Sunday, December 18, 2005

Sanders: Vital Part for Colts' Defense

By Mike Chappell, The Indianapolis Star

December 18, 2005

Bob Sanders had an excellent view as the San Diego Chargers used the Indianapolis Colts' defense for target practice last season.

Nursing an injured knee, he was on the sideline, out of range of the pyrotechnics generated by San Diego's Pro Bowl triumvirate of quarterback Drew Brees, running back LaDainian Tomlinson and tight end Antonio Gates. The Colts avoided an upset, rallying for a 34-31 victory in overtime, but their defense had been worn out.

"Any game you're not a part of, it's hard," said Sanders, the Colts' starting free safety in all 13 games this season. "You want to be out there every game."

Sanders figures to be a major contributor this afternoon in the RCA Dome as the Colts and Chargers square off in a showdown of prominent AFC clubs.

The Colts (13-0) are poised to take another step on their historic journey. Already in possession of home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, they can join the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only teams in the 86-year history of the NFL to post a 14-0 record.

Survival is the Chargers' objective. At 8-5, they're battling Jacksonville (9-4), Pittsburgh (8-5) and Kansas City (8-6) for one of the two wild-card berths. A slip today won't be fatal but will be detrimental with closing games at Kansas City and home against Denver.

Injuries likely will keep the Colts' defense from being at its best. Corey Simon, the run-stuffing tackle, and Robert Mathis, the unit's top sack producer (111/2), are out with foot injuries.

Sanders, though, is healthy and raring to go. Limited to six regular-season appearances by foot and knee injuries last year, the 5-8, 206-pounder has been a physical and emotional catalyst for a defense that required a jolt of each.

The defense isn't one that revolves around one player. It's based on each player tending to his assignment, trusting his teammates to tend to theirs and being accountable.

However, ask coordinator Ron Meeks the difference in a defense that ranks No. 4 in total yards and No. 2 in points allowed and the 2004 unit that ranked No. 29 and No. 19, respectively, and there's no hesitation.

"Bob Sanders," he said. "One guy. When he's in there, he's a very aggressive, physical guy."

Sanders, in his second NFL season, appreciates the praise but respectfully deflects it.

"I just go out and do my job," he said. "It's 11 guys on the field. We play the same defense. We play together."

In 2004, injuries forced the Colts to use 10 starting combinations in the secondary. The mixing and matching contributed to frequent assignment mistakes and the pass defense yielding 50 receptions that gained at least 20 yards, including 13 touchdowns.

This season, there have been only 27 pass plays of at least 20 yards, with three TDs. It's no coincidence that Sanders and cornerback Jason David have started all 13 games, cornerback Nick Harper has started 12 and strong safety Mike Doss 11.

"We're healthier than we've been in the past," Meeks said. "Bob has been healthy. Jason David was forced into the action last year because of the injuries we had at corner. He made mistakes last year and he's not making the same mistakes."

In last year's win over the Chargers, the Colts' pass defense allowed five receptions of at least 20 yards. That included a 74-yarder by Tomlinson when he exploited a coverage mismatch with linebacker Rob Morris, and Colts safeties were unable to limit the damage.

That's one of Sanders' strengths. Coach Tony Dungy describes him as an "eraser." If a mistake occurs in front of him, Sanders has the ability either to eliminate it, or minimize the gain with a jarring hit and sure tackle.

"He has that no-nonsense attitude of 'Let's just get it done,'" Meeks said. "He has that upper-body violence. When he makes a play, it's full speed, it's with a certain type of aggression.

"And people feed off that."

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Master and Commander

Excerpted from an article by Peter King

November 22, 2005

...Belichick and Pioli studied more than 200 free agents in the early months of 2001. They signed 17 bit players who made the Patriots the next season for a piddling combined signing-bonus charge of $2.7 million. One was Mike Vrabel, miscast as a special-teamer and a backup linebacker with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Belichick thought the speedy and athletic Vrabel could fill two roles -- dropping into coverage from defensive end or linebacker and playing as a nickel pass rusher.

