New England right guard Stephen Neal famously didn’t play a down of college football — he was a wrestler at Cal State-Bakersfield, and a darn good one at that, winning two NCAA heavyweight championships.
So when word came in February that the school would cut wrestling along with men’s and women’s golf and women’s tennis due to budgetary issues, Neal worked to help save the programs.
And, he is thrilled to report, the sports have received a respite.
Speaking after a pair of assemblies at Ahern Middle School in Foxborough, where he, Sebastian Vollmer and Damione Lewis encouraged the students to take part in a summer reading program, Neal said word came last week that school president Horace Mitchell had spared the sports for one year.
Through fundraising, including an event last month, nearly $700,000 has been raised, enough to fund the four sports for the coming school year (they will not receive any state funds); Mitchell had told the support group in February that if $1.4 million was raised by late May, the programs could be spared for two years. He has seen enough so far to keep them going.
“We still have to fundraise,” Neal said. “But it’s not discontinued anymore, so that’s good.
“It’s important for those kids [at the school], and my kids, if they wanted to compete at my school,” to save those programs, he said.
This isn’t the first time Bakersfield’s wrestling program was on the chopping block: in 1996, when Neal was a freshman, it was cut, “but the community stepped up and funded the program. If they hadn’t done that, who knows where I’d be.”
Neal, Vollmer and Lewis talked to the students at Ahern about the importance of reading, bringing along a Patriots’ playbook — a four-inch thick blue binder — to show off some of the reading they have to do for their “teachers,” New England’s coaches.
Neal told one of the students that his favorite authors are Michael Crichton (who died in 2008), Dan Brown and Clive Cussler; he does not have a favorite book, but reads nearly everything those men publish.