THURSDAY, JAN. 31
One thing that is enjoyable about covering a Super Bowl when you don't have a vested interest in the outcome is learning little things about players you wouldn't know otherwise.
Take starting guard Stephen Neal. If you're an astute Patriots fan, you probably already know that Neal never played football in high school or college. Not a lick. His last football experience came in eighth grade.
But he was an exceptional wrestler. He defeated Dolphins back Ricky Williams in high school and current WWE star Brock Lesner (I assume he's a star because I don't watch wrestling) in college. At Cal State-Bakersfield, Neal won two Division I national titles in his division and the Dan Hodge award, considered the sport's equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.
In other words, Neal was a stud.
So how did he end up in football?
It's the genius brain trust of the New England Patriots - and I have to call them this now because turning an undrafted novice into a three-year starter with three Super Bowl rings is downright unfathomable.
|New England Patriots offensive tackle Nick Kaczur (77) and offensive guard Stephen Neal (61) laugh at a reporter's question during a media availability at the team's hotel in Scottsdale, Ariz., Wednesday morning, Jan. 30, 2008. The Patriots will play the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII in Glendale, Ariz., Sunday. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)|
Head coach Bill Belichick said they saw a player with great athletic ability, size and balance when they saw Neal. So they signed him, thinking he could compete athletically with NFL players.
"In my brilliance, I put him on defense," Belichick said. "He was over there for about two or three weeks and was totally lost."
Eventually, Neal caught on as a guard, but needed three years to learn the system before becoming a starter in 2004, just in time to open up holes for Corey Dillon and protect Tom Brady in Super Bowl XXXIX.
"When Steve started, he didn't even know where to go in the huddle," Belichick said. "I've never coached a player that has traveled the distance that he has from where he started to what he has become as a football player."
It makes one consider what the Patriots brain trust could turn us all into.
I'd like to be Captain American (Tom Brady), please. Can I order that up?
IT'S BEEN A LONG ROAD FOR SEAU: I knew it had been a long time since Junior Seau's last Super Bowl appearance. But not this long.
One-hundred and eighty-one.
That's how many games New England linebacker Junior Seau has played since his last Super Bowl appearance for the San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl XXXIX.
The Chargers lost that game to the San Francisco 49ers in 1995.
Seau, an 18-year veteran seemed incredulous at the figure.
"The game that I played against the 49ers was basically a game that we were overmatched," Seau said. "We really were."
Seau, a 12-time Pro Bowl selection and a future Hall of Famer, called the 49-26 loss "embarrassing."
He now has a chance to right that embarrassment with the Patriots, who are 12 ½ point favorites over the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII.
He's now on the team considered the prohibitive favorite and playing against a team many consider overmatched.
"Through the journey there are three categories on how you're judged," Seau said. "There's a category called 'good,' there's a category called 'great' and there's a slim category called 'ever.' There's an opportunity here. We have a chance, we have a chance."
And the Patriots would love to see him get that ring.
"I don't think there's a person that doesn't want to see Junior attain that," Patriots vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli said.
THE HEARTBREAKER: One of the few tough tickets for press conferences during Super Bowl week is the one for the halftime entertainment. This year's act, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, were in Phoenix on Thursday for the press conference.
I've never been a big Tom Petty fan, so I skipped it. But I've been to the last three press conferences, featuring Paul McCartney (put on a great show), the Rolling Stones (put on a great show) and Prince (put on a great show).
I have no doubt that Mr. Petty will get the job done on Sunday as well. But I doubt he'll give us an answer as good as Stones guitarist Keith Richards, who was asked two years ago this question:
"It's been said in the event of a nuclear war that the only things that would survive are you (Keith) and the cockroaches. What can you do to ensure that you'll outlive the cockroaches?"
"I'll eat them," Richards said.
But seriously, it's been four years since Nipple-gate. I think we're all recovered. The Republic is still standing.
Would it kill the NFL to book Beyonce or Fergie? C'mon.
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He is covering the Patriots for Patriotsinsider.com during the Super Bowl in Arizona. An award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers Association, he appears frequently on Scot Brantley Show from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WHBO 1470-AM in Tampa-Clearwater.