No longer grappling
After making difficult transition from wrestling to NFL, Patriots' Neal pins down starting job
FOXBOROUGH -- The wrestler is a football player now, and evolving into a proficient and respected NFL offensive lineman, hunkering down his packed and compact 305 pounds every time the Patriots have the ball. Strong and agile, with that wrestler's requisite get-'em-and-shred-'em aggressiveness embedded in his athletic genetic code, Stephen Neal is four football seasons and nearly an equal number of light-years removed from the mat where he began to let go of his Olympic dream.
As beginnings go, though, the 28-year-old Neal has yet to come to full grips with letting go. His last match was in 2001, and while this Sunday afternoon football gig is working wonders for his body, soul, and bank account, the two-time former NCAA heavyweight champion said offhandedly last week that he envisioned the day that he "might go back to it."
It would be a return, Neal envisions, not as a coach, or as a trainer, or as some white-collared USA Wrestling good-will gladhander. No, sir. If he ever goes back to the mat, he's going back with the same vengeance that made him the No. 1 wrestler in the world in 1999, back in the day when his ferocious takedown move -- the freight train double -- was the most feared wrestling tactic on the planet. If he ever goes back, he's going on his terms, with knees slightly flexed, sizing up his quarry for the kill.
"There's only one level to compete -- the Olympic level -- freestyle," said Neal, who followed his second NCAA heavyweight title in '99 with a win in the Pan American Games and then the World Championships.
Funny thing about wrestling. Mention the word, and at least 99 percent of Americans immediately think of Hulk Hogan and the whole WWF/WWE alphabet soup of sporting slapstick. That was not the world in which Neal competed.
"Hey, you can make a lot of money in the WWE!" an animated but nonetheless sincere Colvin said upon hearing the career aspirations of the big lug in the next locker. "You could be The Patriot, or something. You know, some stupid name."
The potential in it all, for the moment, seemed as boundless as Colvin's enthusiasm. He could see his teammate's name on the marquee, a marketing bonanza embodying pigskin and pratfalls. All of which was lost on Neal, who stood there in stoic silence for the seconds it took Colvin to realize his brainstorm had gone far out to sea.
"Uh, what?" said Colvin with a tinge of sheepishness. "Is that disrespectful to wrestling?"
"No, I'm not an actor, you know," said the 6-foot-4-inch Neal, delivering a line that sounded tested by a world of experience. "Wrestling's about competing."
Whatever the endeavor, be it football or wrestling or climbing after a coconut, Illys Neal knows that goal-setting drives her son. Stephen, her middle of three sons, has always been about sticking to his ambition, with perhaps a little bit of mischief mixed in -- like the time a neighbor called her at work to say that Stephen and brothers Michael and David were jumping off the family roof.
Summoned to the phone, it was Stephen who explained, "Mom, we wanted to practice in case there was a fire."
During a two-year stay in the Philippines, 1985-87, when the entire Neal family went on a mission for Wycliffe Bible Translators, one of Stephen's favorite pastimes was scaling palm trees for coconuts.
"He was like a monkey, all hands and feet, right up the tree," recalled Illys Neal. "He'd zip right up there, knock down the coconut, then come back down, break it and drink the milk -- then right back up. I have this one picture -- it still takes my breath away -- with Stephen just standing there at the top of one of the trees. You know, kids are kids, and I'd say ours were absolutely typical boys, like they belonged in Mayberry."
All three boys were athletes, perhaps no surprise in that their father, 6-7 Jack Neal, played for Lefty Driesell's basketball teams at Maryland into the early 1970s. But the biggest and most committed of the three turned out to be Stephen, who turned to wrestling at San Diego High School only after playing freshman football, a classmate enticing him to the mat with the suggestion that wrestling was harder than football.
"To be honest, I can't remember who that kid was," said Neal. "I've been hit on the head too many times since then to remember who it was."
For the remainder of his high school years, Neal kept up the wrestling and the football, not to mention swimming and tennis and track and field. He wrestled Ricky Williams, then a future Heisman Trophy winner, in those days, and he played on the same football team as Jacques Jones, today an outfielder for the Minnesota Twins.
Stephen Hembera, defensive coordinator for the SDHS Cavers, recalled last week that Neal was as relentless off the field in getting from one sport to another as he was from getting from one play to another.
"I've coached now for 27 1/2 years," said the 56-year-old Hembera, "and Steve, without a doubt, is the hardest-working kid I've ever seen. For instance, take spring, when wrestling was out of season. He ran track at the high school, and when that practice finished, he'd ride his bike, 14 miles round trip, to Crawford for swimming practice. And after riding his bike back, at night he'd go to wrestling practice for his AAU matches. Let me tell ya, no one was ever that dedicated."
Neal set records for attentiveness, too. According to Hembera, the SDHS head coach one day in practice told Neal that he would have to run 100 laps after practice. The remark was intended to be whimsical, so offhanded that the head coach forgot it by the end of the workout. But to Hembera's dismay, and to his boss's as well, Neal made a beeline to the track for his 100 laps.
