Monday, February 14, 2022

Neal honored at CSUB, where he grew beyond ‘just being a champion’



Feb 11, 2022

Former CSUB wrestler and NFL football player Stephen Neal shares how much CSUB helped help as he is inducted into the university's Alumni Hall of Fame on Friday night.

  • Rod Thornburg / For The Californian

Stephen Neal's atypical, profoundly successful athletic career brought him plenty of honors: a pair of unbeaten college wrestling championships at Cal State Bakersfield, a Dan Hodge Trophy, a World Wrestling Championship win — all before he became an NFL starting lineman and won three Super Bowl rings.

But as he's quick to point out, his capacity for self-motivation — which helped him win all those awards, and which he honed at CSUB — was never tied to external accolades.

"It was never about just winning the championship," Neal said, "it was about accomplishing other goals.

"My senior year, my goal was to pin every single opponent I had; I fell short. Then it was to get bonus points for every single opponent; I fell short twice of that. Then it was not to give up a takedown; I actually accomplished that, but I gave up a reversal."

One honor the Roadrunner legend will accept unreservedly: his induction into the CSUB Alumni Hall of Fame, carried out Friday night at the school's Doré Theatre. The class of 2022 also features local hospital executive Terri Church, English professor Paula Parks and United Farm Workers vice president Connie Perez-Andreesen.

Neal has retold many times the story of how CSUB won his heart by showing him a hard-nosed wrestling practice when he toured the school rather than taking him out for fun and frolic. It was at such practices that he became the multiple-championship-winning wrestler, but also learned from people like assistant coach Darryl Pope, who would "push (him) past just being a champion."

The school also prepared him to take his eventual left turn into professional football, CSUB president Lynnette Zelezny noted. 

"Even though we didn't have football and it was probably a passion of his his whole life," Zelezny said, "he used the opportunity with wrestling to master his skills ... If you want to take advantage of opportunities here at CSUB, the sky's the limit."

The grind of professional football was familiar to Neal. But on a football field, unlike on a wrestling mat, other people — in his case, a young quarterback named Tom Brady — would pay for his own errors.

"If I do something stupid in football," Neal said, "the little baby giraffe back there is getting slammed."

Neal won three Super Bowls as a guard with the Patriots, but only got to play in the third win at the culmination of the 2004 season. Finally, Neal felt like he really contributed.

"In wrestling, you only get a medal if you win," he said. "And so to get those (first two) rings and not play, and finally get to do that, it was exciting for me and for my family, kind of validated that I do belong here."

Neal has stayed involved with CSUB wrestling through turbulent times for the program, including budget cuts in 2010 that threatened the team's survival. With funding stabilized, Neal said he's optimistic about the future of the program that shaped him.

"We drove around the campus with my kids and I was showing them the 2.7-mile course we used to run three times a week," Neal said. "To get honored here just means so much, because this is kind of where I went from a no-name person coming from San Diego to having a little bit of recognition throughout the country."

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