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It’s not everyday when a wrestler without college football experience goes on to start 81 games in the NFL. But, that’s exactly what Patriots offensive guard Stephen Neal accomplished.
However, nine seasons and three Super Bowl rings later , the San Diego native, has decided to retire at the age of 34.
Neal was an undrafted free-agent in 2001 and after three years of hard work, he finally became a part of the Patriots offensive line rotation in 2004. Neal went on to have a stellar career — that to the average sports fan — would probably go unnoticed. However, injuries toward the latter part of his tenure proved to be the final chapter for Neal.
After playing in every game during the 2004 and 2005 seasons, Neal has missed 28 games since 2006 — including eight this past season. But, there’s perhaps no bigger fan of Neal than his very own coach.
The usual tight-lipped Bill Belichick only had good things to say about Neal’s time in New England.
“Steve may have accomplished more than any player I have ever been around,” Belichick said. “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.”
With the departure of Neal, the Patriots will look toward Southeast Missouri State’s Dan Connolly. Connolly, who’s famously known for his 71-yard kick return touchdown against the Green Bay Packers, filled in nicely for Logan Mankins in 2010. With Mankins set to start in 2011, the Patriots could slide Connolly to the right side.
Like Neal, Connolly was an undrafted practice squad player who worked to get himself on the active 53-man roster.
With so many players playing past their limits, Neal called it quits at the right time. Now, Neal can enjoy time with his family and look back on a career that awarded him with three Super Bowl rings.
Not bad for a wrestler, huh?
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