HERSHEY -

Shane Neher forever will remain grateful for the chance he gave himself to experience excrutiating pain.

Like always, the world of sports is intriguing . . .

Neher, a 6-4, 230-pound senior at Archbishop Wood High, figured his direct association with football was history after the 2009 season, which he spent as a member of the freshman team.

His primary sport was basketball, in which his father, Mike, had gained All-Catholic honors at now-defunct Cardinal Dougherty in the mid-1980s, and Shane left the grid life behind to concentrate solely on becoming a competent power forward.

Then it happened. In 2011, Wood stormed to the PIAA Class AAA state football championship and Neher began to go hmmmmmm.

Maybe it would make sense to again strap on pads. Perhaps he could give himself another possible option to earn scholarship money for college. Most of all, he envisioned having flat-out fun and being able to call himself a state champion.

Fast-forward to last Friday night at HersheyPark Stadium . . .

There was Neher, his eyes still moist, talking about his senior-year football experience, and not always being able to finish his sentences because strong emotions kept getting in the way.

Cathedral Prep, of Erie, had rocked the Vikings' world, 24-14, in the 2012 AAA final.

By Saturday afternoon, Neher, in streetclothes, was spotted sitting on the bench as Wood's basketball team dropped a double-overtime decision to Plymouth-Whitemarsh. Now he's ready to practice.

And his hoops coaches will have to forgive him, as his thoughts will still be dominated by football.

"I'm so glad I did this," said Neher, a part-timer at tight end and along the defensive line, after the Vikings, their faces all blank, trudged up the steps from their locker room and began heading to buses. "The coaches and players were great. Everyone was. It's like I have another family."

On defense, Neher served Wood as an end or tackle, depending upon alignments and/or the tiredness level of teammates.

With 6:25 left in the game, and with the score at what became final, Neher noticed a loose ball on the carpet, thanks to a hit by safety John Berthcsi, and made a passionate pounce.

The referees were momentarily dumbfounded. One looked at two who looked at three who looked at four. Nobody was sure whether the Cathedral Prep rusher had lost possession before hitting the ground. Finally they reached a decision . . . Wood's ball! At CP's 33.

Neher's mind was spinning. Oh, my goodness, this could be so important. We could score here, then get the ball back and go on and win the game!

Alas, at 4:13, a pass from frosh Tom Garlick to senior Chris Rahill was intercepted in the end zone, after it had been tipped upward during a collision between receiver/defender. CP maintained possession thereafter.

"Really tough," Neher said of the interception. "To see that ball get picked off . . . Absolute killer."

After the handshakes were exchanged, captains Nick Arcidiacono, Andrew Guckin and Fran Walsh accepted the runner-up trophy. Coach Steve Devlin then ordered his players to leave the field and that they did, while passing through lines of cheerleaders.

As the players walked down the steps, Wood supporters reached over the railing to offer comforting taps on shoulder pads and a woman kept yelling a steady stream of encouragement.

"Good job! . . . We'll be back next year! . . . You guys are awesome!"

The coaches and players remained in the locker room for at least 20 minutes. Neher was the first player to walk back up the steps.

He explained his return to football by saying, "I just wanted to do something special in my senior year. Lots of kids were saying I should play. My dad wanted me to, too. Finally, it was on me to decide. I wanted to try it. That happened last February.

"To not play for 2 years and then come out and be able to contribute, it makes me feel pretty awesome. To anyone who could do this, I would definitely recommend it."

Devlin said of Neher, "He did a great job as a two-way player. He really solidified a lot of things for us. This experience is going to help him with basketball.

"Doing different sports. That's what high school should be all about."

Fourteen points represented Wood's third-lowest output in a 12-3 season and at least 35 had been scored in each of the previous seven games.

Nevertheless, Guckin (30-178) and Josh Messina (17-124) rushed for good yardage and one touchdown apiece.

Though he missed the first two games after having surgery to remove his appendix, Guckin finished the season with 1,995 yards and 30 TDs. Messina, meanwhile, added spice to his performance with four catches for 35 yards and a team-high seven tackles.

The Vikings stormed downfield on the game's first possession and Messina capped the drive with a 32-yard TD. Though CP did respond, thanks to a 59-yard bomb from Michigan State commit Damion Terry to Troy Woodard, Wood again found itself in great shape after a 29-yard burst by Guckin put the ball at the 25.

Four penalties in five plays, starting with a snap infraction you can go a decade with seeing, stole the starch and Nick Visco could not connect on a field-goal attempt from 41 yards.

The Ramblers added 17 points by halftime, making it 24-7. Wood's third-quarter score, a 5-yard run by Guckin, came with 2:58 remaining.

Try as they might, they were unable to add further markers.

As for the mark Wood football left on Shane Neher . . .

"This was a great experience," he said. "Now I'm friends with all the kids."

He halted for a second or three, then added with passion, "There's a bond that will never be broken."