Tom Neville played offensive tackle for the Patriots over 13 seasons (1965-77), outlasting four different head coaches and playing in seven "home" stadiums, Neville had a huge impact on generations of Patriots offensive linemen, but he almost missed becoming a Patriot altogether.
When Neville arrived at Patriots Training Camp in 1965, wear-and-tear was beginning to catch up with him. He'd already had the kind of college production that would later earn him induction into both the Mississippi State and Mississippi Sports Halls of Fame. A knee injury incurred while playing both ways for the Bulldogs left him unable to pass the Patriots' physical.
"They had said it was cartilage and it ended up being ligament. It was a complete tear," remembered the now-64 year-old diamond dealer, speaking in a thick Southern drawl. "They were going to run us on the 40, and my leg wouldn't bend enough. It kept catching in the grass. I couldn't get down in a defensive stance and couldn't get into the left tackle stance because it was the wrong leg that was extended.
"They wanted to send me home and come back next year. I said, 'No, I've just driven thirteen-hundred miles, I'm not going home.' They said, 'Play right tackle.' I was able to get down in a stance and I made the team. After the third game I was able to get the starting position."
Quickly carving out a niche for himself as an outstanding pass-blocker in Head Coach Mike Holovak's offense, which featured Vito "Babe" Parilli at quarterback, Neville attended the Pro Bowl in 1966 and again two years later. The Patriots became his family, and when the identity of the team finally solidified, so did his role.
"We'd played at Fenway Park and Harvard and Boston College," said Neville, who went on to become a member of the Pats' 10 Year Anniversary Team. "We were living out of suitcases for five years while I was there. We felt like orphans. We used to practice near Logan Airport, at White Stadium. A plane would fly over and you'd have to wait until it would roll over to hear the calls. We sat on milk cartons in the trainer's room. The trainer had to lean to one side when he taped, because the stadium was tilted, I'm not kidding. We watched film on a sheet.
"Once they got [Schaefer Stadium], I think that really helped solidify the whole image. We changed from the Boston Patriots to New England at that point. The stadium gave us a chance to be a recognized team."
In 1973, Chuck Fairbanks took over as head coach. He began rebuilding the team by drafting offensive guard John Hannah fourth overall. Both being from Alabama, Neville and Hannah quickly formed a lasting bond.
"Tommy was kind of my mentor when I first got there," said Hannah. "He was in his eighth year. He kind of took me under his wing and helped me adjust to the world of pro football.
"I remember the first night we got to Amherst, where camp was at that time. I got through at practice and walked into a watering hole called 'Checkers.' He was sitting at the bar and he said, 'Hannah, come over here!' So I went over and he bought a bottle of champagne and we sat and drank it. He congratulated me on coming to the Patriots and welcomed me aboard. He told me he had gotten a phone call from my old high school coach and it was his job to basically look after me."
Neville was a staple of the Patriots offense for over a decade, but in 1975, he broke a leg. It healed, but the doctors realized a ligament had been trapped during the healing process. They re-broke Neville's leg just six months after the original injury, and he was hard-pressed to return before the 1976 season.
"I came to training camp and didn't pass the physical, so I didn't practice with the team," said Neville.
"He was running figure eights, and there was a spot on the ground where you could see that he actually wore an eight into the ground trying to get that ankle strong," remembered Hannah, noting that Neville was activated right before the first game of the season. "To see him rehabilitate himself like that and the kind of effort he put into it was a great example for a lot of us."
One player Neville set an example for was rookie center Peter Brock, another first-round offensive lineman. He came aboard the year of Neville's injury.
"I was two weeks late getting to Training Camp," said Brock, who was participating in the Chicago Tribune All-Star game at the time. "Red Miller, who was our offensive line coach, said that I had no free time unless it was spent with Tommy Neville going over the playbook and game plans. I spent all my free time outside of practice and meetings with him. He was in his 12th year. He helped me immensely."
After leaving the Patriots, Neville started for the Broncos in 1978 and moved on to the Giants the following year, where a head injury ultimately ended his playing career at the age of 36. He moved back to Montgomery, Ala., where he now operates a diamond jewelry wholesaler. He doesn't watch much football these days, but he likes to reflect on his career with the Patriots.
"I guess it's all a part of where you put your values," he said. "I think the value was the people you played the game with. The Patriots were my family."