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Last of a dying breed

Discussion in 'Latest Chargers News & Headlines' started by robdog, Nov 22, 2005.

  1. robdog

    robdog Code Monkey Staff Member Administrator

    Jun 29, 2009
    Source: <a href="http://www.sportingnews.com/yourturn/viewtopic.php?t=37439" target="_blank">The Sporting News</a>

    By Dan Pompei

    <img src="http://bolttalk.com/images/neal02.jpg" class="left" alt="Lorenzo Neal" />Someday, after your hair has turned white, your spine has curved and your hearing has faded, the little child on your lap will ask, "Grandpa, what was a fullback?"

    And you'll have to think back and remember. "Well, Billy," you'll say slowly, "a fullback was a football player who blocked. He took pleasure in clearing a path for others to make big plays. He wasn't in it for the dancing. Or the money. Or the media. A lot of fans barely noticed him. Only the real students of the game even knew what the fullback really did.

    "They began dying off around the turn of the century, fullbacks did, replaced by hybrid backs, tight ends, H-backs and wide receivers. It became so hard to find a good one, NFL teams just said, 'To heck with fullbacks.' "

    Your memory isn't what it used to be, but you fish out a name.

    Lorenzo Neal.

    He was the fullback's fullback, the best blocker you ever saw. "He would rather knock a linebacker on his keister than take a handoff," you'll say. "He was the last of his kind."

    This is a day in his life.

    Four hours before the Bills kick off to the Chargers, Lorenzo Neal trots onto the field at an empty Qualcomm Stadium. Outside in the parking lots, the sights of bare chests and sandals and the smells of sunscreen and ground beef testify to the beauty of the day. Neal runs around the perimeter of the field eight times. He listens to gospel music by Kirk Franklin on his iPod. Later, as the game approaches, he will switch to some 50 Cent.

    If he is not ready to play by now, he never will be. He has been preparing for this game, for every game, since he first started playing fullback 20 years ago as a high school freshman in Lemoore, Calif. He went to Fresno State, just up the road from Lemoore, and was drafted in the fourth round by the Saints in 1993. He also played for the Jets, Buccaneers, Titans and Bengals before moving to San Diego in 2003.

    Neal takes pride in being more prepared than the next guy. It is what has enabled him to survive all these years while others like him have died off. His offseasons, he says, are 10 times more physically grueling than his seasons.

    There is conditioning and lifting with a personal trainer, everything from pulling cars to running hills. There is wrestling with college kids at Fresno State, where he was an All-American junior heavyweight. There is boxing with former middleweight champion Paul Vaden. There is even ultimate fighting with mixed martial artist Chuck "Iceman" Liddell. Neal is typically in the gym by 5 a.m., and he works out up to three times daily.

    "I know it makes the season easier," Neal says. "You might be a better athlete than me. You might be faster than me, stronger than me, but you're not going to outwork me. When guys are tired in the third and fourth quarter, I know what I've done to prepare for this."

    On the first play after the kickoff, Neal is assigned to clear out the Bills' middle linebacker on a power play. He finds London Fletcher and drives him backward, and LaDainian Tomlinson runs for 12 yards.

    Neal likes this play, but his favorite is the lead draw because of its isolation qualities. "Just me and the linebacker in the middle of the hole," he says.

    Many "modern" fullbacks prefer to dive at the knees of defenders. That isn't Neal's style, although he will throw a cut block when it makes sense. "If it's me and a linebacker, it's like, 'Dude, why should I cut you when I know I can take you down?' " he says. "I like to hit them in the mouth and say, 'Let's go.'"

    At 5-10, 255, he has the perfect size to get beneath the shoulder pads of most linebackers. Leverage is his game. Neal is known for leading with his forehead. "He has a great head for the position," Tomlinson says. "His head is huge."

    Neal's big melon, in fact, is the source of much levity in the Chargers' locker room. "That's my moneymaker," Neal says. Of all the running backs, quarterbacks, receivers, tight ends and defensive backs on the team, only Neal wears an extra-large helmet shell, according to equipment manager Bob Wick. The only linebacker who wears an extra-large shell is Shawne Merriman, who has 6 inches and nearly 20 pounds on Neal.

    Finding the linebacker on a lead draw reminds Neal of one of his hobbies -- "frogging," or frog hunting. Neal and friends, armed with a flashlight and a long three-pronged gig, will take out a boat well after dark.When they spot a bullfrog, they shine the light in its eyes, which freezes the amphibian. Next thing you know it's 3 a.m. back at Neal's house, and everyone is eating frog legs, potatoes and eggs.

    Neal kicks out into the flat on the first drive and catches a pass. Bills safety Troy Vincent comes up to make the tackle, and the collision is violent. Vincent's helmet flies one way, Vincent flies another, and his forehead is gashed open. "Got him good on that one," Neal says.

    Neal has forged a career and, indeed, an identity out of such collisions. The man becomes the player, then the position, then the task. Neal is a block. Though he never has officially been diagnosed with a concussion, he has experienced some of the symptoms. Last season, a Raiders player -- Neal still is not sure who -- hit him so hard he had to lie down on the field for a minute.

    "There are plays when you're hit, and it's like you get the flutters," he says. "You see stars. You've got that buzzzzzzzz. OK, that was a good one. You just try to breathe. It's happened thousands of times."

    Fullbacks such as Neal probably incur more big-impact hits than players at any position. Virtually every play for Neal is a battle of bighorns vying for the highest ground.

    He sees himself as a lineman with a lower number. "The only difference is I'm 5 yards deeper," he says. "And the linebacker is 5 yards deeper. So you have 10 yards of speed, compared with linemen who are 2 feet apart. The collisions are way harder. It's who's got the hardest head, who's going to quit first, who's going to fall apart first."

