Monday, May 10, 2010

Former college wrestlers bond

Patriots rookie offensive linesman John Wise, far left, and veteran guard Stephen Neal both transitioned from college wrestling to professional football. Neal said he told Wise the best way to acclimate is listening to everything he’s told about the game and having an open mind.


May 7, 2010

FOXBORO, Mass. —

It’s been nearly a decade since this college wrestler began to come to grips with pro football.

“Mike Vrabel kind of took me under his wing,” veteran New England Patriots guard Stephen Neal recalled. “I was out there in Columbus (Ohio) with him, we were working out, and he’s trying to tell me stuff and I’m (thinking), ‘OK. That doesn’t make any sense, but OK.’

“There were a lot of guys that helped me out. Joe Andruzzi was huge in helping me out. It was great to have all those people helping me out and if I can return the favor to John (Wise) or last year to Jermail (Porter), whatever I can do to help them, ask me any question. I’m not going to try to tell you what to do, but if you have a question I’ll try to answer it.”

Wise and Porter are Neal wannabes. Porter, the former Kent State wrestler, didn’t last long in New England, but he moved on to Kansas City where he is listed as an offensive tackle with the Chiefs.

Wise, who played a year of college ball as a defensive lineman at Western Illinois before transferring to Illinois where he developed into a wrestling All-American, signed with the Patriots late last month and took his first steps as an offensive lineman with the team at last weekend’s rookie minicamp.

Advice for rookie

“I’ve talked to John on the phone and he’s a great kid,” Neal said following a day at the team’s voluntary offseason conditioning program at Gillette Stadium. “If he’s a wrestler, he’s a hard worker. You love having that around. That gets contagious and people work harder and harder, and that’s a great thing.”

Neal’s advice to Wise?

Keep your mind open, mouth shut and most of all, make sure the spirit remains willing.

“I said, ‘Hey, man, just come out here and try to learn as much as you can. Just do what they tell you,’ ” said Neal, who originally signed with the Patriots as an undrafted free agent in July 2001. “Because everybody knew a lot more about football than I did when I first got here.

“So I just kept my mouth shut and tried to do what they told me to do and work(ed) hard. They can see hard work. Even if you have bad technique, they can see you’re working hard.”

Programs in trouble

Neal is going to the mat for the program from whence he came, Cal State-Bakersfield, where he compiled a career record of 151-10 with a pair of NCAA Division I titles.

In February, the college was informed that, due to the California budget crisis, $1.4 million would be needed by May 21 to save the wrestling, women’s tennis, and men’s and women’s golf programs for a period of two years.

Neal, who has been actively involved in fundraising efforts, reports that the Roadrunners’ wrestling team has raised $500,000. A dinner auction to raise money for the cause is set for May 15 at the Jam Events Center in Bakersfield.

“I’m not trying to save this for me, I’m not trying to save it for my coach (T.J. Kerr), I’m trying to save it for the kids — the kids that are wrestling, my kids, your kids, whoever wants that opportunity,” said Neal. “It’s not only wrestling, it’s men’s and women’s golf and women’s tennis. At some point, the kids in the community are going to want to be able to have that opportunity.”

To this day, Neal says that opportunity paid off for him, providing him with experience he relies upon from time to time in a sport where he has collected three Super Bowl rings.

“The biggest thing for me is when things don’t go the way they’re supposed to go, I can recover because I’m used to hand fighting and wrestling and getting off balance,” said Neal, who has appeared in 78 games in an injury-plagued career.

“So that’s the kind of stuff that you don’t teach: Don’t do the right thing so you can get in this (predicament). Just in case something bad happens, that’s when you have to use that experience.”

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