On first glance, the signing of wrestling Olympic hopeful Stephen Neal as a defensive lineman might appear to be an act of desperation from a team thin at that position.
However, upon further examination, this signing is lined with intrigue. Neal, 24, was a 5 sport athlete at San Diego High School. He lettered in wrestling, football, swimming, tennis, and track and field. He chose wrestling as his sport of choice, attending California Sate University at Bakersfield. During his collegiate wrestling career, he racked up a 156-10 record, including an 83-0 record in his last two seasons.
Neal was named All-American wrestler all 4 years at CSUB and won the Dan Hodge Award (Heisman Trophy of wrestling). In 1999, after winning his first NCAA title, Neal won five consecutive matches to capture gold at the World Freestyle Championship. Did I mention he was a rookie straight out of college? He went on to win his second NCAA title and win at the University Nationals, USAW Nationals, World Team Trials, Pan Am Games and the World Championships! Neal did in a single year what many athletes don’t do in an entire career!
So why would such a gifted wrestler suddenly decide to become a defensive end on a NFL football team? The truth is that Neal has been considering such a move ever since he decided to pursue wrestling in college instead of football. He had indicated such an interest in several interviews during his wrestling career. It’s also been suggested that he should try out as a TE as well, another position in which the Patriots are looking for answers. Lastly, Neal was beaten out for an Olympic wrestling bid by nationally ranked #2 wrestler Kerry McKoy last year. With his dream of wrestling in the Olympics on hold, Neal may have seen this as the perfect opportunity to pursue his other athletic interest…football.
His repressed desire to play football all these years may explain why Neal wants the Patriots, but should the Patriots want Neal? Now we are at the root of the question surrounding this signing. Some have suggested that because he was signed before Seymour would agree to terms, that he was only intended to be a body for training camp. Some might suggest that with the condition of our current Dline, any signing couldn’t hurt. However, the team is most desperate at NT while Neal is projected as a DE. Another possibility is that the intangibles of a world class athlete who rose to such an expedient and resounding success in a sport where every ounce of body weight is scrutinized for the maximum efficiency of strength verses weight is something that could be of use in the NFL. Is strength, incredible conditioning, heart, determination, and a history of achieving greatness enough to offset the obvious lack of football experience as a DE in the NFL? I think we’re about to find out fellow Patriot fans.
Before you count Stephen Neal as just another body, consider the fact that at least for one year, he turned the wrestling world on its collective head. Also consider the guy’s gritty attitude and shockingly gruesome work ethic. Once, after gashing his hand during a workout, Neal walked over to a wall and scribed “HARD WORK” on it with his own blood! You won’t be seeing Brandon Mitchell do that in case you were wondering. Also of interest is that in high school, he once pinned Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams in a wrestling match. Now if he can just prove his ability to wrap up Ricky on the iron grid, he may be able to win a roster spot. One thing is for sure, Neal is the kind of lunch pail carrying overachiever that Belichick likes. With 290 pounds of solid muscle on his 6’5″ frame, it’s unlikely that even the hard nose Bill Belichick will be able to scrutinize Neal’s physical condition when he shows up at camp.
So what is it? A crazy signing by a team desperate for help on the Dline? Or a gamble that one of the world’s greatest athletes can make the leap from one sport to another and do to the NFL in 2001 what he did to the wrestling world in 1999? It’s easy to choose the first, but with Stephen Neal, I would never rule out the latter.
Avid Patriot Fan
***Information for this article was taken from the following sources:
“Heavy Metal” by Brian Cazeneuve, Sports Illustrated, 10/19/1999
“Catching Up With Stephen Neal” by Jeff Blatnick, NBCOlympics.com, 11/12/1999
“Patriots Sign Free Agent Defensive Lineman Stephen Neal”, by The Patriots Media Relations Dept., Patriots.com, 07/23/2001
Posted Under: 2001 NFL Offseason
Tags: 2001 Patriots Offseason New England Patriots Stephen Neal