar Neagle and his fiancé now married after getting through a major medical scare

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Lamar Neagle was supposed to be mentally preparing for one of the biggest soccer matches of his life when the phone in his hotel room sent him scrambling.

The first leg of the MLS Western Conference final between visiting Seattle and host Los Angeles was two days away, and the series represented something of a breakthrough for both Neagle and the Sounders.

The player already had notched career highs in goals and assists in the regular season and, at age 27, had finally established himself. His personal life was nearly as settled — he and his fiancé, Natalie Hanley, were to be married in less than a month.


Sounders FC @ L.A. Galaxy, 4 p.m., Fox Sports 1

But Neagle, truth be told, left most of his focus back home in Seattle.

His soon-to-be-bride had begun experiencing numbness from her toes to her left thigh earlier in the week. By the time Neagle left for L.A. on Thursday, Hanley became limp. She told her fiancé to go anyway, she’d be fine. Hanley was a registered nurse, trusting her body to deal with symptoms that would send most laypersons pulling up WebMD.

By Friday, though, the numbness hadn’t faded — it had gotten worse. Hanley finally gave in, bounced from the emergency room to a series of specialists.

Neagle soldiered through practice in L.A., then waited in his hotel room until his phone rang.

Hanley tried not to sound scared, but some of her emotions trembled through the phone before she could stop them. The doctors had uttered two sobering, potentially life-altering letters: M.S. — multiple sclerosis, the immune system disease that eats away at one’s nerves.

By morning, a scan would reveal something else. It showed a mass in Hanley’s brain.

Neagle spent a long night in that Marriott hotel room wrestling with vows he’d yet to say out loud — in good times and bad, in sickness and in health.

He’d known Hanley since they were both 13, when she and a girlfriend interrupted a game of horse. Neagle was shy, and it’d be years before he made his move on the spunky brunette. They floated in and out of loosely intersecting social circles; he at Thomas Jefferson, she at Federal Way High.

“I had a huge crush on her; she had no idea,” Neagle said.

Until finally, after college, while she was doing medical research in Peru and he was playing out a lonely MVP season with a minor-league team in South Carolina, Neagle sent her a message on Facebook.

That eventually led to a long-distance relationship, then a breakup and finally a reunion and engagement in Seattle a year and a half ago.

So as heavily as those two letters weighed as Neagle researched MS until Friday night turned into Saturday morning, another realization sank in.

“Eventually, it would’ve come down to me taking care of her, like moving her from the bed — like absolute care,” Neagle said. “My mentality was like, ‘All right, this is what I’m going to have to do. That’s fine with me because I love this woman that much.’ It’s like nothing is going to change.

“It was a pretty intense night.”

The next morning, when Neagle sat down with assistant Brian Schmetzer for a pregame strategy session, the coach could read right away that Neagle’s mind was elsewhere — and that his decision had been made.

“It was a pretty easy conversation, if an emotional one, because he was very obviously upset,” Schmetzer said.

A day later, Neagle — a late scratch for family reasons, fans were told in Carson — watched Seattle’s 1-0 loss to the Galaxy in a Seattle hospital room by Hanley’s side.

“I love soccer and I love playing for my teammates and all these things that I’m loyal to,” Neagle said. “But big picture, it kind of got me ready for the family life, to be putting my family in front of absolutely everything no matter what.

“There wasn’t anything I could do for her, physically. But I could be there for her emotionally.”

Answers still were frustratingly opaque. Hanley stayed in the hospital for nearly a week, until the day before Thanksgiving, and Neagle installed his Nintendo 64 in her room to help the couple whittle away the hours with games of Mario Kart.

The following weekend, Neagle played the final 11 minutes of the second leg of the series. Seattle beat L.A. 2-1 at CenturyLink on the night but lost the series on the away-goals tiebreaker.

Neagle and Hanley continued planning for their wedding. All the while, a series of tests and false negatives provided more questions than answers.

MS was still on the table, but there were other possible explanations.

Hanley had gotten violently ill during that trip to Peru with what she thought was the stomach flu. An alternative hypothesis? She’d gotten tapeworm, and the parasite had gradually worked its way into her brain before curling up and dying a few years later — hence the mass in the scan and the sensations of numbness.

When the best-case scenario is a parasite worming into a loved one’s brain, Neagle concedes with a chuckle of gallows humor, reality begins to settle in.

Hanley’s biopsy was scheduled for Dec. 9, 11 days before her wedding. So the neurologist came in early to shave the strategically placed bald spots himself, asking Hanley beforehand how she planned to do her hair for the big day.

Fifteen minutes before the procedure, the results from a last-minute scan finally came back. And they brought another twist: The mass had shrunk.

It was a “hands-in-the-air” moment, Hanley calls it now. “Excitement, relief.”

The effective use of antibiotics likely pointed to the parasite, though doctors never gave a straightforward final answer. The only certainty: The procedure was off, and Hanley was given the all clear.

Thumbing through their wedding pictures now, there’s not a bald spot visible atop Hanley’s coifed head. Both she and Neagle are all smiles, and in one, she beams directly at the camera while he continues toward the altar in something like relief.

“It actually wasn’t that bad,” Hanley said. “You could easily cover it up. But now it’s growing out, so when I part it it’s like Alfalfa (from Little Rascals).

“But if that’s the worst that came of it, then it’s not bad.”

Neagle has started all four of Seattle’s matches so far this season, but he’ll tell you his performances have been below par. Coach Sigi Schmid said last week that both his wingers have to be better.

But even with the questions about his on-field performance, Neagle has calmness to him off it.

“Your mentality changes when you do have a family and you’re going to be expanding eventually, to think of kids and taking care of them,” Neagle said. “I don’t know, I feel like more of a responsibility. This isn’t just me trying to be successful for me, to try to prove people wrong.

“No, I’m doing this as a career for my family. This is what I need to do. It’s extra motivation — and I didn’t even know it would come like that.”

Less than five months ago, Neagle scrambled for the phone call that began a nightmare and led to something else.

“It was a humbling experience,” Hanley said, eyes shining and Alfalfa part staying tight to her head. “I’m not necessarily saying I’m glad it happened, but it was definitely a blessing.

“But it’s been really great ever since.”