"Finally, after 15 minutes, I went over and said, `Stephen, what are you doing?' " recalled Hembera. "And he just kept going, saying, `Coach said I have to run 100 laps, I'm gonna run 'em.' I couldn't stop him. Finally, after a half hour, I had to pull him off. Heck, it was the day before a game!"
Neal played outside linebacker for the Cavers, and he went a sensational 45-2 in wrestling his senior year. But for all his speed and agility on the gridiron, Neal only drew limited attention from Northern Arizona University as a football prospect.
"We didn't get a lot of recruiters to San Diego High anyway, but everybody thought he was too small," recalled Hembera. "He was the main guy I was pushing, but I couldn't get any weight on him. He was maybe 215 for football, and he was cutting down to 191 for wrestling. I kept telling the colleges, `Look, take him, and you'll have him at 250 in no time.' Eventually, even Northern Arizona said no."
Lee Roy Smith, former head wrestling coach at Arizona State, is the executive director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Okla. The letters haven't gone out yet, Smith said recently, but Neal can expect an invitation to the Hall's annual golf tournament in June, when new distinguished members are inducted.
"And we'd love it if he brought us one of his Patriots jerseys to display in the Hall."
A slam-dunk candidate for induction, Neal won't be eligible for the Hall until next year, following the requisite five-year waiting period. By then, he could have as many as four Super Bowl rings, filling out a wrestling portfolio that includes the two NCAA championships, the Pan Am and World titles in '99, and also in '99, the Hodge Award, wrestling's equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.
"Oh, I'd be very confident to say," said Smith, "that he will be a candidate for distinguished member status."
Smith, much to his chagrin, did not read the roadmap that led to Neal's highway of fortunes when Smith first spotted him in the California State high school wrestling tournament nearly a dozen years ago. Much like Northern Arizona was stuck on Neal's lack of size, Smith couldn't envision how a 191-pound Neal would add to Arizona State's high wrestling profile.
"He was a three-time state champ in his weight class, so I was obviously interested," recalled Smith. "And everyone was saying, `Oh, but his dad's big, and he's got these size 13 feet . . . you wait, he'll grow.' But I didn't want to take a chance. It's always a gamble when you're playing that maturity card, especially when you're out there putting scholarship dollars on the line. You want the sure deal. Well, boy, did I make a big mistake. He matured, and he was one outstanding wrestler, that's for sure. And now, here he is in football. Ironic, isn't it?"
Ultimately, it became T.J. Kerr's mission to put the weight on Neal when he arrived at Cal State-Bakersfield in the fall of 1994. Over the course of the next four years, Neal added an average of 20 pounds a year. But as his mass increased, said Kerr, there was very little, if any, change in his style, agility, or speed.
"In fact, he got even more athletic as his weight went up," said Kerr, reached last week at his Bakersfield office. "He was putting on muscle, and lean muscle, if you know what I mean -- as a heavyweight he was as lean as the guys who were wrestling at 174 . . . whether he was 220, 235, 245. He was a heavyweight, wrestling like a light- or middleweight, he was so agile."
The Neal trademark with the Roadrunners, and later on the international stage, became his blast double, or freight train takedown. According to Kerr, Neal perfected it, to the point that the move is now known around the wrestling world as the "Neal Double."
He executed it much like a football tackle, first lowering his body slightly on flexed knees, after initially planting a lead leg directly toward his prey. With a sudden bolt, he would dash across the mat, drill his head into the opponent's chest, and simultaneously grab the back of the defender's legs in an attempt to topple him over on his back.
Time and again, said Kerr, opponents 30 and 40 pounds heavier were flipped and pinned in a matter of seconds.
"He made it exciting, really fun to watch," said Kerr. "He'd sprint across, lift 'em up and dump 'em on their backs. He surprised a lot of people with that move."
According to Kerr, a Patriots intern called his office one day after Neal's arrival and asked if he could talk a little about how wrestling and football go together. The intern said coach Bill Belichick didn't know anything about wrestling and wanted to know how it related to football.
"I give them a ton of credit for giving Steve the opportunity -- I don't think a lot of organizations would do that," said Kerr. "But there are just so many similarities between the two sports: hands, balance, and body positioning. To me, it's just natural, you should force all football players to wrestle."
The connection from mat to Massachusetts, and Neal's chance to play in the NFL, began in earnest in the spring of 2001. After getting dumped in the World Team Trials, about a year after missing out on a chance to wrestle in the Sydney Olympics, Neal turned to fellow US wrestling pal Matt Ghaffari for advice. Ghaffari was represented by Cleveland-based agent Neil Cornrich, who had represented Belichick, and a conversation between Cornrich and Belichick ultimately led to a workout-audition in front of Dave Kennedy, then a former Ohio State strength and conditioning coach.
