Patriots right guard Stephen Neal spends about six months per year trying to protect the organization’s greatest asset — quarterback Tom Brady. During this offseason, though, Neal has been busy looking out for something else that is near and dear to him.
Cal State Bakersfield, where Neal was a two-time national champion wrestler, has made serious budget cuts in its athletic department, slashing its men’s wrestling, men’s and women’s golf and women’s tennis programs.
The university has given the four sports until May 21 to raise $1.4 million, plus an additional $500,000 for the athletic department, to keep those programs alive. The money would be enough to fund the four programs for two years, and all four need to be reinstated together due to gender-equity reasons.
Neal has always donated time and money to Cal State’s wrestling program, but he has taken an increased role over the last couple of months. While home in Southern California — healing from a tough season and briefly contemplating retirement — Neal made a handful of seven-hour round trips to Bakersfield to assist in the fundraising efforts, and his presence has been tremendously appreciated by all involved.
“He has been a big part of this program,” said Cal State assistant coach Mike Mendoza, who was also Neal’s teammate in college. “The wrestling community here is a big fan of his just because of his success that he had here for the university and then after his career here. It’s been huge. There are a lot of people that he has attracted to the program just because of his success, and he’s been a big part of the success that the wrestling program has had. He’s been a big part of that. He’s been a huge help in helping us make contacts and appealing to the rest of the community.”
Neal has collected autographs and memorabilia from his friends in the football and wrestling world, and everything will be auctioned or raffled off throughout the next two months. Cal State Bakerfield is holding an important fundraiser April 8, and Neal plans to be in attendance.
“If it wasn’t for the Cal State wrestling program, there’s no way I’d be able to play in the NFL, so I want to make sure it’s there for other people’s opportunities down the road,” said Neal, who signed a two-year contract extension with the Patriots earlier this month. “Someday, if my kid wants to go there and wrestle, I’d like for that program to still be alive.”
Mendoza said the wrestling program is in charge of raising about $500,000. With the help of some donations and budget reconstructions — head coach T.J. Kerr, who had been at Cal State Bakerfield for 25 years, stepped down to sacrifice his salary — the wrestling program had raised $111,000 as of late last week.
There are more donations rolling in, and Mendoza remains confident they can really get this thing done. Yet, he knows if the program dies, it’s probably dead for good.
“Certainly, it was a devastating blow to us,” Mendoza said about the cuts. “Obviously, the economic climate out here in California is tough, and education is getting hit pretty good. Unfortunately, we know it’s a timeframe here where the economy is bad. It’s not going to be bad forever, but decisions like this where programs are eliminated, they don’t bring programs back. When programs are eliminated, bringing them back is tough to do. The history and success here has been great.
“While you have something built up, if you eliminate it, to try to reinstate it or bring it back, it’s something that is real tough to do. It’s hard for us to swallow in this period of bad economy. It’s kind of a more permanent decision. We don’t like to think about it. We have to find a way to keep the program going, and the focus for us now is to get the program reinstated so there will be a future to provide the opportunities that I had and Steve had.”
Bakersfield’s wrestling program had a similar scare in 1996 when Mendoza and Neal were on the team, so they’re unfortunately familiar with how to handle such a situation.
“There’s a lot of strong support here,” Mendoza said. “There are a lot of people willing to help out with their time and willing to give financial support. I think there’s only one way to look at it for us. To win this, we’ve got to work toward raising money. While some people could be real discouraged by this, we just have the attitude that we’re going to get it done and we’re going to keep working until it’s done.”
Mendoza and the program are also grateful to have Neal in their corner. The New England offensive lineman is the biggest celebrity associated with the athletic department’s efforts, and this process would be infinitely more difficult without his pull.
“He’s been just great,” said Mendoza, who talks to Neal on a daily basis. “He’s just an awesome guy. He’s back here helping, and he’s been working hard to help us out.”
To make a donation or read more about the cause, visit SaveBakersfieldWrestling.com. You can also make a $10 donation by texting “WIN” to 25383. All donations will be completely refunded if they fall short of their goal. NESN.com will continue to update this story as it unfolds.