As part of Heritage’s most successful football team, Neal Atchley once kept pressure away from his quarterback.
Today he works to lower the blood pressure of his patients here in Blount County and has taken his medical skills overseas to help the people of Niger.
Atchley played offensive and defensive line for the 1985 Mountaineers that went 11-2, defeated all three county rivals and advanced to the third round of the playoffs. Atchley attributes much of the success to the team’s familiarity with each other and the unity that created.
“A lot of us had started since we were sophomores and we had more experience together than other teams,” he said. “We had played together since we were younger, and we knew each other real well.”
Coming off a 21-0 playoff victory over Science Hill, the Mountaineers met a Rhea County team led by University of Tennessee quarterback and Arena Football League legend Andy Kelly in that season’s quarterfinal round.
“(Kelly) was outstanding,” former Heritage coach Jack Renfro said. “They had a first down on the 5-yard line and we held them. Then on fourth down instead of kicking a field goal, he (Kelly) rolls and throws to his third option for a touchdown. That’s the kind of player he was.”
“He was one of the best athletes we faced that year.” Atchley said, “He was a great player and they were a great team, but I think we probably could have beaten them if we had some breaks go our way.”
Football reinforced hard work, dedication and teamwork, Atchley said, teaching him to set his goals high and achieve them. After high school, the former Mountaineer would do exactly that, becoming a doctor.
“I was always interested in science and medicine,” he said. “I thought that was a good way to use the gifts God gave me to make a difference.”
“It doesn’t really surprise me at all that he became a doctor,” Renfro said. “Neal was always smart and never got in any trouble. I’m proud of him.”
Atchley works as a family physician in Alcoa but has taken his skills across the Atlantic to Niger. From 2004 to 2006, Atchley, wife Darlene and their four daughters lived in the southwestern portion of the West African nation.
“There’s a lot of poor nutrition and poor hygiene, just a lack of any medical care at all,” Atchley said. “They don’t have any access to treatment and so they just get worse and worse.”
According to the World Health Organization, one in four children born in Niger will not live to see their fifth birthday. The primary causes, pneumonia and diarrhea, are things that can be effectively treated in the U.S.
The average life expectancy in Niger is 52 years and the nation of 15 million has fewer than 300 doctors. Atchley said he feels led to work with the people there and statistics suggest his medical expertise is invaluable.
Niger has few resources or western luxuries and the climate is among the world’s harshest.
“Physically, it’s a hard place to live,” Atchley said. “The temperature is so hot; its often 110 or 115 degrees. It’s an extremely poor country and there’s not a lot of access to electricity. I would rig up a solar panel to a truck battery to run a fan. Land line phones would go down any time it rained. There’s not much medical care. There’s not much of anything there”
Even though it is a difficult place to live, the Atchleys are trying to go back.
“We were approved to go back last year but the one problem is we have to sell our house before the mission board will let us,” Atchley said.