Even without meeting with Neal, Kennedy figured the candidate about to walk into his gym was entering with established goods.
"Because of the wrestling -- no one will ever question an accomplished wrestler's mentality," said Kennedy, who these days is the strength and conditioning coach at the University of Nebraska. "And with Steve, you were talking about a world champion. So toughness and discipline? Not an issue."
The question to be answered, recalled Kennedy, was speed and agility. For all the mental goodies a wrestler brings to a resume, there are standard reservations, especially for bigger wrestlers, about mobility and range. It is also a sport that hands out humility by the 50-pound bag.
"I have young sons," said Kennedy. "As a parent, if you're going to pick one sport for your child, it would probably be wrestling, because it has some great lessons about toughness and commitment and it can build self-confidence. But I also don't want them to get their [butt] kicked."
It took only a matter of minutes, recalled Kennedy, for the mobility issue to be taken off the board. Neal immediately showed great agility and equal bursts of speed. Mix in the wrestling mentality, and the Patriots had a diamond-in-the-rough candidate to bring to Foxborough, once Kennedy shaped him with some football-specific drills.
"I give the Patriots credit just for saying, `Hey, I'll look at the guy,' " said Kennedy, specifically complimenting both Belichick and Scott Pioli, the club's vice president of player personnel. "And I know when he got there that he wanted to play on defense, then they switch him to offense. That seems to be working pretty good. I think a lot of it is mentality, both on Steve's part and the part of the Patriots organization. Hey, in another country, with a world wrestling title, Steve Neal would be a hero. But he's got that wrestling mentality, and I think it all works for everyone. It fits that Patriots vision."
The Neal ascension to front-line contributor has been anything but a straight line since signing here in the summer of 2001. In many ways, 2004 can be considered his rookie NFL season, despite the fact that he now owns a pair of Super Bowl rings. Entering training camp last summer, he had as many Super Bowl rings as he had NFL games played, making him the polar opposite of Ray Bourque in the Boston sports annals.
Just over a month after signing with the Patriots, Neal was waived, leading to a stay with Philadelphia upon signing with the Eagles' practice squad Sept. 4. A little more than 90 days later, he was back on the New England roster. He has been here ever since, but a string of injuries limited him to only two games in 2002 and none in '03.
It has been 11 years -- roughly the equivalent of two average NFL careers -- since Neal has been a game-to-game contributor on the football field. Eleven years, between regular reps for the San Diego High Cavers and the two-time world champion New England Patriots.
"Sometimes I sit here and think that this is just a miracle -- these things don't happen, do they?" said Illys Neal. "Stephen has a heart, and that's what drives him. I remember in high school, before a wrestling tournament in Fargo [N.D.], all the wrestlers on his team had to stand up and say what they wanted to accomplish. All the kids before Stephen said things like, you know, "I hope to be in the top eight', and such 'n' such. Well, not Stephen. He stood up and said, `I'm gonna come home a champion!' And you know what? He was the only one who did. I asked him later about it, and he said, `Well, if you're going to set a goal, then why not go for the best -- why not plan to be No. 1? Why would you say No. 2 or No. 3. That makes no sense to me.' "
For all that drive and assertiveness, he still showed up in Foxborough in the summer of 2001 as the rawest of rookies.
"Yeah, you know, when he showed up in a singlet and everyone else was in pads," kidded veteran Patriots tackle Matt Light, "I thought that was a little odd."
More than three calendar years later, the refinement continues.
"I think his techniques and understanding of football are night and day [from where he was]," Belichick said one day recently. "I mean, there's no comparison. Steve didn't know where the field was."
That is a point not lost on Neal. Upon reporting to his first training camp, he had been nearly eight years out of uniform. Some of the basics had changed from his days as an outside linebacker for the Cavers.
"I went in there to the equipment guys," said Neal, recalling his first day here, "and you know, you lose some pieces of equipment from high school to college, and then from college to the pros. I was in there asking, `Where's the hip pads?' I had no idea. They kind of helped me out."
The playbook also had its challenges.
"Because it's not just the plays, you have to understand the overall concepts," he said. "Instead of just looking at the plays and saying, `I've got this guy on this play, and this guy on that play' -- maybe T for tackle and E for end, say -- you have to understand that if they line up on defense with a certain look, then you have a different person. A lot of zone concepts that I never had to worry about in high school."
The metamorphosis continues. Stephen Neal, world champion wrestler made NFL right guard, remains in the middle of his magnificent makeover. It's one that teammate Richard Seymour figures could yet take another turn.
"You can see he wants to be one of the best, that's just the way he is," said Seymour, the fourth-year defensive lineman. "He doesn't want to come into the game and say, `OK, I'm in the NFL now, and I was out of the league and look at me now.' I think he has his blinders on and wants to move forward. Honestly, I think he's good enough to play on the defensive side of the ball. He's quick. He has good balance. He likes to hit. He could do what I do."