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Patriots' Neal trying to pin down the NFL

FOXBOROUGH -- It had been seven years since Stephen Neal played football, and now he had to play at the highest level, against men who had dedicated their lives to the sport. Safe to say, his challenges were different from those of his teammates. Much different. Even in the locker room.

"Putting on all that gear, it weighs a lot," Neal said. "Trying to remember how to put it on, back then it was challenging."

Neal has come a long way since then, as evidenced by his performance Saturday night in the Patriots' 20-17 exhibition loss to the Carolina Panthers. Neal played more -- and better -- than he had all preseason, coming in for Ross Hochstein to start the Patriots' third possession at guard. His neutralizing of Julius Peppers helped give Tom Brady time to scan the field and find a wide-open Daniel Graham for the Patriots' first touchdown.

It was an impressive play, shutting down one of the NFL's best pass rushers. But it paled in comparison to Neal's metamorphosis from elite college wrestler to NFL offensive lineman.

At Cal State-Bakersfield, Neal didn't play football. Instead, he wrestled, reaching the apex of his sport by the time he graduated.

But by the time he stopped wrestling three years after he left CSUB, Neal decided he wanted to try football, which he had last played as a high school senior.

"Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to play football," Neal said. "I think it's the best sport out there. I just wanted to do it. I always had a lot of confidence in my abilities."

Of course, a lot of kids want to grow up and play pro football. A lot of college wrestlers probably do, too. But few, if any, are on NFL rosters.

That's where Neal separates himself. His senior season in high school, Neal was the fourth-best 189-pound wrestler in California. Four years later, he was perhaps the best on the planet in any weight division.

After that, Neal decided he could do anything he applied himself to. Playing in the NFL? Most figure it's a fantasy. To Neal, it was achievable.

"It's crazy," Patriot tackle Matt Light said. "It's something I've been doing my whole life, and it takes everything I've got to keep up with this level. It's hard to imagine doing this without having experienced it at all in college. It's pretty amazing."

But Neal soon realized that you need something even more important than a good work ethic to succeed in the NFL: health. After signing with the Patriots in July 2001 as a defensive lineman, he was waived a month later and picked up by the Eagles for their practice squad.

In Philadelphia, he was converted to offense, and the Patriots signed him again. In 2002, he was a candidate to start on the offensive line, but injuries derailed his season, and he played in just two games.

Shoulder problems sprang up again last season, and he missed all of training camp and the regular season. The lost time hurt Neal, who had been playing catch-up as it was.

"His development hit a roadblock there because he wasn't really able to work on football; he was working more on his rehab," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "So maybe he didn't advance as much as another player would have in that year and a half. I wouldn't say he [went] backwards. It is just that the rate of development was slowed there for a time."

Though he couldn't play, Neal immersed himself in the playbook and entrenched himself in the fabric of the offensive line. His teammates learned how loose he was. Well, except in one situation.

"Don't try to wrestle him," said Light. "He gets pretty serious then."

Wrestling remains close to Neal's heart. For the past three years, he has served as an assistant strength coach for the CSUB Roadrunners. Once the NFL season ends, Neal will return to Bakersfield and resume those duties. It's been good practice for Neal, who wants to become a college wrestling coach when he finishes his football career.

He'll have a lot of experience for teaching. At CSUB, Neal posted a 156-10 record, finishing his career with 88 straight victories. His senior season, 1999, Neal won the Dan Hodge Award, wrestling's version of the Heisman Trophy, and his second straight individual NCAA championship.

Wrestling has given Neal some special memories. While at San Diego High, he wrestled against recently retired Dolphins running back Ricky Williams. In college, he grappled with Brock Lesnar, a WWE star who was trying to catch on as a defensive lineman with the Minnesota Vikings but was released yesterday.

His world-class skill as a wrestler helps him in football. Before he took an NFL snap, Neal had mastered the balance necessary to play the interior line. He also naturally uses techniques with his hands that other lineman have to be coached on.

That left a lot of technique to be learned. But his biggest gap was simply awareness, just being a football player.

"The first year I came in, I didn't really know what was going on," Neal said. "They moved me to offense, and then I was really lost."

Now, he can anticipate a stunt on the defensive line or realize when a linebacker is about to blitz. He still needs to work on his run blocking and finishing blocks, but Neal has made huge gains this preseason, considering he didn't play a down last year.

"Steve's game has improved a lot during this preseason," Belichick said. "He got to a good point in the 2002 season that was respectable and competitive and I think this year he started slightly above that point."

But Neal isn't satisfied. Though he owns two Super Bowl rings, he knows he didn't do a whole lot to earn them. This season, he wants to change that.

"I'm happy for everything I've done, but in my mind I really haven't done too much," Neal said. "I need to be more of a contributor to the Patriots. They've helped me out a lot by keeping me around for so long, and I have to pick it up."

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