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X-factor

Chargers FB Neal earns the league's respect quietly

Posted: Wednesday December 13, 2006 1:17PM; Updated: Wednesday December 13, 2006 4:25PM
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Behind many of the NFL's 1,000-yard rushers over the last decade has been fullback Lorenzo Neal.
Behind many of the NFL's 1,000-yard rushers over the last decade has been fullback Lorenzo Neal.
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Like Harry Callahan, Clint Eastwood's caustic cop anti-hero, Lorenzo Neal does the dirty work so that others may prosper. To borrow from a classic line from "Sudden Impact," people have a nasty habit of getting dead around the NFL's best fullback, who, in the 14th season of a spectacular career spent in the shadows, is currently paving the way for LaDainian Tomlinson's historic run at the NFL record books.

OK, so Neal doesn't literally kill opposing defenders -- he merely pummels, relocates and flattens them with alarming regularity. Now in his fourth year with the Chargers, Neal has paved the way for a 1,000-yard rusher in 10 consecutive seasons, making life very, very good for, in order, Adrian Murrell, Warrick Dunn, Eddie George, Corey Dillon and LT. (I'll be revealing much more about Neal's unique partnership with Tomlinson in next week's Sports Illustrated.)

Back in his college days, Neal got his share of glory, gaining 2,405 yards for Fresno State before being drafted in the fourth round by the New Orleans Saints. He was leading the NFL in rushing two games into his rookie season when he broke his ankle and said goodbye to his life as a featured back. He has played in one Super Bowl, with Tennessee following the 1999 season -- in fact, Neal helped make that appearance possible by fielding the kickoff that became the Music City Miracle, handing the ball to teammate Frank Wycheck, who threw the lateral across the field to Kevin Dyson that stunned the Buffalo Bills.

Now Neal, who turns 36 later this month, is trying to score that elusive ring -- one of many subjects we discussed last week in an interview that began at a Starbucks near the Chargers' Murphy Canyon practice facility and ended at a local sports bar.

Silver: OK, so aside from the excellent anecdotes you've already given me for the SI piece, what's a favorite LT moment from this season?

Neal: A couple of weeks ago, when we were playing the Raiders, the man just bailed us out. People think we're gonna kill everybody we play these days, but that game was a real struggle. We weren't playing great, and they've got eight or nine guys stacked in the box, and we pitch it to LT -- and everyone and their mom comes up to tackle him. And the guy still busts loose for a 50-yard touchdown. You just watch it and say, "This is crazy."

Silver: How intense is the guy during games?

Neal: Aw, man, it's amazing how into it he gets. We were just in Buffalo, and they came back on us in the third quarter and cut the lead to three. We had turned it over the previous series, and now we go back out there and it's a TV timeout and the [Bills] fans are going nuts. And LT's standing there waving his arms and telling 'em to get up and yell even louder! Right away, we run an iso-lead draw, and I caught my old friend [and former Bengals teammate] Takeo Spikes leaning the wrong way and moved him out, and LT busts like a 20-yard gain. And then I looked around and heard a noise. And I said, "What was that noise?" You know what it was? It was a mouse pissing on a sponge.

Silver: I'm sure that fired him up even more.

Neal: Hell yeah it did. We were in the huddle during another timeout, and [defensive end Aaron] Schobel, who he went to TCU with, said something to him and laughed, and LT said, "Schobel, shut up. I ain't talkin' to you. When we get through whipping your butt, then talk to me." He was just crazed. And then, after the game, he sees Schobel and gives him a big hug, like it had never happened.

Silver: Does he ever get tired?

Neal: Yeah, every once in awhile. I'll say, "Let's go. Let's run it." And he'll say, "Lo -- we can't run the ball every damn play."

Silver: Why is he so effective near the goal line?

Neal: I've figured it out. The goal line is made of metal, and he's got a magnet in his jersey. When he gets close, it pulls him into the end zone. I mean, it's unbelievable playing in the same backfield with a guy like that -- it's actually a treat. And he's a better person than he is a player, which amazes me. He's pulled on from every direction --do this, go here -- even in his own locker room. Guys who are his teammates will come up to him every day and say, "Will you sign this for my kid? It's for Christmas." This is when he's at work, where it's supposed to be a sanctuary. And, of course, when he's in public, it's just nuts.

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