New England Patriots offensive lineman Stephen Neal's unexpected 10-year NFL career is coming to an end. Neal, who improbably went from collegiate wrestler to professional football blocker, is retiring, the team announced Wednesday.
The decision does not come as a surprise. The 34-year-old Neal had considered retirement last offseason before re-signing with the Patriots for two years.
"In my mind, I've always had something to shoot for," said Neal. "For me not to have that, I'm just not sure what's going to happen. I always want to have a chance to do something. Talking to the doctors, trainers and coaches, realistically, there's a shot I can play, but it's not a very good shot. If I get injured again, it's not going to be too good.
"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. That's kind of what it comes down to. The decision needed to be made, so I figured this is the best time to do it."
"They don't come any better than Steve Neal," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said in a statement. "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. I congratulate Steve for an incredible career and thank him for everything he did for me personally, our team and organization."
Neal's progression from college wrestler to pro football player was one of Belichick's favorite stories to tell.
Neal had not played football at Cal State-Bakersfield; instead, he was a top wrestler, posting a 151-10 record that included two Division I titles. In 2001, Neal signed with the Patriots as a rookie free agent and Belichick has joked in the past that the team had to teach him how to put on football equipment.
"As a wrestler, you never want to back down," Neal said. "So, I'll always be a wrestler. But football is a true love of mine and I was so fortunate I got to play at the highest level and for a great organization and team."
By 2004, Neal broke through as a consistent starter, the balance and leverage he had utilized in wrestling transferring to the field. One of the high points of his career came that season when he was the starting right guard as the Patriots won Super Bowl XXXIX.
He had a few other favorites as well.
"One is from 2002, the first game I played in Green Bay, I get into the huddle and I'm starting the game," Neal said. "I'd never been in the huddle for a real game, just for preseason. So I look around the huddle. I'm a pretty good judge of people. 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.'"
In all, Neal played in 86 regular-season games, with 81 starts. He also played in 12 playoff games, starting each of them.
Injuries have been mounting for Neal in recent years. In 2010, he was limited to eight games with a shoulder injury and was placed on season-ending injured reserve Dec. 2. After the season, Neal said he planned to rehab his shoulder injury and then make a decision about his playing future.
Six-year veteran Dan Connolly, who took over Neal's spot at right guard last season after his injury, is the team's projected starter entering 2011.
This could be one of several changes for the Patriots along the offensive line, as starting left tackle Matt Light is scheduled for unrestricted free agency and starting left guard Logan Mankins has been assigned the franchise tag.