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Neal: Punishing blocker once carried the load

Discussion in 'Latest Chargers News & Headlines' started by robdog, Dec 17, 2006.

  1. robdog

    robdog Code Monkey Staff Member Administrator

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    Source: <a target="_blank" href="http://msn.foxsports.com/nfl/story/6274578">Fox Sports</a>

    By Michael David Smith

    <img align="left" alt="Lorenzo Neal" title="Lorenzo Neal" src="http://www.bolttalk.com/images/neal02.jpg" />San Diego Chargers fullback Lorenzo Neal is no doubt happy that his backfield mate of the past four years (LaDainian Tomlinson) has set the NFL record for touchdowns in a season and is the front runner for the league MVP award.

    Neal is and always has been a team player, a guy who did whatever it took to win games even if he didn't always get the credit he deserved.

    But no one can blame Neal if he ever wonders whether he could be getting all the glory that Tomlinson gets, whether he could have been a great running back rather than a blocker for great running backs. That's what he looked poised to do as a rookie, before an injury changed the course of his career.

    In 1993, the New Orleans Saints chose Neal in the fourth round of the NFL draft. At Fresno State, Neal was an excellent runner, making the All-Big West team as a junior and senior. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Neal's college career is that football wasn't even his best sport: As a heavyweight wrestler he finished seventh at the 1992 NCAA championships - he still works out with wrestlers, boxers and mixed martial arts fighters to stay in shape during the off-season.

    But Neal knew it was easier to make a living in football than in wrestling, and the Saints knew his good speed and field vision along with a great work ethic would make him a good fit in the NFL. The Saints were coming off a 12-4 season, but running back was a glaring weakness - the leading rusher the previous season was a guy named Vaughn Dunbar (565 yards on 154 carries). Coach Jim Mora Sr. decided during training camp that Neal would be his team's primary ball carrier.

    Six quarters into his career, it looked like a brilliant move. In the Saints' first game of 1993, Neal gained 89 yards on 13 carries. He started the second game with a 74-yard touchdown run. Mora had high hopes for Neal and Neal was exceeding them. But in the third quarter, on the 21st carry of his NFL career, Neal broke his ankle and missed the rest of the season.

    The next year, the Saints drafted a running back named Mario Bates and made him the primary ball carrier. Neal - who never regained his speed back after the injury - was relegated to the role of blocking fullback. Let's just say he didn't take too kindly to the move.

    One night, when Neal and Bates were at the same bar, Neal continually told the rookie that as a veteran he was entitled to drinks at Bates' expense. When Bates refused to buy, Neal slugged him - breaking his jaw and putting him out of commission for four weeks. Although Neal wasn't disciplined by either the team or the league, the incident remains a black mark in Neal's career.

    But in the dozen seasons that have followed, Neal has been a model teammate. Five different running backs - Adrian Murrell, Warrick Dunn, Eddie George, Corey Dillon and Tomlinson - have produced 1,000-yard rushing seasons with Neal paving the way. It's safe to say that Bates is the only running back who hasn't appreciated having Neal on his team.

    That list of runners shows just how long and winding Neal's NFL road has been. Murrell gained 1,086 yards in 1997, after Neal left the Saints for the New York Jets. Dunn rushed for 1,026 yards in 1998, when Neal was splitting time at fullback with Mike Alstott for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (Alstott was the NFC's Pro Bowl fullback that year, but he wasn't even the best true fullback on his own team. Alstott ran the ball 215 times and was really a running back listed as a fullback.)

    Despite always being a solid blocker, Neal was treated as expendable, and in 1999 he signed with his fourth team in four years, the Tennessee Titans. Neal stayed in Tennessee for two seasons, long enough to help George gain 1,304 yards in 1999 and 1,509 yards in 2000. Neal then signed with the Cincinnati Bengals, and helped Dillon to a 1,315-yard season in 2001 and a 1,311-yard season in 2002, when Neal finally made his first Pro Bowl.

    It was in 2003 that Neal found what appears to be his permanent NFL home. The Chargers signed him as a free agent, which meant playing for a coach, Marty Schottenheimer, who loves physical, hard-working players like Neal leading his featured back through a hole. Neal has done just that hundreds of times in San Diego, with Tomlinson being the primary beneficiary. He's also picked up his second Pro Bowl berth, and as Tomlinson rewrites the record book, Neal might own the NFL record for lead blocks resulting in touchdowns - but that's not a record anyone will ever keep.

    Neal will turn 36 this month, and running backs just don't make it to age 36. So the injury that precipitated the switch to blocking fullback lengthened his career. The injury was also the only major one he has suffered. Since his rookie year, Neal hasn't missed a game - 205 consecutive games and counting. Neal is a bigger player (he's listed as an inch taller and 27 pounds heavier than when the Saints drafted him) and a more mature player than he was in New Orleans (there's not much worry that he'll break Tomlinson's jaw in a bar fight), and even though the 175 rushing yards he gained in less than two games as a rookie are more than he's had in any full season since, he's a better player now.

    Still, Neal might wonder if he had been a runner all this time if he'd be on his way to the Hall of Fame. Few players have had careers as long and honorable as Neal's, but lead-blocking fullbacks just don't get busts in Canton. That bust is the one piece of recognition Neal won't get, but he has a good chance at acquiring the NFL's other symbol of greatness - a Super Bowl ring - this year. And that would be more fitting since Neal's career hasn't been about individual honors, it's been about contributing to a team.
     

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