"Until the Patriots called me, I thought seriously of going to law school, because my career with Pittsburgh wasn't working out," says Vrabel. "I didn't think anyone would find a way to use me. But I was amazed how much Bill knew about me. One day he came up to me and said, 'Remember in that Miami preseason game last year, how you played the power block? That's how we want to do it here.' In situational football, which is basically what the NFL is today, he's got to be the best mind out there." Against the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, Vrabel pressured Kurt Warner into an interception that cornerback Ty Law returned for a touchdown. In Super Bowl XXXVIII, Vrabel had two sacks against the Panthers and, in a classic display of Belichick ingenuity, caught a fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Tom Brady.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Vrabel reaches pay dirt again

By John Tomase

Monday, November 21, 2005

FOXBORO – Mike Vrabel wasn’t going to play the entire season without an offensive touchdown.

A linebacker with the skills of a tight end, Vrabel once again displayed those talents yesterday, catching Tom Brady’s second touchdown pass in the Patriots’ 24-17 victory against the New Orleans Saints at Gillette Stadium.

“Every time he catches a pass, it’s a touchdown,” Brady said. “He caught another one. It was a nice catch. It was nice having him out there.”

Vrabel now has six career receptions, and they’re all touchdowns. He caught a 1-yard score in the back-left corner of the end zone after a 29-yard pass to Patrick Pass left the Pats on the goal line.

It was Vrabel’s second touchdown of the season. He also had a 24-yard interception return against the Carolina Panthers. He has four career regular-season touchdown catches, plus two in the Super Bowl. All of his scores have been from 1 or 2 yards.

The Patriots are 6-0 when Vrabel catches a touchdown. His other scores came against San Diego on Sept. 29, 2002; Carolina in Super Bowl XXXVIII; St. Louis on Nov. 7, 2004; San Francisco last Jan. 2; and Philadelphia in Super Bowl XXXIX.

According to his teammates, Vrabel good-naturedly lets the offense hear it after he scores.

“You’ll have to ask Christian (Fauria) and Dan (Graham) about that,” wide receiver Deion Branch said. “When Vrabel comes in, he’s scoring a touchdown. Then he jaws at the tight ends, telling Bill (Belichick) we need to cut them and move him to tight end.”

Fauria just laughed.

“I don’t know what to say,” he said. “I’m happy we scored. He comes through for us. They had Dan (Klecko) out there, too. We could have thrown to either one of those guys.”

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Vrabel doing his part, and then some

Patriots Beat by Tom E. Curran

Sunday, November 6, 2005

FOXBORO -- One of the Patriots' tight ends had 14 tackles last week. One of their kickoff return blockers had touchdowns in each of the last two Super Bowls. The guy who often plays free safety on the scout team for the Patriots can be seen 90 minutes before every game, running 40-yard corner patterns seamlessly and catching the ball the way you're supposed to. That guy is one guy: Mike Vrabel.

On a team that reveres players for their versatility, Vrabel takes it to an extreme level. He doesn't just play other positions, he excels in them.

Last week against the Bills, in just his second game playing inside linebacker, Vrabel had 14 tackles.

"He's established himself as one of the better linebackers in the league," said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.

Inside, outside, occasionally on offense and always on special teams, the cerebral Vrabel is a dream for his own coaches, a nightmare for opposing ones. He thinks about the game as hard as he plays the game.

"I think Mike is going to be a coach at some point and a real good one because he has a very good understanding of the game," said Belichick. "The total game, not just one isolated spot."

Versatility can be a blessing and a curse. It can get a player a spot on a club, but it can also rob him of a chance to devote all his mental and physical energy to one position each week.

But Vrabel knows his versatility in New England is valued. So much so that he's been given two robust extensions since signing with the Patriots before the 2001 season. Before this year, he signed a deal that runs through 2009 and has a potential value of more than $16 million.

"I'm very, very, very comfortable with where I'm at right now," he said Friday. "It certainly has helped me stick around. In coming to New England it helped me and it did in 2002 and again in 2005 when they re-signed me. I won't say that if I just did one specific thing (it would be better). I would never say that. It is what it is and we're happy with that."

Vrabel's immediate assignment at inside linebacker is going to mitigate his ability to get to the quarterback. It's also going to get him beat up a little more as he stands in the middle of the defense, taking on guards, centers, fullbacks and running backs.

It's no skin off his nose.

"When you do all this it gives you uniqueness and I think you take pride in that," he said. "You don't see a lot of guys play tight end, inside linebacker, outside linebacker and special teams. I'm not going to say, 'This is too much.' Plus, it gives me a little bit to hang on later in this career.

