Back in college, Stephen Neal owned a San Diego Chargers coffee mug that was also emblazoned with the NFL insignia. One day, Neal was sitting around with his wrestling teammates at Cal State Bakersfield when he grabbed their attention and made a proclamation.
"He said, 'Some day, I?m going to be playing in the NFL,'" recalled Mike Mendoza, who was Neal?s teammate at the time. "This is his junior year in college, and it was something that was funny. I remember him saying that. Fortunately, he had the opportunity to try out. He believed it. If you know him, he?s the kind of guy who, if he sets his mind to something, he can get it done."
Neal was a two-time national champion wrestler in college, but his football career had been put on hold after high school. Even though Mendoza said he didn?t think much of Neal?s comment at the time, he admired Neal?s athletic ability enough to realize that lofty goal might not be too much of a long shot, at least in comparison to other student-athletes who hadn?t played football since they were 18 years old.
"I guess I didn?t really take his comment too seriously," Mendoza said. "It was just a comment that he made. I would never doubt it, but I didn?t really take the comment seriously to tell you the truth. But am I surprised at all [that Neal has found success in the NFL]? Not in the least, and if you know Steve, he?s got a champion?s mindset."
The Patriots signed Neal as an undrafted free agent in 2001, and head coach Bill Belichick let Neal work out to see if he was better suited on the offensive or defensive line. Neal was released late in the preseason and picked up by the Eagles, who placed him on their practice squad. In December 2001, New England signed Neal to its active roster, and he has been in Foxboro ever since.
Neal battled a string of injuries, and only played in two games during his first three seasons in the league, but Belichick obviously liked enough about the wrestler to keep bringing him back. Neal eventually took over as the starting right guard in 2004, and aside from a few injuries, that has been his job for the last six seasons. Mendoza never saw a slip in Neal?s resiliency, even as he suffered through bad luck in the injury department.
"When I did talk with him, he always had a positive attitude," said Mendoza, who is now the assistant wrestling coach at Bakersfield. "It was, 'I got hurt, but I?ll be fine. I?ll be all right.' Whether he had to fight through an injury or work to recover from it, it was always, ?I?ll be fine.? He was never discouraged by any injury he had early on in his NFL career. And of course now, he?s been there for a while, and it has been a grind to fight in any sport I guess. He always has the right attitude."
Neal contemplated retirement during this offseason, but he just wasn?t ready to walk away from the game and signed a two-year contract to stay with the Patriots. The offensive lineman has also spent plenty of time with Mendoza in the last couple of months, as the two are trying to raise enough money to reinstate the wrestling program that was slashed after university budget cuts.
When Neal finally concluded he wanted to return for another season, he still seemed unsure as to whether or not there would be a market for his services. That?s just part of his humble nature, something Mendoza has seen in Neal for more than a decade.
"I know he was thinking about [retirement]," Mendoza said. "But even before this last contract, it was just, 'I hope they want me.' He?s super humble, almost too humble to where it was, 'I don?t even know if any teams are going to want me. Hopefully, the Patriots want me.' He?s a great player, and of course they?re going to want him. If not, somebody is. After this last season, I think he wanted to let his body heal and make a decision. He?s feeling good again, so he decided to play."