Five years ago, life was a lot different for Stephen Neal. At times struggling financially, his future was in limbo. He was training for the U.S. Nationals, where he looked to become the top U.S. heavyweight again.
Just one year earlier, Neal was the defending World champion, before getting unseated by Kerry McCoy in 2000. But going into the 2001 U.S. Nationals, Neal knew it would be his last year as a wrestler – no matter what happened. He had made the choice to try out for NFL scouts and work to be signed as a free agent.
Improbable? Neal did not play football in college. Impossible? His mix of size, strength and athleticism made him an interesting prospect for any team that had nothing to lose by taking a risk.
There were other options, too. Kurt Angle had become a star entertainer for the WWE, and Neal had been approached by their executives. But that was not a life he was interested in.
“I always wanted to play football,” Neal said. “I just got real fortunate to step in at the right time. I’m glad the option was there. I was originally going to try to pursue this in 2000 if I made the Olympic Team. I was trying to set the process in motion from my end of it. I just got lucky that Matt Ghaffari introduced me to my current agency, who then got me a tryout.”
That tryout turned into a free agent contract to join the New England Patriots practice squad. If Neal was to succeed in football, he would have to change everything he knew from competing at a high level in wrestling.
There was no more individuality. Everything needed to be done as one cohesive unit – a team.
“When you’re playing football, there’s 22 guys on the playing surface. In wrestling, there are two guys. In wrestling, you see if the guy’s going to head butt you or not. In football, you don’t see where the blows are coming from,” Neal stated. “There are a few skills that are similar. You have to have pretty good balance. You definitely need a lot of strength. You just have to expect to win.”
The biggest gap came in technique, Neal said. He had to learn not only his job on every play, but the jobs of his teammates as well.
But he did have one thing on his side. Even though Neal did not play college football, as every other player in training camp for the Patriots had that year, he received a lot of respect from his teammates.
“They knew I was a top athlete from another sport. They knew I didn’t have the football skills, but they all believed I could get it done,” Neal said.
Nearly five years ago after his first tryout with an NFL team, Neal is now a starting guard for the three-time World champion Patriots and one of the most respected offensive linemen in the NFL. His life, once consumed by wrestling and worrying about where his next check would come from, is now consumed by NFL playbooks, his wife Jodee and his two children, three-year old Colby and one-year old Jillian.
While so much has changed with Neal, even more has changed within wrestling. New weight classes. New rules. New faces. He finds it hard to keep up sometimes.
“I try to watch (wrestling) as much as I can. I try to follow the college stuff. As for the international, it’s impossible for me to watch the Worlds or anything. We are in the middle of training camp and starting our season,” Neal said. “I was pretty excited when Tolly (Thompson) took third in the world. Tolly’s a great guy. We went back and forth competing in international and college, so for him to represent the country and take third is a cool thing.”
“It’s tough, too, when FILA keeps changing the rules. I mean, I won a World title and barely understand what’s going on now. But I would have loved to have had that push-out rule when I was wrestling,” Neal added with a laugh.
Neal also found time to see some of his old training partners and teammates competing in the inaugural season of Real Pro Wrestling.
“I think it’s really exciting. You watch a lot of the other sports and they hype up the players and they hype up how intense it is. Real Pro Wrestling is doing that for wrestling. I think it’s cool you get teams and fans that are excited about it. You need a fan base to help your sport grow.”
Even with the possibility of RPW, Neal still would have taken a chance at the NFL. It was his goal. It was his dream.
And while Neal does not know how long he will play in the NFL, though he says he’ll keep going as long as they let him play, he does know what he wants to do when his football career is over.
“I think I’d get back involved with wrestling. Running kind of sucks, and it’s always good to get out there in the wrestling room. You compete and you battle, and that would be a good way for me to get my weight down when football’s over,” Neal said. “I weighed about 265 (lbs.) when I competed. These new weights would have been good for me. But right now, I weigh around 300. I can’t wait to get back down.”
That weight, however, may help him in the New England winter time, along with helping him to keep some of the most powerful men in the world from laying a finger on the quarterback he protects.
But one question will always remain among wrestling and football enthusiasts alike – which is more satisfying, winning an individual World title or a team World title?
“It is hard to compare. When I won in 1999, I was out there on the mat by myself. In football, there’s 53 guys on the team, so you share that victory with everyone. The bonding of a team is really special, but the individual championship is great because of how much work you’ve put in.”
Five years ago, who would have thought he would have to answer that question? Certainly not Neal, the Patriot who will always have one more World title than his teammates.