Michael Neal grew into second-choice sport
Purdue’s Mike Neal was “very impressive” in all-star play, said Packers’ general manager Ted Thompson.
Packers' pick has raw strength
Green Bay — When you are born and raised in Indiana, it's not usually football that is your first love. It's basketball, of course.
And that was the case with Michael Neal growing up in one of the many hotbed basketball communities in northwestern Indiana - Merrillville, just southeast of Chicago.
"I had big dreams for basketball; I never loved both sports," Neal said when reached Friday night at home. "I was more of a basketball person than I was football. I mean, I loved basketball. I thought I was going to be the next Kobe Bryant. I thought I was going to make that leap to the NBA in high school. So I mean it was never an option for me to stop playing. It hurt me a lot.
"But obviously I am well-suited to play the sport I am in now."
Obviously. The Green Bay Packers are so impressed with the 6-foot-3, 294-pound strongman that they picked him in the second round, No. 56 overall, in the NFL draft.
Once Neal realized in his sophomore year of high school that he wasn't going to get any taller, he re-directed his athletic focus.
"The basketball dream wasn't going to happen; it was an easy decision for me," he said.
Football is in the Neal bloodline anyway. Neal's father, also named Michael Neal, played the same position, defensive tackle, for Weber State. The younger Neal said his father tried out for the New York Giants in 1988 - when Neal was 1 year old - but a knee injury set him back "and he got cut in the preseason."
"My dad was never a dad who pushed me into playing a sport," said Neal. "Whatever sport that I decided to play, he went ahead and he made sure I was going to be the best at it."
Coming out of high school, Neal was the top-rated football prospect in the state, according to one scout service. As his playing time increased at Purdue, so did his numbers - he had 11 1/2 tackles for loss as a senior.
"I had no clue Green Bay would pull the trigger and grab me," said Neal. "I come from a real good family of faith. We've been praying for years and years for this to come. We always put our faith in God, and God is No. 1 in our hearts. When they called me and told me I would be a Packer, I felt so blessed."
At Purdue, Neal blossomed into a solid player in his fourth year, when he played left defensive tackle. Starting 23 of 24 games in his final two seasons for the Boilermakers, Neal had 5 1/2 sacks as a senior.
"I think some of my sacks were just hustle sacks," said Neal. "I worked hard to get back to the quarterback. It was nothing fancy. It was just me going man to man against somebody and being able to beat him and get sacks, so that was good for me."
If anything, Neal is known for his absolute impressive strength. He holds team weightlifting records and did a 510-pound bench press.
"In college, my technique wasn't always the best and my strength sometimes made up for, at times, my technique," said Neal. "I'm more than willing to work with that. I think right now my technique is OK, but it can definitely improve."
Neal will play end in the Packers system, according to the team. He said he's familiar with the Packers' defense because he has watched linebackers A.J. Hawk and Clay Matthews, studying their play for tips on how to improve his own game.
Neal had 99 tackles, with 26 tackles for loss and 13 sacks. The Packers have a need on the defensive line, so opportunity is there. Johnny Jolly and Cullen Jenkins are scheduled to be free agents after the 2010 season. Jolly also is facing a felony drug trial, and former first-round pick Justin Harrell has never been able to stay healthy.
"He was very impressive in the all-star games," said Packers general manager Ted Thompson. "It was my first exposure to him. Of course we've scouted him in the fall. He was very impressive in the all-star game practices and in the games themselves when they are going against all seniors and guys that are getting drafted at the same time. We think he fits very well into our system. We feel like he'll be a good asset for us in our sub packages, rushing the passer from the inside."