|Cut day no joke for Neal||08.31.10 at 4:07 pm ET|
FOXBORO — It’s on days such as Tuesday that players look at things a bit differently. With rosters being cut down to 75 players at 4 p.m., the late-round youngsters, fizzled draft picks, and journeymen veterans can’t help but think about whether their time with their respective club has expired.
They’re not the only ones though, as plenty of the starters and respected veterans throughout the league were once in their shoes. Count Patriots guard Stephen Neal among them. A key member of the Patriots’ offensive line over the last six seasons, the first three weren’t so easy. A wrestler from Cal State-Bakersfield, Neal himself was once cut by the Patriots before playing on the practice squad of the Eagles and eventually rejoining New England in Week 12 of the 2001 season.
“I just came off the streets as a wrestler, and they brought me into the office,” Neal said of one of the more nerve-wracking experiences of his career. “We had a workout and they just brought me up and said, ‘Hey, we like the way you work, but you don’t know enough football to help us this year and we’d like to call you up for next year.’ I just said, ‘Thank you for the opportunity and it’s dream come true just to be here in practice.’”
Though he later wound up back with the team, that wasn’t the end of his worries. Cut time continued to be a stressful affair until establishing himself in 2004, when he played in all 16 games and served as the starter for four.
“It’s tough. You sit there and another cut day goes by. My first time I made it to play in the third game and didn’t make it to the fourth game,” Neal said. “The next few years it was like, ‘Man, that day is coming,’ so you just kind of wait for the phone to ring, and if it doesn’t, you’re a happy man.”
Though his phone did ring at times, even showing a restricted number at the hour that ”your heart’s beating every time the phone rings.”
The problem, though, was that he would answer the phone to either nobody at the other end or his friends goofing around.
“At least they didn’t take the tires off my car and miss a meeting or something, that would have been worse,” Neal said, who added that the prank can be common among the “jokesters” in the league.
Neal’s current teammates wouldn’t be so generous with the cruel treatment of nervous players. Linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, a seventh-round selection in the 2003 draft, said he was “never on the short end of that stick” but wouldn’t want to be.
“I’m pretty sure some guys have a worse humor than others,” Banta-Cain said. “It’s probably not the best time to be joking with peoples’ lives like that.”
Kevin Faulk never had to worry that much. A second-rounder in 1999, he came in with the expectation that he’d make the team. That didn’t give him any reason to scare those who were on the bubble.
“I don’t want to be [involved in those jokes]. I don’t think that’s too much of a prank.” Faulk said. “That’s like a bad headache, something that you don’t want.”
Neal laughed when asked if he was more comfortable shaving players’ heads than making them sweat it out on cut day.
“That’s the Patriot haircut,” he said. “You’re not a Patriot until you get that haircut. It’s a badge of honor.”
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