He's into his ninth year now and has turned 30. But Vrabel -- even in practice -- has shown a willingness to simply play the game hard.

"On scout team, he plays positions he doesn't normally play," said Belichick. "For instance, he plays free safety a lot (who wants to see a 6-5, 261-pound free safety coming at them?). When he plays on the scout team on punt or kickoffs or something like that, he's not just out there jogging through to get it over with, he's trying to come up with something creative to make the guy he's playing against better. He picks up things quickly and sees things and when you use him in different areas of the game in multiple roles he handles all those well and he does them confidently."

"Bill will tell you, 'To those who much is given, much is expected,' " Vrabel said.

For a player who's been a staple of the Patriots' success the past four seasons, there must be a modicum of frustration in his unit's sudden inconsistency.

"It hurts mentally when you lose," he said. "You're down when you lose and that's what it's been every other week -- win, lose, win, lose, etc. But when you're in the routine of the season, you don't get caught up in evaluating and taking stock. You do with what you've got and who you've got that week."

As it turns out, Vrabel could be the Patriots' best option at a number of the team's linebacker spots right now. He goes where he is told. He knows he is very, very necessary.

"Am I tired at the end of a game?" he asks. "Yeah. Am I supposed to be? Yeah. Do I play every snap and 10 special-teams plays? Yeah. But I will never complain about playing."

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Vrabel's FBI file full of information

By Rich Thompson

Tuesday, August 9, 2005

FOXBORO – A football player doesn't necessarily need a high IQ if he possesses a substantial quotient of FBI.

In the NFL, the acronym FBI does not refer to the investigative branch of the federal government. Instead, FBI is short for football intelligence.

Patriots outside linebacker Mike Vrabel has consistently demonstrated an inherent knowledge on how the game should be played at the highest level. His FBI level is high.

"I think Mike's football intelligence is excellent," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said prior to yesterday's afternoon practice session at Gillette Stadium. "Mike is a smart person period. He's a very smart football player and he understands everything pretty much conceptually that he would want to do. Not just what his assignment is, but what the overall purpose of the defense is. What the strengths are, what the weaknesses are and why you would want to be in one defense as opposed to another when you have multiple calls."

Vrabel, a 6-foot-4, 261-pounder, recorded a career-high 76 tackles last season and was second on the team with 5 1/2 sacks. He has also been used by the Patriots on offense in goal line situations and has three receptions – all for touchdowns. In fact, Vrabel caught a touchdown passes from Tom Brady in each of the last two Super Bowls.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Kampman Gets Big Raise

Brown's Town
Wednesday, April 20, 2005
Roger Brown Plain Dealer Columnist

Beachwood-based football agent Neil Cornrich is doing some pre-draft celebrating. One client, Green Bay defensive end Aaron Kampman, recently signed a one-year offer sheet with Minnesota that automatically gives him a $544,000 raise - regardless of whether the Packers match the contract. Yet, Kampman can still potentially become an unrestricted free agent after this season - and make even bigger money in 2006.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Kampman Signs Offer with Vikings

Jason Wilde Wisconsin State Journal

Intent on further strengthening their improved defense while simultaneously weakening their rivals, the Minnesota Vikings signed Green Bay Packers' restricted free-agent defensive end Aaron Kampman to an offer sheet Wednesday.

Kampman's agent, Neil Cornrich, refused to divulge terms of the offer sheet, but an NFL source said it was for one year and $1.2 million.

"It's an absolutely spectacular opportunity. Aaron is in the ultimate win-win situation," Cornrich said. "He loves playing for Green Bay, and he's very happy in Green Bay.

"(But) if he was going to go to another organization, the Vikings would be very attractive because the Packers and the Vikings are the two closest franchises to where he was raised (in Iowa)."

The Packers, who are about $6 million under the salary cap, have seven days to match the Vikings' offer. If they do not match the offer by 11 p.m. next Wednesday, they would receive a fifth-round pick for Kampman because he entered the league as a fifth-round pick from Iowa in 2002.

The deal is terrific for Kampman in that he assures himself of being paid more than the minimum restricted free-agent tender of $656,000 and will still be an unrestricted free agent following the 2005 season.

