Bodyguard Neal finding pathway blocked
By Michael Silver, Yahoo! Sports
June 6, 2008
He's an All-Pro back who strikes fear in the heart of defenders, a tough, intelligent veteran who has the undying admiration of the NFL's most respected runner. When we last saw him, he was returning heroically from a broken right fibula to play in the AFC Championship game, then heading to Hawaii to start for the conference in his third consecutive Pro Bowl.
Oh, and he's one of the NFL's good guys, a renowned locker-room leader whose off-the-field ventures include a private-transportation company designed to prevent drunk driving.
So why the hell can't Lorenzo Neal get a job?
"I feel like Rudolph," Neal says. "I'm getting left out of the reindeer games. And my red nose is my age. Because of that, they won't let me play."
Released in February by the San Diego Chargers, for whom the bruising fullback spent the previous five seasons clearing holes for record-setting halfback LaDainian Tomlinson, Neal, 37, isn't ready to call it a career. Made expendable in San Diego because of coach Norv Turner's preference for H-backs and blocking tight ends, as well as the organization's regard for fifth-year fullback Andrew Pinnock, Neal is hoping to hook on with a team that values a traditional power running attack. He lists the Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos and Pittsburgh Steelers among his desired destinations.
"I don't know how that guy can still be on the street," says a high-ranking front-office executive for an NFC team. "If you want someone who can light up a defender on an 'iso' block, that's your guy."
Echoed another NFC team's general manager, which is not in the market for a fullback: "I know one thing – the guy can still block."
One thing Neal won't do is blow up his former employer. He says he bears no grudge toward general manager A.J. Smith and realizes that Turner, who replaced Marty Schottenheimer after the '06 season, favors a different offensive approach than his predecessor.
"If Marty was here, do I think I'd still be on the team? I think so, because he favored a physical approach to running the ball. But I had a good relationship with Norv," Neal says. "He likes good leadership, and I'm not a guy in the locker room that is disruptive or misses meetings or weigh-ins or acts out."
During the first 2½ months of the '07 season, as the Chargers struggled to a 5-5 start, Neal and Tomlinson were among the many holdovers who grumbled about the philosophical switch. Among other changes, Neal's workload was reduced from an average of 50-plus snaps a game to something closer to the 15-20-play range.
"I'm also a warrior, a guy that loves to be in the contest," Neal says. "I don't want to play 10 plays a game. I want to be out there all the time. That's why I train so hard."
Neal, who has remained in the San Diego area, says he typically arrives at a local gym before dawn, running on a treadmill and doing other exercises before a personal trainer arrives to put him through a grueling workout. Sometimes, the process takes five hours. He has also been taking classes in Bikram yoga; the sessions last 90 minutes and are conducted in a room with a temperature of approximately 105 degrees.
"I'm not gonna lie to you – it does smell pretty nasty in there," Neal says. "It stinks when you walk in, and after 15 or 20 minutes you're like, 'Man, I just want this thing over with.' I understand that as you get older, you have to work harder."
Neal's work goes largely unnoticed by the casual fan, and his fantasy value is exclusively as a conduit to the statistical successes of others. He has cleared the way for a 1,000-yard rusher in each of the last 11 seasons, making life better for Adrian Murrell, Warrick Dunn, Eddie George, Corey Dillon and Tomlinson.
Especially LT. I wrote about their tight-knit relationship for Sports Illustrated late in 2006, when soon-to-be-MVP Tomlinson was on his way to one of the best statistical seasons in league history. "He's the most dominant blocker in the game," LT said then, "and the respect he gets from other players is something that strikes you immediately. Before every game, when they're running out for warmups, players on the other team always stop and speak to him. That tells you so much."
The two friends still speak constantly, and playing apart won't be easy for either of them. They are close enough that, after his first carry in the AFC Championship game, Tomlinson confided to Neal that he wouldn't be able to run effectively on his sprained left knee. "He looked at me and said, 'Man, I just don't have it,' " Neal recalled. "If he'd tried to keep playing on it, it would've done the team more harm than good."
The Chargers' offensive huddle was a mess going into that 21-12 defeat to the New England Patriots at chilly Gillette Stadium. Quarterback Philip Rivers played despite a torn anterior cruciate ligament; star tight end Antonio Gates was severely hobbled by a dislocated toe; Tomlinson lasted just four snaps; and Neal was playing his first game after breaking his right fibula in a Dec. 9 victory over the Tennessee Titans.
The subsequent criticism of Tomlinson's aborted effort by NFL Network analyst Deion Sanders and others irked Neal, who says, "For guys to question his toughness, they're wrong. They don't know the degree of the man's commitment. If the outcome of the game had been different, it wouldn't even have been an issue. I know he says he doesn't care what people say, but I don't care who you are – things like that bother you. It's disappointing."
Last season was the closest Neal got to winning a championship since, eight years earlier, he played for a Titans team that came within half a yard of sending Super Bowl XXXIV into overtime before losing to the St. Louis Rams. The man who helped the Titans get there by fielding the kickoff which became the Music City Miracle is still chasing that ring, though it's not a singular obsession.
For more than a decade Neal has been carefully laying the groundwork for a life beyond football, dabbling in real estate and other business interests. The latest venture in which he got involved, Safe Ride Solutions, is a service that caters to athletes and others who might be tempted to drink and drive. Neal, with whom I've enjoyed having a few beers over the years, tailored the business to the needs and circumstances of his peers.
"Basically, it's like having a AAA card for partying," Neal says. "You call an 800 number, and an off-duty police officer comes to you and drives you home in your own car, no questions asked. It's totally confidential. When we pitched it to the NFL, they gave us their approval and told us it was OK to shop it to teams. Given what's going on with teams like Cincinnati (one of Neal's many ex-employers), they should get involved."
Less than two months before the start of training camp, Neal is hoping he'll soon be involved with a team that isn't scared off by his age.
"I know there are some teams out there I can help," he says. "If you want to talk about my age, let's go lift. Watch me bench 225 (pounds) 35 or 40 times in a row. Watch me squat 315 30 times nonstop. Watch me run 400s. In terms of overall conditioning, I think I'm one of the top 20 or 30 guys in the league.
"I feel great. Until I broke my leg, I had a streak of 221 consecutive games (the NFL's third-longest streak among active players at the time). I take a lot of pride in that. I know I can play another three or four years. I understand that I'm on my closing act, but I've still got skills. I just want a team to let me write my last chapter."