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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