If the Packers had used the middle tender of $1.43 million on Kampman, compensation would have been set at a first-round pick and the Vikings probably would not have made him an offer.

Packers general manager Ted Thompson was unavailable for comment, simply issuing a brief statement through the club's public-relations department which read in part, "Our plan now is to take some time, to study the offer sheet to determine what is in the best interest of the Green Bay Packers."

Asked which side of the intense Packers-Vikings rivalry he expects to be on when the teams meet Oct. 23 in Minneapolis and Nov. 21 in Green Bay, Kampman replied, "Who knows? I'm flattered to have interest with two great teams. We'll see what happens."

Kampman, 25, started all 17 games (including playoffs) last season and led Packers defensive linemen with 82 tackles and finished tied for second on the team with 4 sacks.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Mike Wahle Becomes Highest Paid Offensive Lineman

March 9, 2005

By Roger Brown

It's been a great 10 days or so for Neil Cornrich, the Beachwood-based football agent. One Cornrich client, punter Kyle Richardson, signed a fat free-agent deal with the Browns. A second, guard Mike Wahle, got the richest contract ever for an interior lineman -- a five-year, $28.5 million deal [including bonuses] with Carolina. Yet another, New England guard Stephen Neal, received a massive raise in a one-year deal designed to keep other teams from signing him as a restricted free agent. And a fourth Cornrich client, former Ohio State star cornerback Dustin Fox, greatly improved his April draft prospects by recording a 43.5-inch vertical leap at the NFL Scouting Combine -- second-best overall.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Panthers go deep to sign key pair

Free agents Wahle, Lucas get bonuses of almost $25 million

Staff Writer

March 4, 2005

The Carolina Panthers, a team known for staying in shallow free-agent waters in recent years, took a huge plunge Thursday.

With the lure of about $23 million in bonus money, the Panthers landed two elite free agents: Offensive lineman Mike Wahle from Green Bay and cornerback Ken Lucas from Seattle. After not getting a single starter in last year's free-agency period, the Panthers got two on the second day players were allowed to sign with other teams.

"We don't get at this end of the pool a lot," general manager Marty Hurney said.

"But we just felt like the opportunity was right for both these guys as far as being good fits and being our kind of people as well as very good players. We hope they're two guys that will be here for a long time at very important positions for us."

Consider the moves a sign the Panthers believe they're a lot closer to being the Super Bowl team they were in 2003, than the 7-9 squad last season. Although the arrival of Lucas and Wahle might seem a departure from the team's practice of acquiring core players in the college draft, both players are young and fill major areas of needs.

Wahle, who turns 28 this month, signed a five-year deal worth up to $28 million that includes $11.5 million in bonus money split between this year and next. His cap figure for this year will be $2.7 million.

Lucas, 26, signed a six-year deal worth about $6 million a season that includes about $13 million in bonus money.

"(The Panthers) are on the doorstep," Wahle said. "I've been in this league seven years and never been to a Super Bowl. That's real important to me. I think the leadership they have here from the front office and all the way down to the players, I think we're going to be in a good position."

That position, at least on paper, got a lot better. Wahle, who spent all seven seasons with Green Bay, should help an offensive line that struggled after a series of injuries last season. Although the most glaring need seemed to be at right tackle and Wahle's contract is more representative of a tackle than a guard, the immediate plan is to place him at left guard.

"He'll more than likely start at left guard and go from there," coach John Fox said.

If the early plan holds true, Wahle will line up between center Jeff Mitchell and left tackle Jordan Gross. That's a strong trio, but there would still be major questions on the right side. Although the roster could change in free agency or in the draft, the most likely scenario would be for Travelle Wharton to get the first shot at the right tackle job.

Wharton played well after taking over as the starting left guard in the middle of his rookie season, but the team believes he has the tools to play tackle in the NFL. Tutan Reyes was the starting right guard last season and could remain in that role.

"If they need me somewhere else, we'll play somewhere else," Wahle said. "I think just getting the best five guys on the field is the best scenario and what we're looking for."

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Guards Wahle, Rivera find big money elsewhere


Posted: March 3, 2005

Green Bay - In refusing to meet the demands of an inflated free-agent market, new Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson allowed the Carolina Panthers and Dallas Cowboys to strip him of two of his most dependable and effective players.