    Perhaps Neal's most impressive accomplishment is not falling apart. Despite tens of thousands of body crashes, he hasn't missed a game because of injury since 1993, his rookie season. He has played in 186 straight games, an accomplishment of Favre-ian proportions. He credits staying healthy to playing fast and the grace of God.

    It's not like he ever tries to save himself. "Lorenzo doesn't care about his body, about his own well-being," Dallas defensive tackle La'Roi Glover says. "He just goes out there and throws his body around."

    Remarkably, Neal has no major physical ailments. He has had one surgery, to repair a torn ankle ligament during his first pro year. What hurts 10 games into the season? "The bottom of my feet, from the cleats digging into my soles," he says.

    In this game, Neal becomes more than a role player. He catches a 2-yard pass for a touchdown on a fourth-and-1 in the second quarter. It is his first touchdown of the season and only the 16th of his career -- 11 of them on receptions. He does not save the ball or celebrate much. After the game, he shrugs his shoulders. "A touchdown is a touchdown," he tells a group of reporters. "I just want to win."

    Receptions and runs are diversions for Neal, a chip or two to go with the ham sandwich. He teases Chargers offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, telling him not to forget "the secret weapon." But he knows his place.

    Early in his career, he played in some one-back sets for the Saints. But he never has been a tailback. "It's not that I can't run the ball," says Neal, whose career average per game of 3.05 yards is more than a yard shy of Tomlinson's career average per carry of 4.32. "I just haven't done it a lot. I know what I do well -- that's block. I found my niche."

    Many of the game's more well-known fullbacks today -- Atlanta's Justin Griffith, Kansas City's Tony Richardson, San Francisco's Fred Beasley, Tampa Bay's Mike Alstott -- are more ballcarriers/receivers than blockers.

    Neal wishes there were more like him who cared more about blocks than handoffs. "The fullback position is dying because it needs to be emphasized that a lot of fullbacks aren't runners, they're fullbacks," he says. "Go in there and do your job -- blow up people. I think the fullback can be the heartbeat of the team, the heartbeat of an offense. You want to set a precedent, you want to make an attitude -- the fullback can do it."

    In the third quarter, on an off-tackle play, Neal makes a read to block outside linebacker Angelo Crowell. Tomlinson follows his fullback and runs for 19 yards.

    On many plays, Neal determines where the run will go based on how he reads the defense. Tomlinson estimates he follows Neal on about 80 percent of his runs. "I trust his eyes and his decisions," Tomlinson says. "We're kind of on the same page. We think the same way." If they aren't on the same page, it's likely the run will be stopped before it should be.

    Neal is the ideal complement to Tomlinson, the game's most dynamic runner. He also is a nice complement off the field, where Tomlinson says Neal has taught him how to sacrifice and be a professional. They often watch game tape together, usually on Friday mornings before meetings, sometimes on their day off and often on plane rides. They also are golfing buddies who genuinely enjoy each other's company.

    "L.T. is special," Neal says, "like lightning in a bottle. He's one of the most complete backs. He makes my job a lot easier. I've been blessed to block for a lot of great backs, but LaDainian is going to have a place in the history books."

    Before the game, Neal had spoken on the phone with his friend Takeo Spikes, a former Cincinnati teammate and now a Buffalo linebacker who is on injured reserve. Neal had joked that he would be going after Fletcher and the Bills' other linebackers. So during the game, the linebackers kept reminding Neal of his "promise." "We know you're coming after us!" they'd yell.

    "Takeo told us!"

    Redskins defensive coordinator Gregg Williams recalls hearing Neal call out opponents when both were with the Titans. "He was literally pointing out players and letting them know he was coming every single play," Williams says.

    When Neal trash-talks an opponent, it isn't malicious. It's playful. A couple of years ago, after laying a good lick on an opponent, Neal asked the player sweetly, "Don't you know I'm the world's greatest?' " It has caught on. When he runs for a first down, teammates say, "That's The World's Greatest." When he gets jacked up by a linebacker, it's "They got The World's Greatest!"

    Neal likes to talk. On the field. In the locker room. On his cell phone. He could talk through a mouthguard. And he's funny. Tight end Antonio Gates says Neal is the funniest person on the team, by far. Neal has a quick smile and an easy laugh that put people at ease. Tomlinson says there is no one Neal does not get along with.

    Neal is on the field for 35 of the Chargers' 68 offensive snaps this day. During the Chargers' final drive in their 48-10 victory, he is on the sideline joking with the other veterans.

    He gets a big kick out of second-year back Michael Turner's rushing for 44 yards and a touchdown on the drive. "We put in the big horse," Neal says. "We call him the little Shetland pony. He's half-horse, half-man -- like Pegasus."

    Neal estimates he has played in about 50 percent of the team's offensive plays this season, a lot more than most fullbacks.

    He takes pride in being a dinosaur, as well as the torchbearer for the fullbacks who remain. He has mentored young Saints fullback Mike Karney, working out with him in the offseason. Neal talks with some of his fullback contemporaries who have retired, such as Sam Gash and Larry Centers. They rue the decline of their position.

    After a game last year, Kansas City's Richardson and Neal posed for a picture. Richardson later sent Neal a framed 13x13 print that he had signed with the message, "Thanks for paving the way for fullbacks."

    The issue is where the road Neal has helped pave is leading. At the very least, the position has been permanently de-emphasized. But it's possible the position of Bronko Nagurski and Jim Taylor and Marion Motley slowly is being phased out.

    "If the position dies in the league, it dies," Neal says. "But as long as I'm in this league, fullbacks won't die. I'm not going to let my position die. On Sunday, I'm going to show you why the position is not dead."

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