By: Josh Staph
Do you know who owns Division I heavyweight wrestling championships, a world wrestling championship, the Outstanding Freestyle Wrestler in the World award and three Super Bowl rings? Meet Stephen Neal, starting guard for the New England Patriots.
While attending Cal State Bakers field, Neal focused entirely on wrestling, garnering awards and titles at a breakneck pace, but he never set foot on a football eld. After graduation, Neal decided he wanted to play in the NFL.His obvious athletic prowess and untouchable mental outlook helped him make this unlikely jump.
STACK caught up with the man who in high school pinned Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams and in college conquered WWE freak Brock Lesnar for the NCAA crown to find out what makes him tick.
STACK: What goes through your head when you step onto the sidelines and get ready to play a game?
NEAL: I might be a little different from most people in this respect. I think about trying to relax and not making any mistakes assignment-wise. I try to get my mind and mental framework right as far as doing my job, doing it well and staying relaxed doing it.
STACK: So you emphasize a relaxed mindset instead of, like other guys, getting all fired up on the sidelines?
NEAL: I’ll be completely honest with you. If I get too fired up, I’m probably going to jump offside or miss my block. (Laughs.)
STACK: Did you use this same philosophy and approach when you were dominating people on the wrestling mat?
NEAL: I used to get excited, pumped up and really emotional during the early years of my wrestling career. Then I realized I was burning a lot of nervous energy getting all fired up. Later in my career, I had the attitude that I had trained every day of my life for these matches, so what was going to happen out there had already been determined by all the hard work I had already put in. I tried to just stay relaxed and let my instincts take over. That is how I approach football now. I have done everything possible to improve my performance, so now it is just time to get it done.
STACK: Do you think your switch from wrestling to football has to do with your emphasis on assignments rather than emotion?
NEAL: Definitely. Wrestling was a lot more instinct, because I’d been doing it my whole life. With football, there are 22 people on the field. So as an offensive lineman, you have to know where your entire team is and where the other team is. You have to be responsible for picking up a blitz or running through on a running play. It is definitely important for me to know what I am doing first, and then to understand what everyone else is doing. We all have to be on the same page. I can’t let my emotions and the excitement get in the way of that.
STACK: What do you do before the game to ensure you are relaxed and mentally prepared?
NEAL: I don’t do the same exact thing every game. If it’s a home game I go early and sit in the hot tub. Then I get all my tape on and put all my clothes on and just kind of look through the playbook as much as I can and just relax. I make sure that any questions I have in my head get answered before I step onto the field. I guess my priority is to be totally prepared mentally before the game starts.
STACK: Are you the kind of guy who listens to a lot of music to get ready to play?
NEAL: I had a locker next to Joe Andruzzi last year, and he always listened to his iPod. He had a couple good songs on there that I would listen to with the volume low, but I couldn’t even tell you their names. I didn’t blast it really loud or anything like that. I am not really big into that.
STACK: How do you keep your head in the game and practice throughout the long season?
NEAL: It’s pretty easy for me, because each week brings a different team. It’s completely different assignment-wise, depending on what their plan is defensively. Each week is a new challenge, so it’s pretty easy and it goes by quickly.
STACK: What was your biggest challenge switching from wrestling to football?
NEAL: I didn’t realize how mentally challenging football was. You can have one play, and the defense can line up 10 different ways, and you have to block six to eight different people, depending on how they are lined up. So it is definitely more mentally challenging than a lot of people realize.
STACK: What advice would you give a young athlete on how to get his mind right for a great performance in a football game?
NEAL: I would definitely say, listen to your coaches and do what they tell you to do, because they have a lot more experience than we athletes do. Listen to them and get your assignments down. Never get to a point where you think you know it all.