But as difficult as it was to see starting guards Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera walk without compensation Thursday, Thompson felt no regret over the decision and vowed that the Packers would rebuild the position before the start of the 2005 season.

"Those are losses," Thompson said after Wahle signed with the Panthers and Rivera with the Cowboys. "But this is what we do. We work at it and we try to assemble the best team we can, and maybe the next left guard and the next right guard isn't as good as the one we had before.

"But maybe we're a little better somewhere else. That's the way we'll attack it and do the best we can."

The Packers weren't surprised to see Wahle receive a deal that a source with access to NFL Players Association salary data said was worth $28 million over five years and included a two-tiered signing bonus of $11.5 million. But when Rivera received a five-year, $20 million deal that included a $9 million signing bonus from re-energized free spender Jerry Jones, they knew they were overmatched.

Wahle's deal eclipsed the six-year, $32.3 million deal ($11 million in bonuses) signed last year by Packers left tackle Chad Clifton and provided him the second-highest signing bonus for a guard in league history.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Patriots' Neal grappled with career change

By Gary Mihoces, USA TODAY

February 1, 2005

JACKSONVILLE — Sports agent Neil Cornrich was at his Cleveland-area office in 2001 when he received the telephone solicitation. "Hi, Neil, my name is Steve Neal, and I'd like to play pro football," said the quiet-spoken caller, two years out of college.

Many barstool Pro Bowlers have similar dreams. The agent's first reaction was skepticism.

"I thought, 'Well, I'd like to play, too,' " Cornrich says. "But I have no shot, and I'm probably a better athlete than you.' "

Sunday in Super Bowl XXXIX, Neal will start at right guard for the New England Patriots against the Philadelphia Eagles.

It's the unusual tale of an athlete who never played college football but used his talents on the wrestling mat to earn two NCAA titles for Cal State-Bakersfield and win a 1999 world freestyle wrestling championship in Turkey — far from NFL glory.

"I always thought I was going to be able to do it. Whether or not you get the opportunity, that's another thing," says Neal, 28, who was a linebacker/offensive lineman at San Diego High School.

Neal had one precedent going for him. Carlton Haselrig, who won three NCAA Division I wrestling titles at Pitt-Johnstown, did not play college football but became a Pro Bowl guard for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1992 before his career was ended amid substance abuse problems.

Through Cornrich — who got over his initial doubts — Neal found opportunity with the Patriots, a team known for finding ways to find talent. He has made the most of it despite shoulder injuries that set him back the past two seasons.

But to say he started from scratch is an understatement. Patriots coach Bill Belichick recalls Neal's first training camp as a free-agent defensive end in 2001.

"When I tell you he didn't know where the field was, he didn't know where the field was," Belichick says. "He didn't know how to put his pads on. He didn't know where to line up. ... We're starting from below scratch."

The 6-4 Neal has bulked up to about 300 pounds since his days as a 265-pound international wrestler of the year in 1999.

His bank account is heftier, too.

A world champion wrestler can earn about $40,000 to $50,000 in bonuses and training stipends from USA Wrestling and the U.S. Olympic Committee, according to USA Wrestling. Win Olympic gold, which brings more bonuses, and it's about $50,000-$60,000.

Neal is making a base salary of $455,000 this year, not counting playoff bonuses. After next season, he becomes a restricted free agent.

"I've never really been about trying to get a big paycheck," he says. "I wrestled for pretty much nothing, and football was always something I've dreamed about doing."

Leveraging his talent

Wrestling develops skills that translate to football: leverage, balance, explosion and hand fighting.

Buck Rasmussen, a defensive lineman on the Patriots' practice squad and a former state high school wrestling champ in Nebraska, sees that in Neal.

"He uses leverage to his advantage a lot, body position and stuff like that. ... Wrestling really helps," Rasmussen says.

Top high school wrestlers in the upper weight classes, who excel at football, typically forgo college wrestling. For Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, a two-time Florida wrestling champ in high school, it was all football at the University of Miami.

Neal had no big-time football offers after high school.

After finishing fourth in California as a 189-pound senior, he opted to wrestle at Division I Cal State Bakersfield, where he was 83-0 over his final two seasons as a fast-growing heavyweight.

