It’s been four months since he’s been here full-time, and a lot of interesting stuff has happened in between for the club’s starting right guard.
He talked about retiring the day of the Baltimore loss, re-committed to playing, hit the free agent market (briefly), and decided to return to New England … And that’s the tip of the iceberg. Outside of getting ready for another season in the trenches, Neal has thrown himself headlong into helping save the Cal State-Bakersfield wrestling program. We covered this back in March, and it’s clear Neal’s passion for the subject hasn’t waned in the least.
“This thing’s been growing so fast, everyone’s really rallied behind us,” Neal said today at Gillette. “The big thing is, I’m not trying to save this for me, I’m not trying to save this for my coach. I’m trying to save it for the kids who are wrestling, and my kids, your kids, whomever’s kids want that opportunity.”
Neal’s got a small army from the professional athlete community behind him. In fact, his Patriot buddies Tom Brady, Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi have given memerobilia to be auctioned off at a May 15 dinner. And other NFLers like Matt Hasselbeck, David Carr (a Bakersfield native) and Gene Mruczkowski (who’s tapping brother Scott to get Chargers stuff) have involved themselves, as have big-names from other sports like Kevin Harvick and Brock Lesnar.
Here’s the deal: the effort is actually to save four sports (men’s and women’s golf, women’s tennis, wrestling) at the school, and the fundraisers need to come up with $1.4 million by May 21, which will give those teams a two-year reprieve. Neal reports the wrestling program has already raised $500,000.
The budget crisis in California precipitated all this and the hope is that, after the two aforementioned years, the state will be in better shape to support the sports with fee referendums. In case that doesn’t happen, Neal and Co. plan to continue to raise money, if they do get the reprieve, to fund the programs.
Again, Neal says his motivation is to give more kids the opportunity he had to become a star heavyweight at the school.
“I gotta do everything I can to make sure that opportunity’s still available to them,” he said. “We have raised a ton of money, the whole community of Bakersfield is pretty fired up about it.”
Just 11 days ago, Neal got another advocate as a teammate — Illinois heavyweight John Wise.
Wise will try to make the same transition that Neal did, going from college wrestling to pro football. The truth is, Neal’s the outlier, and the experiments usually don’t work. But the Patriot veteran is optimistic with this one.
“I’ve talked to John on the phone. He’s a great kid and if he’s a wrestler, he’s a hard worker,” Neal said. “You love having that around, that gets contagious and people work harder and harder. That’s a great thing.
“I said, ‘Hey, just try to come out here and learn as much you can and do what they tell you.’ Because, for me, everybody knew a lot more about football than I did when I got here. I just kept my mouth shut, did exactly what they told me to do, and worked hard. That hard work, even if you have bad technique, they can see you work hard.”
Neal said one advantage he had as a wrestler was being able to fight his way out of awkward angles and bad spots.
But in every other way, it was an uphill climb.
“The toughest thing is the language,” Neal said. “You’re making all these different calls – now I know what the calls me, but back then? It’s, ‘OK, he said this, does that mean that?’ You think for that split-second, and the play’s over and you didn’t do what you were supposed to do. Learning the language, and then learning your assignment, and then learning what all the other people around are doing, that’s huge too.
“That took me probably 2-3 years to figure all that stuff out.”
Anyway, so Neal’s working on a few different things now. Playing. Mentoring. And trying to save his college wrestling program.
If you want to help out with that last one — something I’d encourage anyone who’s ever been involved in and benefited from athletics to do — then go right here to savebakersfieldwrestling.com.