Thursday, January 31, 2008

Stephen Neal: From the mat to the Super Bowl

Undersized Patriots Are Shedding Their Anonymity


January 31, 2008

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Offensive linemen are regarded as the most cerebral of players, charged with quickly sizing up a defense while also understanding the complex offensive playbook. But the Patriots’ linemen seem bent on a more colorful reputation. They have grown hockey-style playoff beards, giving them the look of overgrown members of ZZ Top. Light, the left tackle, wears his long hair in an unruly ponytail. Guard Stephen Neal sports a bushy Fu Manchu mustache. During the playoffs, they wore T-shirts that read: “The Bearded brothers: as hairy as they wanna be.”

Neal is a former N.C.A.A. champion wrestler at Cal State Bakersfield who did not even play college football. He landed with the Patriots only because he made a telephone call to the sports agent Neil Cornrich, who is a close friend of Bill Belichick, the Patriots’ coach. Neal has a wrestling move named for him, the Neal Double, which is a takedown in which one wrestler pulls the legs of another out from under him, taking him to the mat. When Neal arrived at the Patriots’ camp in 2001 as a defensive end, he was so raw that Belichick once said of him, “We’re starting from below scratch.”

Eventually, the Patriots decided that Neal could not recognize a trap block. But they did see that the skills that allowed him to flourish as a wrestler — balance and the ability to recover — were too good to give up on. So they switched him to offense, which did not make Neal happy at all.

“Then I found out I got to know the play and the snap count,” he said Wednesday.

Dante Scarnecchia, the Patriots’ offensive line coach, spent extra time tutoring Neal, pounding into him that most wrestling techniques would draw a holding penalty in football. Neal said that learning what blocks to use with which play was like learning two foreign languages at once.

He missed the finale against the Giants, when the entire right side of the offensive line — Neal, right tackle Nick Kaczur and tight end Kyle Brady — was out. Not surprisingly, the Patriots averaged only 1.7 yards a carry that night.

If they have another night like that on Sunday, Light will have to work overtime on his part-time job: making everyone laugh in the huddle to keep them loose. It also falls to Light to keep Brady, who rewards the linemen with gifts that Neal was reluctant to divulge, grounded.

“I just take the magazine covers around and say, ‘I know this guy,’ ” Neal said. “Nobody believes me.”

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