In 2000, coming off arthroscopic shoulder surgery, Neal lost in the finals of the Olympic trials to Kerry McCoy of Penn State. In 2001, Neal again lost to McCoy in the world team trials.

Thus the phone call to Cornrich.

"I asked him if he'd played college football, and he said no," Cornrich says. "Then I said, 'Well, what makes you think you'd be a suitable candidate to play in the National Football League?' And he said he was a fairly good wrestler."

Cornrich, a wrestling buff, realized the caller was actually Stephen Neal, the name Neal typically uses and the heavyweight Cornrich had seen win his first NCAA title, at Cleveland State.

Cornrich had watched the tournament with former NFL players John Frank and Kirk Lowdermilk, who were impressed by Neal's explosiveness.

"We're sitting there watching every one of his matches going, 'Gosh, this guy could be a great NFL player,' " Cornrich says.

After the call, Neal flew to Cleveland and joined Cornrich on a 5 a.m. drive to Ohio State, where then-Buckeyes strength and conditioning coach Dave Kennedy was working out players.

Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel was also there that day.

Neal "showed up with a pair of wrestling shoes and some shorts and stuff, and I said, 'Well, we have to get you outfitted to look like a football player,' " Vrabel says.

"I gave him some shoes and stuff, and from that first time he went and did a drill you could see he had the potential."

Cornrich, who describes himself as a "close friend" of Belichick and has represented him on some matters, got Neal a tryout with New England. After Belichick and player personnel boss Scott Pioli got a look, they signed him.

Patriots believed in him

The road to NFL success took many turns.

As a defensive end, Neal was cut by the Patriots in late August of his first camp. He spent most of that season on the practice squad of the Eagles, switching to offensive line and learning as he went.

The Patriots still had faith in him. On Dec. 12 of that season, New England signed him to its roster. Although he was listed among the game inactives for all three playoff games that season, he got a Super Bowl ring.

Improving quickly in 2002, Neal started against Green Bay on Oct. 23 and injured his shoulder.

He had surgery and a later follow-up procedure that sidelined him for the rest of 2002 and 2003 — picking up another Super Bowl ring even though he again spent the game in street clothes on the sideline.

"I was kept around here for a few years and really given the opportunity," he says. "I came here (last season) and I watched some film and I talked to the guys and tried to get better, improve."

This year, Neal was promoted to a starting role for the third game.

"It is a wonderful story about a guy that with hard work, dedication, overcoming the setbacks of the injuries and the lack of playing experience, has turned into, really, a good football player," Belichick says.

The wrestling world hasn't forgotten him. USA Wrestling has featured a story about Neal on its Web site. The National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Okla., hopes to get one of his NFL jerseys.

Mitch Hull, director of national teams for USA Wrestling, has talked to Neal about that jersey for the wrestling hall.

"I told him, 'Hey, if you have any contract problems, you can come back to wrestling. ... We've got $40,000 out there for you.' "

Unlikely as that might seem, Neal says he just might return to the mat after his NFL days are done.

"I'd love to," he says. "The weight class is 263 pounds, and I'd like to get my body back down to that weight.

"I don't know. I might be too old by then. I might be too beat up. But it's a dream."

He already has fulfilled a few.

Friday, January 21, 2005

From Wrestling to Football for Patriots' Neal

January 21, 2005

-Stephen Neal won a free-style wrestling world title in 1999. He began his N.F.L. bid in 2001 and is now the starting right guard for the Patriots.

FOXBORO, Mass., Jan. 20 - Stephen Neal is an offensive lineman for the New England Patriots, but he is more likely to be recognized on the streets of Iran than he is in Boston.

In wrestling circles outside the United States, the 6-foot 4-inch, 305-pound Neal is known for his exploits in that sport: being ranked as the world's No. 1 wrestler in 1999, winning two N.C.A.A. titles for Cal State-Bakersfield and competing everywhere from Bulgaria to Colombia.

For Neal, wrestling was not Vince McMahon's W.W.E. world of mayhem. It was one of long training hours and little local recognition. But a phone call in the spring of 2001 changed his life just when he was itching for something more.

At the recommendation of a former Olympic wrestler, Matt Ghaffari, Neal called Neil Cornrich, a sports agent based in Cleveland.

"My name is Steve Neal," he said, introducing himself to Cornrich, "and I want to play pro football."

