The 2022 college wrestling national championships are over … but the great...
Former NCAA, World and Super Bowl champ wants accountability in wrestling
Cal-State Bakersfield’s Stephen Neal, who won a second NCAA championship, the Dan Hodge Trophy and later a World freestyle championship in 1999, caught more than the wrestling world’s attention a few years later when he became a starter as an offensive lineman for the New England Patriots. That happened despite not playing any college football.
During his ten-year career in the NFL, Neal overcame numerous injuries and was part of four Super Bowl teams, including three on the winning side (2001, 2003 and 2004).
A shoulder injury finally ended Neal’s NFL career last year and the former heavyweight wrestler returned almost immediately to his alma mater, which was threatened with extinction for financial reasons by Cal-State Bakersfield. Now listed as an alumni relations coordinator, Neal is helping the Roadrunner program get back on solid footing after the CSB administration announced that wrestling would continue as long as it could generate more funds.
Neal recently sat down with WIN Editor Mike Finn about his NFL past and current challenge at Bakersfield and spoke about what he learned in the NFL that will help him in the future.
WIN: What is a bigger challenge: leaving the NFL or trying to help out the Bakersfield program?
NEAL: Definitely trying to help this program. Leaving the NFL was an easy decision because there is no way that I could still play. I suffered a shoulder injury and it hurts all the time.
WIN: It looks like you are not enjoying the vacuum of retirement and are going straight into another challenge. Is that accurate?
NEAL: I’ve been pushing myself and it should be time for me to relax but Bakersfield is a big challenge. We are trying to endow the program and it is hard to do. We have to raise the funds for each and every year. We have a big challenge but are trying to make some plans and hopefully we can work with the administration. They have given us a chance to continue wrestling. We have to raise our own money but they are facilitating that for us. Hopefully, we can work together and keep this program secure forever.
WIN: Did (Cal-State Bakersfield coach) Mike Mendoza call you about helping or did you call him?
NEAL: When this stuff started happening, I decided to call him and said, “Hey man, what are we going to do? The thing is: there are a lot of people in Bakersfield. We have Janice and Vernie Varner, Jake Varner’s aunt and uncle. There is a guy named Greg Tobin, who used to wrestle at Cal-State Bakersfield. We also had a “Night of Champions” night (Nov. 29) when we raised about $160,000 in one night. It was just amazing.
WIN: Are you going to miss the NFL?
NEAL: I think I will miss the relationships but as far as going in there, practicing and playing, having to keep going with injuries and rehabbing after surgeries … I’m over that stuff.
WIN: What are your favorite memories from playing in the NFL?
NEAL: Some of the championship runs. Even in some of the losses, I learned so much. Like in wrestling, you learn so much more from your losses. There are certain things that happen and you get yelled at. But you come back and hopefully have improved. There are a lot of good memories and probably the best one was the last Super Bowl that we won against Philadelphia. That was pretty cool.
WIN: When you joined the New England Patriots — after not playing college football — you talked about what you took from wrestling that helped you in the NFL. What are you taking from the NFL to help you out with your job with Bakersfield?
NEAL: I guess there are a lot of people out there who could help. It’s a different environment. I was fortunate to be on a team where there was accountability. What you see in life is there are a lot of people who don’t have accountability for their actions.
The sport of wrestling is such a great sport. If you don’t make weight the right way or if you don’t train hard enough, everyone is going to see. There is accountability out there in every match. If you get tired in the third period, you didn’t train hard enough. If you cut weight wrong and you don’t have energy in the third period, everyone can see right through that.
You can’t blame anyone else in the sport of wrestling. Not to be political, but that’s what our government is about: they want to blame people. You can never improve yourself unless you are accountable to yourself.
WIN: Being a former World freestyle champion, do you still follow that type of wrestling as well?
NEAL: It’s crazy. The rules in international freestyle have changed so much and it’s hard to keep track of so many things. When I was playing football, I was so focused on that and trying to learn. I was not able to follow as much as I had liked. Hopefully, I can get back in here and get back in the flow. I do plan on watching the freestyle and Greco this year.