Patriots boss Bill Belichick generally isn’t in the business of handing out effusive praise, unless the topic at hand is an individual with a great historical impact on football or a former opponent whom he holds in the highest regard.
So it’s worth taking a quick read of the statement from Belichick on the retirement of guard Steve 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 is truly among the better stories of the modern NFL. A two-time NCAA wrestling champion at Cal State-Bakersfield who never played college football, Neal signed as a rookie free agent with the Patriots in 2001. He was released by the Patriots following training camp, was signed to the Eagles practice squad, and returned to the Patriots active roster in December of 2001. Neal earned his first start with the Patriots early in 2002 but suffered a season-ending shoulder injury that caused him to miss the entire 2003 season. He returned to earn a starting spot with the title team of 2004 and started for the next seven seasons.
Belichick was fond of joking during the 2004 season that Neal didn’t know how to put on any of his pads when he first came to New England. The fact he went on to start 93 career games and earn three Super Bowl rings makes it all even more impressive.