By Tom E. Curran
Stephen Neal, who suffered his first shoulder injury in 2002 and had recurring problems that caused him miss time in all but two of his nine seasons with New England, says deterioration of his shoulders caused him to decide to retire.
"Ive always tried to put the team first in everything Ive done and I think the team will be better without me," Neal said on a conference call today. "Definitely I think this is the time to step down. For my own health and my family, I think this is the best decision."
Neal said he's retiring because of a combination of factors. At age 34, the NFL's current, tumultuous labor situation and personal health concerns pushed the Patriots guard toward putting away the pads.
"The next injury will be significant, if there is another injury -- that kind of scares you a little bit," Neal admitted. "Ive been kind of limited the last four or five years."
"I think we have a great group of guys who can go on and have great success. Its great being on a team with so much young talent. Theres so much potential. You want to try to stick around for as long as you can, but realistically its really not fair to stick around when you cant pull your own weight."
There were plenty of memories to indulge in from almost a decade of gridiron time. Two in particular have stayed with Neal over the years. The first is from his first regular-season start, a 28-10 Patriots loss to Green Bay in 2002.
"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. Im like, Why should you believe in me? Im just some wrestler who is here, " Neal recalled.
"The confidence he showed in me truly shows the leadership qualities he possesses because you cant do it alone. That moment right there made me feel like this was really happening and the start of something special."
Neal also recalled the surreality of playing in New England's 2005 Super Bowl win over Philadelphia.
As for his future, he plans to go back to where he started as an athlete.
"Id really like to help the sport of wrestling," he said. "It has taught me so much stuff hard work, dedication. And Id love to give back to the sport anyway. I have so much passion in my heart for wrestling that I dont want to see the sport die. I want to see it change the lives of other young athletes the way it changed mine. Thats one thing I want to do right off the bat."
The Patriots wish him well. Coach Bill Belichick lauded Neal in a statement released by the team:
"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."