Even with a Super Bowl championship on his professional resume?
"It's a good thing and it's a bad thing," Neal told Packer Report after a lengthy pause following Sunday's Donald Driver Charity Softball Game. "It's more good than anything to be a part of a Super Bowl team and the great players and the fans we have. You couldn't ask for anything more."
Give Neal credit for a politically correct answer. A defensive end taken in the second round in 2010, big things were expected from the powerful and driven Neal. He frequently was dominant during training camp, and when he played during the regular season, he showed his immense promise with a forced fumble and a sack in his two games.
Neal, however, missed the opening three games with an abdominal strain and was lost a few weeks later with a torn rotator cuff. It was a nightmarish season for a player who didn't miss a game in his final three seasons at Purdue.
"That was probably one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life," Neal said. "I've never missed a season due to an injury. I've been through a lot of tough things, but to not be able to play the game of football and feel like I'm a disappointment to not only myself but to my team is probably one of the biggest things. I put a lot of pressure on myself. So, for me missing the season truly has me feeling like an animal inside. Next year is going to be good."
Jeff Hanisch/US Presswire
"I learned a lot in the classroom and I feel like I'm a smarter football player," Neal continued after his "waste" comment. "It taught me a lot mentally and character-wise. You've got to be patient and not try to push anything further than what you should be trying to take it. Just realize that it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and you've got to take advantage of every opportunity you get."
Neal's injury required major surgery to repair, with his rehab consisting of strength training and flexibility. He's been working out in Tampa, Fla., and said the shoulder has felt like a "million dollars" for a couple of months. There is some occasional pain, so Neal considers himself one of the few players being helped by the lockout. Whenever training camp opens, Neal expects to be 100 percent.
The Packers need him healthy. Losing Cullen Jenkins in free agency is practically a foregone conclusion. While beefy veteran Howard Green figures to reprise his late-season role as run stopper, the Packers need an explosive player to replace Jenkins, especially on passing downs. Neal, with his power to hold up against the run and his quickness off the ball to attack the quarterback, is expected to be that guy for the next several years.
"If I am, then I thank God, and if I'm not, then I thank God to be able to come back and Cullen's back," Neal said. "He's a big mentor and a big part of my game, just helping me learn football and use all my assets. If he comes back, it would be great, but if he doesn't, hopefully they rely on me to be ready to play and I can come in and contribute like Cullen did."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport.