When Stephen Neal was a senior at San Diego High, he had an opportunity to wrestle for NCAA power Cal State Bakersfield. He wanted to play football but Bakersfield doesn’t offer that sport and when the Division I football schools stopped calling, he went for the sure thing.
“It was a tough decision (not to have the opportunity to play football) to make,” admitted Neal, who tonight will be the second wrestler to be inducted into the Breitbard Hall of Fame (the legendary Jim Londos was the first in 1967) while also aHHrepresenting professional football.
“I’ve always thought I could do whatever I wanted, so I figured someday I’ll figure out how to play football, too. I never gave up on the dream, I never shut that door.”
His is an amazing story of going from being the best wrestler in the world to getting a tryout with the New England Patriots, where he eventually earned three Super Bowl rings in a 10-year professional career as an offensive right guard.
You probably wouldn’t need any fingers to count the number of pro football players who made it after not playing a down following high school and then successfully giving it a try almost seven years later.
While at San Diego High, Neal was an outstanding wrestler but never a State Champion. He was a quality football player who never earned All-CIF honors.
But when Cal State Bakersfield came calling, he answered loud and clear, putting the green grass and pads aside.
“I think the environment at Bakersfield was perfect for me,” said Neal, who red-shirted his first season before placing fourth, second and then capturing NCAA titles his junior and senior seasons, earning induction into the Cal State Bakersfield Wrestling Hall of Fame.
“When I got to Bakersfield I was surrounded by tremendous workout partners with a great coaching staff that I never questioned. It was humbling to finish second because I was wrestling Kerry McCoy and he was a senior. We were tied at 2-2 with about 30 seconds remaining when I started to attack and right then they hit me for stalling and I lost 3-2.”
It wasn’t the last time he’d face the Penn State wrestler.
For the next two years Neal was the best collegiate wrestler in his weight class, finishing his career with a 156-10 record, four All-American awards, a 34-0 record in the Pac-10 and school records for wins, pins in a season (31) and career (71).
In 1999, his final season, he won the Dan Hodge Award after capturing the U.S. Freestyle Championship, the Pan-American Games and won the FILA award as the best in the world after annexing the World Championship title at 286 pounds.
With the Olympics looming in 2000 he was the favorite.
In the title match to represent the U.S., there was McCoy, who had learned from losing the year before.
“He used a move he’d practiced and although I saw it coming I couldn’t stop it,” said Neal who was so frustrated at losing he stayed in wrestling another year before deciding it was time to resurrect that dream of playing football.
Neal tapped a friend to get a tryout with the Patriots and although he impressed Coach Bill Belichick with his work-ethic, his agility and strength, he was told he just had too little football experience and to come back to camp the next spring.
His agent wouldn’t let it go that quickly and a couple of weeks after getting released by the Pats, Neal was back on the field, this time in Philadelphia where Eagles Hall of Famer Chuck Bednarick recognized him as a wrestler and recommended he be given as try.
“Andy Reid said he’d put me on the practice squad where I could learn because they didn’t have time during the season to focus on me,” said Neal, who played at 6-foot-4, 305 pounds. “Then Week 12 of the 2001 season the Patriots called and said they wanted to bring me up and put me on the taxi squad. They said they couldn’t guarantee anything but I might get active for one game.”
Neal was happy working with the Eagles and wasn’t thrilled about going back to New England that late in the season but his agent explained how he had to do it for his future and, after all, the Patriots were in the playoffs.
“I said, ‘OK, you know a lot more than I do,’ and so I went up to New England and although I didn’t get to play in the game, I got my first Super Bowl ring,” said Neal.
More than that, he knew the Patriots wanted him as a player and even though nagging injuries in 2002 and 2003 kept him out of the lineup a lot, he got another Super Bowl ring in 2003. By 2004, he was a full-time starter the final 14 games.
He played off and on battling injuries until 2007 when he started all three playoff games, playing in Super Bowl XXXIX versus, ironically, the Philadelphia Eagles.
“I still knew a few of their guys and players like Donovan McNabb were real nice to me,” said Neal, relishing the chance to be on the big stage. “The Patriots coaching staff always got you the most prepared and I remember one play where I took out a linebacker and we scored a touchdown and I was thinking, ‘This is just like we practiced it.’ ”
Count Belichick as one of his fans.
“They don’t come any better than Steve Neal,” Belichick said after Neal announced his retirement. “In terms of improvement and development as a player, Steve may have accomplished more than any player I have ever been around. His toughness, intelligence and competitiveness were at rare levels and contributed to him going from being a champion in an individual sport to being an integral part of championship teams.”
Neal liked playing on the line even though as he says, “the only time your name is called is if you have a false start or holding call. But it was good because I could go into a grocery store and not get attacked.”
The biggest thing he has learned?
“If you truly want to improve, you have to accept responsibility for yourself,” he said. “Blaming others is rampant these days but you have to be honest with yourself.”