That call began his improbable journey from the wrestling mats to the football field, a transformation that even the hardly effusive Bill Belichick, the Patriots' coach, described as "a wonderful story."

When he took his shot at the N.F.L., Neal had last played football at San Diego High School in the early 1990's. But he has established himself as a starter in his fourth N.F.L. season and will be planted at right guard when the Patriots meet the Steelers in the American Football Conference championship game Sunday in Pittsburgh.

That he has gone so far, so fast, is a testament to his hard work and to the ability of Patriots coaches to spot and develop the rawest of talents.

"It's a miracle," said Neal's mother, Illys. "But at the same time, knowing Stephen, I'm not shocked."

Cornrich did not immediately recognize Neal's name when he called that day in 2001, but he soon realized he had seen Neal in action, winning an N.C.A.A. wrestling title in 1998.

Cornrich, a self-proclaimed wrestling buff, said he was struck by Neal's strength and physique and curious about whether he might have the capability to make it in the N.F.L. Three years later, here was Neal reaching out to him for exactly that purpose.

A day or two after the call, Ghaffari dropped off Neal at Cornrich's home. The next day, at 5 a.m., Cornrich drove Neal from Cleveland to Columbus to work out with Dave Kennedy, then the strength coach at Ohio State.

Kennedy knew size would not be an issue for Neal. The X-factor that Kennedy needed to measure was Neal's burst, or the suddenness in which he was able to accelerate.

After five minutes, Kennedy looked at Cornrich and said, "We've got something."

"You can teach football, but you can't teach ability," said Kennedy, who is now the strength coach at Nebraska.

Meanwhile, Cornrich had persuaded Belichick, his longtime friend, to give Neal a tryout. At first, Belichick balked, sarcastically asking Cornrich if he was trying to take over Scott Pioli's job as vice president of player personnel.

But after Kennedy's seal of approval and two weeks of intense preparation, including learning the agility drills the Patriots use and the proper way to line up for the 40-yard dash, Neal got his tryout.

Light on knowledge but loaded with potential, Neal passed his test and signed a free-agent contract. He went from being one of the best in the world in one sport to what he called a "project guy" in another. He told himself to open his ears "and not have any pride and try to learn."

But it was hardly easy.

Belichick initially tried him on defense, a decision he called stupid, before switching him to the offensive line. That spurred Neal's long climb to his current job.

"When I tell you he didn't know where the field was, he didn't know where the field was," Belichick said. "He didn't know how to put his pads on. He didn't know where to line up. He didn't even know where to go in the huddle. When I say starting from scratch, we're starting from below scratch."

Neal's attempts at napping during training camp summed up his struggles. "I was lying in bed trying to get a nap, and all I could think of was 64 protection and thinking of all the possibilities, and my head is spinning," he said.

The Patriots cut Neal in August of that first season. The Philadelphia Eagles picked him up for their practice squad before the Patriots took him back and put him on theirs.

Neal was on the sideline as New England upset St. Louis in the Super Bowl in February 2002, and he earned his way into the starting lineup the next season.

But an arm injury in his first career start, in October 2002, kept him out for the rest of that season and for 2003. This season, Neal battled his way back into the starting lineup in Week 2 and has stayed there.

He has impressed his teammates with his ability and his humility, and has blended seamlessly into the Patriots' locker room.

"He lines up next to me on field goals, and I've seen him drop someone, then pick him up and say that he's sorry," said Lonnie Paxton, the Patriots' long snapper. "He's just a genuinely nice guy."

Neal has two rings to show for the Patriots' Super Bowl victories in the past three seasons, although he did not play in either game. But if the Patriots beat the Steelers on Sunday, Neal's climb will be complete. His next game will have Roman numerals attached to it.

"I always wanted to play football," Neal said. "I was very fortunate to get in the right place at the right time."

Thursday, January 20, 2005

From Mats to the Pats

New England's Neal is making a swift transition from wrestling to NFL lineman

By Sam Farmer
Times Staff Writer

January 20, 2005

FOXBORO, Mass. — Determined to squeeze every ounce of productivity out of their players, the New England Patriots have turned a receiver into a part-time cornerback, a linebacker into a part-time tight end and a defensive tackle into a part-time fullback.

