FOXBOROUGH -- Physically, Stephen Neal has seldom been overmatched in his athletic endeavors.
A 6-foot-4-inch, 305-pound offensive lineman with the Patriots, Neal has held his own grappling with NFL defensive linemen, much the way he did with opponents on the wrestling mat at Cal State-Bakersfield, winning a pair of NCAA Division 1 titles. But ask Neal about the most daunting task he's faced in football -- which he didn't play in college -- and he'll humbly tell you it was grappling with the Patriots' encyclopedic playbook. It was a mind-numbing task, to be sure.
There were so many plays and assignments to learn. So many terms and numbers and letters to memorize.
"It was overwhelming at first," Neal admitted. "I'd just look at the play and say, `OK, on this play, I've got the E, or on this play I've got the M.' I mean, I didn't have any background. It took a little while for me to kind of understand, but I'm still working on it."
Neal had no sooner admitted as much when Joe Andruzzi, who was sitting in the adjacent locker, chimed in, "He didn't even know if a football was pumped or stuffed."
More astonishing than that, "When we first got him, he didn't even know where the huddle was. `Where do I go?' " said Patriots coach Bill Belichick of Neal. "The snap count . . . I mean, everything was like [starting over]. It's like when you start playing football in junior high school, all those fundamental things he had never really had. There's guys who have been doing it for 10, 12, however many years, and he's doing it for the first time, trying to compete on that level.
"Even though he had athletic ability, still you're in a whole different ballgame."
So much so, Belichick said, "It's like being in the second year of a foreign language versus somebody who grew up in that country and learned to speak it from birth."
When it comes to Neal's athleticism, though, nothing is lost in translation.
"He's still very inexperienced as a football player, not as an athlete but as a football player," Belichick said. "And he's come so far, but still has a way to go."
Despite his limited football background, Neal, who spent all of last season on injured reserve (shoulder), has relied upon the athleticism and brute strength he used on the wrestling mat to help him make the transition to the gridiron. In last Sunday's 31-17 victory at Buffalo, Neal replaced Russ Hochstein, earning his first start of the season at right guard. Andruzzi, who started the first two games at right guard, shifted to left guard.
"It's really incredible when you think about it," said center Dan Koppen. "I mean, I've been playing football since I've been in second grade, so him coming in after four years and being able to start in this league, it's a tribute to him.
"His athleticism is better than any offensive lineman we've got."
When the undefeated Patriots (3-0 and winners of 18 in a row) host the winless Dolphins (0-4) Sunday at 1 p.m. at Gillette Stadium, Neal is hoping to make the second consecutive start (and third overall) of his nascent NFL career. Neal made his NFL debut against Green Bay Oct. 23, 2002.
"The more experience you get, the better you feel out there, definitely," said Neal, who was acquired as a rookie free agent in 2001 and waived one month later in camp. He was signed to the Eagles' practice squad that September and later rejoined the Patriots, being signed to the active roster in December.
"I'm just happy not to be on injured reserve," he said, "and I'm happy to be getting out there and helping the team.
"That's been my goal."
"Steve's had a good year," Belichick said. "We missed him last year, but he did some things in the '02 season that were encouraging, then he missed the second half of the year and then missed all of '03.
"He's a player who's improving -- improving at a good rate, I might add. He's played good football for us since the beginning of August, and now we're in October. Now, that means some plays are better than others, and it's not perfect -- don't get me wrong -- but he's played solidly and played consistently."
Perfection was something Neal managed to attain on the wrestling mat, completing his career undefeated in Pacific-10 Conference competition with a record of 34-0. He also posted a career dual-meet record of 61-3, going 37-0 over his last two seasons (1998-99).
"One thing in wrestling, I was really successful and I had a long streak of not losing a match," said Neal, who once wrestled Ricky Williams, the former Dolphins running back, while at San Diego High School. "So I go out there and I try not to lose any time I'm out on the football field. But you do get beat here and there, and so that's what I'm striving for -- to have a perfect game, which a lot of people say you can't have, but that's my goal.
"Wrestling is such an individual sport, because it's all about you," he added. "In football, it's such a great sport because it's a team sport. It doesn't matter what you do as an individual, it matters what the team does, so however I can help the team has been my main focus.
"Every single person in this locker room is doing something to help the team. And that's something that really excites me about this sport."