Patriots right guard Stephen Neal announced his retirement yesterday, a move that was not completely unexpected. Neal had thought about retiring last offseason before signing a two-year deal with the Pats. However, he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury eight games into the season and was placed on injured reserve. Neal’s rise to a starting guard in the NFL is nothing less than extraordinary. He didn’t play a single down of college football, but was a championship collegiate wrestler. He was the only man to defeat former WWE superstar and current UFC fighter Brock Lesnar in college and earned the Dan Hodge award. He was a member of the team for all three Super Bowl championships.
He was in training camp in 2001 with the Pats before being released, signed to the Eagles’ practice squad, and then signed to New England’s active roster in December 2001. He missed the 2003 Super Bowl season due to injury but became the starter during 2004 and started throughout the playoffs and in the Super Bowl against the Eagles. Throughout his career, he was one of the most consistent players on the line and was a starter when the Patriots offense shattered offensive records in 2007.
While reflecting on his career, Neal commented that his top two memories were his first game start against Green Bay in 2002, getting into the huddle with Tom Brady, and winning the Patriots’ third Super Bowl in 2004.
“Then in [the 2004 season] winning the Super Bowl over Philly. That’s something I’ll never forget, playing in the Super Bowl. Winning a championship by yourself is great, but winning with your teammates, coaches, the training staff, it’s even better. We all had the same feeling.”
Bill Belichick commented on Stephen Neal:
“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. I congratulate Steve for an incredible career and thank him for everything he did for me personally, our team and organization.”
Neal’s retirement leaves last year’s starter at left and then right guard, kick-off return man extraordinaire Dan Connolly as the main candidate to assume the starting role.