Their most extreme makeover?

Turning Stephen Neal into a football player.

Neal, who will start at right guard Sunday when the Patriots play at Pittsburgh in the AFC championship game, didn't play a shred of football in college. He was a star wrestler at Cal State Bakersfield, where he won two consecutive NCAA Division I titles and in 1999 was given the Dan Hodge Award, the Heisman Trophy of college wrestling. He went on to win the U.S. freestyle championship, the Pan-American Games title and the world championship.

Once, while competing in Iran, he happened upon a poster of himself. It was 15 feet tall.

So what would drive a man in his early 20s to start at the ground level of one sport after reaching the summit of another? It's a question that crossed Neal's mind more than once in 2001, when the Patriots signed him as a rookie free agent and the rawest of prospects.

"I had a lot of days in training camp where I'm just lying in bed, trying to get a nap, and all I could think of was 64-protection," Neal said. "I'm just thinking all the possibilities and my head's just spinning. It was kind of frustrating, but then later on you kind of understand it a little bit more."

It was almost by happenstance that the 6-foot-4, 305-pound Neal, 28, became an NFL player. Since he was a kid growing up in San Diego, he wanted to play football. And he did play at San Diego High, where he was a five-sport athlete who also competed in track and field, tennis and swimming. Wrestling was his passion, though, and he once pinned Ricky Williams in a high school match.

Neal always maintained an interest in playing football, and after college a wrestling friend introduced him to agent Neil Cornrich, who represents several NFL players. A couple of years earlier, Cornrich noticed Neal while attending a wrestling tournament at Ohio State with former NFL players Kirk Lowdermilk and John Frank.

"We were watching this guy who looked like a California surfer enlarged," Cornrich said. "We were amazed at how he was beating someone so effortlessly, how uncannily athletic he was. He was freakish."

When they finally met, and Neal expressed an interest in taking a crack at pro football, Cornrich sent a tape to the Patriots and arranged a workout for him in front of Coach Bill Belichick.
To prepare for that, Neal spent a week living at the home of Dave Kennedy, Ohio State's former strength coach.

"All he did was sleep, eat and work out," said Kennedy, now strength coach at Nebraska. "My kids thought he was a big bear. He'd sleep from 1 in the afternoon until 10 at night, then he'd get up and go to McDonald's."

Neal's dinner of choice: two double quarter-pounders and 25 McNuggets.

"Then," Kennedy said, "he'd go back to sleep."

Strange as it sounds, that regimen paid off. Neal impressed Belichick enough that the Patriots signed him for training camp. He spent a month with the team before being waived, then was signed to the Philadelphia practice squad. New England didn't forget about him, though, adding him to its active roster in December 2001 before making a Super Bowl run. Although he was inactive for the last three games of the regular season and throughout the playoffs, he clearly had piqued the interest of the eventual Super Bowl winners.

"He had the skills, tools and emotional makeup we look for," said Scott Pioli, New England's vice president of player personnel. "We had no idea if those skills would translate into football ability."

There were some embarrassing moments early on, times when he blanked instead of blocked.

"Coaches started yelling at you, and you just sit here and there's nothing I can say," he said. " 'Sorry. I screwed up.' "

The real test came in the 2002 season. Neal broke in against Miami in October, then got his first start against Green Bay. He injured a shoulder while recovering a loose ball and was out for the rest of the season. The shoulder bothered him last season and he sat out on injured reserve. That gave him time to concentrate on learning the nuances and many responsibilities of his job. He learned them well enough to earn a starting job this season.

"Some things carry over" from wrestling, he said. "Hand placement, leverage, mental toughness. But for the most part, it's completely different because it's 11 people on the field who are teammates, versus one person on the mat.

"I could knock someone on the ground, but if it's the wrong guy something bad could happen. So you have to do your job and everyone around you has to do their job. In wrestling it's just you go out there and try to dominate your opponent, put on a show for the crowd, do whatever you can do to try to win."

It sure is. Wrestling took him to Bulgaria, Turkey and Western Europe. It took him to Colombia, where he was protected by armed guards. It took him to Iran, where he stayed across the street from the U.S. Embassy, where the hostage crisis took place from 1979 to 1981. For a time, Neal was the best in the world at what he did.

Now, he's just trying to fit in.

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