GREEN BAY – Mike Neal was so frustrated with his two disappointing, injury-plagued NFL seasons, felt so bad about the four-game league suspension hanging over him to start this year, was so despondent over his failure to live up to expectations – and over the comparisons being made between him and another highly drafted defensive end bust – that the Green Bay Packers defensive end seriously contemplated quitting the game this spring.
“After last season, (there were) a lot of thoughts in my mind. I’d never been hurt like this, and didn’t want to play football anymore,” Neal admitted after last Sunday’s 31-17 victory over Arizona, a game in which he played through an ankle injury from the previous week and recorded a sack. “At one point in time, I just told my parents, ‘You know what? I did what I can. This injury thing, I’m ready to just be done.’”
And while it never reached the point of him telling head coach Mike McCarthy or defensive coordinator Dom Capers – “That’s news to me,” Capers replied earlier this week when told of Neal’s plans – Neal was serious.
A 2010 second-round draft pick from Purdue, Neal had missed 26 of the first 28 possible games of his NFL career (including playoffs) because of injuries. He missed all but two games in 2010 because of a shoulder injury (torn labrum) that ended his rookie season prematurely, and he missed the first half of the 2011 season after suffering a knee injury in a training-camp practice and was a non-factor upon his return to the field.
He played in seven games, registering five tackles while playing 170 snaps, according to ProFootbalFocus.com. As a rookie, he played 81 snaps in two games, registering a sack and showing the potential the coaches and scouts had seen in him. But beyond those two games, his talent never had really surfaced, and some compared him to another oft-injured high pick, 2007 first-round pick Justin Harrell.
“I guess the right way to say this is, Mike doesn’t like to disappoint people. He was probably a little bit tired of the comparisons with some other people around here, and Mike’s got a lot of pride. Mike wants to please,” said defensive line coach Mike Trgovac, who has publicly and privately supported Neal throughout. “So I’m sure that just like any kid, it (quitting) entered his mind. But Mike has great parents, and he did the right thing.
“Having coached him that rookie year and seeing what he is at full speed, it’s exciting. He has a lot of talent and a lot of ability. I’m hopeful that some good things will happen for this guy, because he really does care.”
So far this season, those good things have happened. Neal, who entered the bye having played 122 snaps, has registered eight tackles, two sacks, two quarterback hits and eight quarterback hurries, and after spraining his ankle against Jacksonville on Oct. 28, he came back last week and played despite not being able to walk on his ankle at the beginning of the week.
“I didn’t think I would play, to be quite honest with you. If you’d have asked me Monday, I’d have told you no,” Neal said. “I tried to run Wednesday, couldn’t do it. Woke up Thursday, and I practiced. It’s one of those things that mentally, I was just going to keep pushing it. Until they told me no, I wasn’t stopping.”
That was Neal’s attitude in training camp as well, when he repeatedly flashed his potential again and performed well in the preseason finale. But with a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances – Neal had admitted he used Adderall, which he says he was prescribed but failed to inform the league, resulting in the suspension – to serve, he left the team the first week of the season and missed the first four games.
He was activated for the team’s Oct. 7 game at Indianapolis – not far from where he grew up outside of Gary, Ind. – and registered a sack in his first game back.
“I thought Mike came back and looked the best that he had looked in training camp,” Capers said. “Remember the year before he hurt the knee? I thought if he could go through the suspension and come back where he was in training camp, he could really add something to our defense.”
He’s done just that. Against the Cardinals, he and linebacker Clay Matthews ran a stunt, and Neal wound up walking ex-Packers guard Daryn Colledge back into quarterback John Skelton to set up his sack, which came on third down and forced a punt.
“The key to Mike is just being able to stay healthy, stay out there,” Capers said. “He’s playing the best that he’s played since he’s been here. It’s a matter of just doing it week in and week out because he can give us something.”
Neal understands why his name is attached to that “if” qualifier, but he says he’s showing exactly what he can do when he isn’t hampered by injur.
“At the end of the day, I’m not doing anything different, I’m just healthy. It’s working in my favor now,” Neal said. “You need to go through these things to get to where you need to get to, and I’ve been through some things and I’m just happy to come out and be able to play.
“I can do more. I got one sack, but playing on a bad ankle, I probably could’ve gotten two or three more. I’m pushing through it.”
And that’s exactly what he did with his thoughts about quitting – with one big assist.
“My mom was like, ‘One thing that you’re not is a quitter. You’ve never quit your entire life. If you can still walk, you can still play football,’” Neal said. “I just took that and ran with it. It’s frustrating not to be able to go out there and do what you can do, but you keep working at it, and it’s starting to work out for me. I just keep pressing.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.