To say New England Patriots guard Stephen Neal took a non-traditional route to the NFL would be a major understatement.
After all, Neal never played a single down of football at Cal State-Bakersfield. What he did do was carve out arguably the most impressive wrestling career in school history.
For example, Neal:
- Received the 1999 Dan Hodge Award, which is considered the Heisman Trophy of college wrestling.
- Won two NCAA Division I championships.
- Broke the CSUB record for pins in a season (31) and in a career (71).
- Graduated as only the second four-time champion in Pac-10 history.
- Compiled a 151-10 career record.
- Captured the U.S. Freestyle Championship, the Pan-American Games title and the World Championship.
And to think at one time he weighed a paltry 135 pounds as a freshman at San Diego High School.
"I was kind of a late bloomer," Neal said. "That's why I probably didn't get a good opportunity to play football. I was about the same height [back then], but weighed about 210 pounds.
"I played linebacker and offensive line just to help out. I wrestled at 189 [pounds] my senior year and didn't have that many opportunities to play football. I chose wrestling. [Cal State-Bakersfield] didn't have football."
After graduation, Neal tried to hook on with the Philadelphia Eagles but was cut in training camp and placed on the team's practice squad.
The Patriots signed him from the Eagles' practice squad in December of 2001.
"I always wanted to play football," Neal said. "It always was my dream. I wrestled because I also enjoyed wrestling. But my coaches knew from the very beginning that I was going to see if I could do it.
"They were very supportive and believed in me. It worked out that I got a great opportunity and I made the most of it."
It took patience and determination for Neal to seize his opportunities in New England. In October of 2002, the Patriots placed him on injured reserve. Then in August of 2003, he was placed on the PUP list following shoulder surgery. That season, of course, New England won its second Super Bowl.
Shoulder injuries cost him three games in 2006 and eight in 2007. Then, he injured a knee in Super Bowl XLII, which forced him to begin 2008 on the PUP list and miss the first five games of the season.
The last time he played every game in a season prior to 2009 was in 2005.
"I think when I got hurt for the second year in a row, I was sitting there and had played in just under a half of football," Neal said. "I hurt myself and in mini-camp the next year I hurt myself again. I really didn't even know if I could make it through an NFL game the next year."
Ironically, Neal is now in his eighth season and is one of only four remaining Patriots who've been with the team for all three of its Super Bowl titles. The other players are Tom Brady, Kevin Faulk and Matt Light.
"Your goal is to get your body in the best shape possible and hope to improve from last year," Neal said. "Fortunately, I've been able to play with some great players. With Tom Brady, if I miss a block, he's going to make me look good and get rid of the ball quickly."
Neal was inspired to play in the NFL after hearing about former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Carlton Hasselrig, who was a six-time NCAA Division I and II wrestling champion at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown.
Hasselrig also didn't play a down of college football, yet in 1992 he was named to play in the Pro Bowl.
"I always was told stories about his making the transition to football," Neal said. "I've never met him. But I always thought I wanted to be like Carlton Hasselrig and make the transition to football and live my dreams."
In recent years, Neal has appeared before elementary and secondary school students and stressed what they must do in order to "live their dreams." In 2008, he addressed 500 Medford (Mass.) elementary school students about the importance of reading and staying in school.
"I'll do wrestling clinics and talk to kids not only about the importance of reading but also the importance of listening to your coaches and listening to your parents," Neal said. "They have a lot more experience in life. If you listen to them you're going to get life experiences.
"My daughter is 6 [years old] and is starting to read and she loves it. You can't do anything if you don't have that skill."
And, as Neal has shown, the more skills you have, the better off you'll be.
- Mike Scandura, Red Line Editorial
Please note:This article is originally appeared on the NFL Players Association website. A link to the original article can be found below: