Stephen Neal gave an early indication of what was to come when he entered the U.S. Junior Nationals wrestling tournament shortly before committing to Cal State Bakersfield.
T.J. Kerr, CSUB's coach in the spring of 1995 when Neal signed, said everyone laughed when Neal predicted he was going to win the Junior Nationals title. After all, Neal had only placed fourth at that year's high school state meet.
"He and his dad showed up and the dad said, 'You've got yourself a Junior National champ," Kerr said. "I was stunned, but I didn't show it. I knew he had a lot of talent."
Neal's wrestling prowess would be enough to get him into the Bob Elias Kern County Hall of Fame, to which he will inducted Feb. 28.
All Neal did at CSUB was become a four-time All-American, four-time Pac-10 heavyweight champion and a two-time undefeated national champion. He is the school record-holder for most wins (156) and pins (71). He was 120-2 his final three seasons at CSUB.
Neal wasn’t finished. He switched to football — a sport he hadn’t played since high school — and had a 10-year NFL career and earned three Super Bowl rings with the New England Patriots as an offensive lineman.
Also entering the Elias Hall of Fame will be former UCLA All-American softball player Megan Langenfeld, former NFL defensive lineman Spain Musgrove and Dr. William F. Baker Jr., the Bakersfield College team doctor the last 38 years.
“The two sports are so different,” said Neal, 36. “Wrestling is the ultimate individual sport. Only one person gets a trophy.
“Coaches do all the work. Your workout partners do all the work to help you get where you’re at but they don’t get recognized.
“It’s pretty neat. You can celebrate with all your teammates because you all got there together. In wrestling, you’re all happy, but only one person gets that medal.”
“I had such a great team around me in the wrestling program,” Neal said. “We had Darryl Pope, Jassen Froehlich, Derek Scott, Paschal Duru. You have this environment of successful wrestling.
“It was two great environments. To be placed in those two different environments, I don’t think is a coincidence. I think it’s God’s devine plan. I’m very fortunate and thankful.”
“I went to Cal State Fullerton, met the coach, went to the wrestling room and there wasn’t anyone there,” Neal said. “Went to Oregon, saw the wrestling room, they took me out on a boat and did some water skiing.
“Went to Cal Poly, met the coaches, went around, saw the campus. I don’t think I saw the wrestling room.”
At CSUB, it was different.
“I came to Cal State Bakersfield and we went into the practice room. It was a death match,” Neal said. “Guys were getting after it all over the place. Pascual Duru, the 190-pounder, dislocated his finger and ran out of there. He came back taped up and started banging heads again.
“As soon as I saw that, I said, ‘This is where I want to be. I want to be a hard-working, tough guy.’ I don’t know if I made the whole journey to be that, but I’m appreciative of Bakersfield.”
Kerr said Neal’s ability to channel his energy and focus on a goal of being the best set him apart from other athletes.
“His desire to be No. 1 made him tick,” Kerr said. “That was built into him from his family. He wanted to succeed. Besides being super intelligent and super gifted and a great guy, he was always grounded,” Kerr added.
Neal has also been the catalyst behind the recent years’ fundraising efforts that have saved the CSUB wrestling program from elimination.
Neal has brought in countless memorabilia that has been auctioned off to raise needed funds. And he’s set up trips to Patriots’ games. But he downplays all of that.
“First and foremost, it’s not me. It’s the community that saved this program,” Neal said. “And I’m so thankful for the community.”
In explaining why wrestling is so important, Neal points to his own situation.
He sat out his first year at CSUB as a redshirt, then competed four years and helped coach another year before beginning his NFL career.
“In those six years, something happened. What happened to me was Cal State Bakersfield. That opportunity from the wrestling program helped me live a dream later on. If that can help me, I want that opportunity for all the kids in this community and all the other kids in this state. To be able to put in their time, to work hard and develop the skills they need to be successful in whatever they want to be.
“That’s what’s important to me and why it’s so important to keep this opportunity alive.”