Neal wrestled only slightly with his decision
There was a shot that Stephen Neal could play football next season for the Patriots, but it wasn’t a great shot.
And even if he overcame the odds to get back on the field, if he hurt his shoulder again, he’d likely be looking at joint replacement.
So the 10-year veteran, who pursued his interest in football after a stellar career as an amateur wrestler, chose to retire.
“If I get injured again, it’s not going to be too good,’’ Neal said via conference call from his California home yesterday. “I have a great family and I want to be there for them. I want to be able to throw a ball better with my right hand than my left, which I’m working on right now.
“The decision needed to be made, so I figured this is the best time to do it.’’
The labor situation in the NFL also played a role. In the event of a lockout, rehabbing players such as Neal will have no contact with team medical staffs and strength and conditioning coaches.
Neal thanked his wrestling coaches at Cal State-Bakersfield, Patriots coaches Bill Belichick and Dante Scarnecchia, owner Robert Kraft, his teammates, and the fans.
In a statement, Belichick said, “They don’t come any better than Steve Neal. In terms of improvement and development as a player, Steve may have accomplished more than any player I have ever been around.
“His toughness, intelligence, and competitiveness were at rare levels and all contributed to him going from being a champion in an individual sport to being an integral part of championship teams.’’
On Wednesday, Kraft noted that Neal’s transformation from champion wrestler to NFL offensive lineman “was amazing to see.’’
A four-time wrestling All-American in college, Neal won a US title, a Pan American Games title, and a world championship all in 1999 — which led FILA, the sport’s governing body, to name him the world’s best.
But after missing out on a chance to compete in the 2000 Summer Olympics, he began another pursuit, in a sport he hadn’t played since high school: football. Once upon a time, Neal had designs on catching passes or sacking the quarterback, but given his size, he was more suited for the offensive line.
Asked if there was a memory that stood out, he offered two: the day he earned his first start, against Green Bay in 2002, and Super Bowl XXXIX.
“I’d never been in the huddle for a real game, just for preseason,’’ he said. “So I look around the huddle. I just look at Tom Brady, the returning Super Bowl MVP, sitting there, and he has confidence in each and every one of us in that huddle. I’m like, ‘Why should you believe in me? I’m just some wrestler who is here.’
“The confidence he showed in me truly shows the leadership qualities he possesses because you can’t do it alone. You need each and every one there doing their job. That moment right there made me feel like this was really happening and the start of something special.
“And definitely, in 2005, when we won the Super Bowl against Philly, that was something I’ll never forget because I was actually playing in that Super Bowl.’’
Tender times The Patriots announced last night that they extended tenders to three players: restricted free agents BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Jarrad Page, and exclusive-rights free agent Kyle Arrington. According to league sources, both Green-Ellis and Page were tendered at the second-round level, so a team signing either of them has to surrender a second-round pick to New England. The tender level could be considered a positive sign for both players. Green-Ellis was a rookie free agent in 2008; Page was acquired from Kansas City during training camp last year for a seventh-round pick. Of course, as of now, it is unclear whether the tenders will be valid under a new CBA. Offensive lineman Quinn Ojinnaka, acquired in a preseason trade with Atlanta, was eligible to receive a tender but did not, so he will become a free agent.
Do-it-yourself Jerod Mayo, Rob Ninkovich, Rob Gronkowski, Patrick Chung, and Leigh Bodden were at Children’s Hospital yesterday to visit patients and take part in a radio telethon. They were asked about the topic of the day — the prospect of a lockout. “I’m going to work out in my basement,’’ Mayo said. “I got a Bowflex. I have a DVD player to set up my film. Like I said, a Bowflex and a treadmill. I’ll be all right.’’ In case of a lockout, Ninkovich said, he’ll work out with Mayo.