Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Stephen Neal retires with "dignity and class"



Ponderous thoughts I was pondering on the highway to hoop heaven:

- As the poker players say, I've gone "all in" in my coverage of the MIAA boys' and girls' basketball tournaments and have put the Patriots-related news, what little there has been, on the back burner for a while.

But I'd be remiss if I didn't offer at least a few thoughts about the retirement of offensive guard Stephen Neal, which was announced late last week and was anticipated for some time. Injuries have been the bane of his existence for the past few years, and at some point, you have to get out before you're saddled with lingering pain and impairment for the rest of your life.

I've always thought that Neal was a decent guy, more of a "regular guy" than some of his peers, probably because he came from a much different background than a lot of football players. You know the story - collegiate wrestling champion who didn't turn "pro" like some of his fellow collegians and instead opted to travel a more legitimate avenue of sport by re-learning how to play football.

He did it well. Throughout the past decade, Neal has been an important part of an offensive line that helped keep Tom Brady safe from harm during a dynastic period for the Patriots, and that had to be a lot more satisfying than taking acting lessons and wearing neon-colored tights while doing Vince McMahon's bidding.

Offensive linemen rarely experience the same level of exposure that the so-called "skill position" players receive in the NFL. Neal didn't seek the spotlight, either. He went out there every day, doing his job, learning as he went under the trusted tutelage of Dante Scarnecchia, and he became an anchor of one of the best offensive lines in the game, something he admitted he never envisioned when he got the word from agent Neil Cornrich that the Patriots might want to give him a try.

Not long ago, I and several other writers wrote of Neal's behind-the-scenes efforts to keep the wrestling program alive at Cal State-Bakersfield, his alma mater. Budget cuts were threatening the program that made him an NCAA Division I champion, and he wanted to do everything he could to give something back to the school that gave him the athletic opportunity of his lifetime.

A while later, I and the other scribes received in the mail hand-written notes of thanks from Neal for the stories we wrote. They weren't form letters. He took the time to thank us individually for just doing our jobs, and it underscored the deep-down decency of the man.

Neal said during a conference call with the media last week that his next injury might be serious enough to cause a permanent level of disability, which would seriously impact his ability to be an active father to his kids. And he admitted that with the NFL's current labor uncertainty and the possibility that he might not be able to use the team's doctors or facilities in his latest rehab, the best option for him was retirement.

So, he enters it with dignity and class, and a documented legacy of achievement. I offer my heartiest congratulations to this two-sport champion, and my most sincere wishes of happiness to him and his family as they embark together upon a new chapter in their lives.

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