By Esteban Ramirez
Many may recognize Stephen Neal for his time with the New England Patriots, but it was his experiences and time on the CSU Bakersfield wrestling team that helped him get there.
“That’s the thing about Cal State Bakersfield we didn’t have a lot of money like the guys have today, but we had a bunch of tough guys that were willing to fight for each other,” Neal said. “That helped me to make the NFL and helps me to go about my daily business. Not focusing on other people just focusing on what I can do.”
Neal said that CSUB was very different when he was a student athlete.
“It was a lot smaller, but it was a very positive experience,” he said. “All the athletes kind of hung out together. We kind of had an athlete community, so like for Thanksgiving or Christmas if we didn’t go home we celebrated with the swimmers, wrestlers and volleyball players.”
Neal wrestled at CSUB from 1996-1999 and was a four-time All-American and a two-time NCAA Division I champion at heavyweight. He still holds school records for most career wins (156), most career pins (71) and for pins in a single season (31).
“I enjoyed the community,” Neal said. “Just getting to understand what the whole Bakersfield community was all about: the hard work and tough people and then trying to fit into that community with the wrestling style we had. That was a fond memory, but also my teammates. We had a lot of characters, so getting to hang around those guys was probably the fondest of memories.”
Neal added that some of the best possessions that he kept from his time at CSUB include: trophies, awards, newspaper articles and his wife Jodee Neal. Jodee played softball at CSUB from 1996-1999.
After finishing at CSUB, he went on to become the 1999 U.S. Freestyle champion and continued to win the Pan-American Games. He then went on to win the world championship the same year. Because of all his hard work in 1999, he was named the U.S. Olympic Committee Wrestler of the Year and the FILA International Freestyle Wrestler of the Year.
However, despite his success as an amateur wrestler, he was still drawn to football.
“I have to give all the glory to God,” he said on pursuing his dream of being in the NFL. “There was no way I could have done this on my own.”
He said that he had just lost in the Olympic trials but then went to Cleveland, Oh. There, he met Neil Cornrich who was Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s agent, and Cornrich called Belichick. The Patriots allowed him to walk into training camp to try out, but they let him go after the third week of preseason because Neal didn’t know how to play football yet. He then went to the Philadelphia Eagles practice squad, but the Patriots brought him back, and he played right guard for the Patriots for 10 seasons and helped them to three of their four Super Bowls.
He retired in 2011 and is now the Alumni Relations Coordinator at CSUB.
“In certain times, someone is worried about other people and what I learned at Cal State is I can’t worry about other people. I have to worry about myself,” he said. “I have to know my strengths, I have to know my weaknesses, and I have to know how to put my strengths out there and how I can kind of hide my weaknesses. I think that was something that I kept with me to this day.”