Packers’ Mike Neal gets healthy dose of motivation
~ By Tyler Dunne
~This was the Super Bowl, the pinnacle of his profession. As kickoff neared, teammates psyched each other up in the locker room.
But there was Mike Neal staying on the field all by his lonesome before Green Bay’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Once the game began, he sat on a cooler. Secluded and frustrated. The Packers won, 31-25, and Neal refused to enjoy it.
“Part of me said, ‘I don’t deserve this because I didn’t play in the game. I didn’t earn this.’ It was hard for me to stomach,” said Neal by phone last weekend. “Some guys might say, ‘Oh cool, we got a ring.’ It was a little different for me. It kind of pissed me off. It motivated me.”
So two days after the win, Neal’s season began.
The defensive end flew to Tampa, Fla., to train at the Athletes Compound with Jason Riley. The off-season has been a blur of rehab and rejuvenation for the defensive end. Neal has stayed in Tampa with an occasional trip to Green Bay to train at the House of Speed.
After his rookie season was hijacked by a torn rotator cuff, he’s easily the single-biggest wild card on Green Bay’s defense. Cullen Jenkins is likely to walk in free agency. After flashing potential in his brief cameo a year ago, the vacant defensive end spot could be Neal’s to lose.
That is, if he’s healthy.
“I probably won’t be 100 percent until the same time I had surgery on Oct. 26,” said Neal, a 2010 second-round draft pick out of Purdue. “The good thing is that by training camp, I should be ready to play with a little slight pain. It’s nowhere near to the extent it was when I had surgery.”
For six weeks after surgery, Neal was in a sling. Next, he worked on carefully getting his range of motion back. And in Tampa, he’s been getting his strength back. Riley, who has worked with the likes of Derek Jeter, Ryan Howard and Maria Sharapova, has seen definite progress.
“Everything’s going to be real good for him,” Riley said. “We haven’t had any hiccups in terms of him taking steps back. We’re really pleased with how everything’s progressed with that shoulder.”
A renowned gym rat coming out of college – he can bench press 500 pounds – Neal admits a slow ease back into that lifestyle has been “depressing.”
With his shoulder, he cannot rush anything. It’s been Riley’s job to pump the brakes and set aside days for pool work and yoga. In addition to a strict nutritional plan, Neal has a mix of heavy and light workouts.
The key has been regaining stability. Instead of shooting for a one-rep max on weights, Neal aimed for high repetitions. Correct posture was imperative. Each rep – usually five or six seconds long – was slow and methodical. That’s how the muscle fibers best repair, Riley says.
“It’s not about how much weight he’s pushing,” Riley said. “It’s about time under tension. We needed to increase the number of muscles being recruited.”
As the year progressed, Neal was able to add more plates to the bars and lower his repetitions. Now, Riley says there are zero limitations. Neal is himself again, and that’s good news for the Packers, who will need a new 3-4 anchor if Jenkins leaves and Johnny Jolly is released.
When Neal came into the league, he remembers a specific conversation he had with Jenkins. The veteran told the rookie he had never seen a player enter the league so strong. Fine-tune technique and he’d be a star, Jenkins told him.
Now, Neal could be the one replacing him. The two are close, and Jenkins was a mentor of sorts. So excuse the hiccup of hesitation in Neal’s voice when asked about the possibility of starting next year.
He’s not declaring himself the leader in the clubhouse yet. C.J. Wilson and Jarius Wynn should also contend.
“I’ll be ready if the opportunity presents itself,” Neal said. “It’s kind of shaky right now because you don’t know what’s going on. There are a lot of things going on right now. If I’m a backup or a starter, I’ll try to make the most of my opportunity.”
Any given day, there could be 15-20 guys at the Tampa complex. Riley compares Neal’s work ethic to Brad Richards, this summer’s top free-agent prize in the NHL. Both are internally driven. Neal only took one vacation home to Indianapolis, instead waking up at 5 a.m. each morning in Tampa. That’s not the case with all of Riley’s clients.
“You just don’t get that same drive that Mike has in some of these other guys,” Riley said. “No offense to them. He’s young, he’s hungry, he wants it. He saw how well the team did last year and wanted to be more of a part of that.”
If he wasn’t clear, Neal repeats himself over and over again. Last season was “very, very, very, very bittersweet,” he says. He hated sitting idly by. Only a return trip to the Super Bowl will make up for it. And those repeat hopes hinge plenty on his development.
Until the lockout’s over, the Packers know where to find him.
“I’ll be in Tampa,” he says. “I’ll be there until they call us.”
Full story from Dunne here