Star running backs in the National Football League get plenty of love and recognition for their production.
But their teammates who block and create openings for them get little to no recognition from fans or even the media, even though they can greatly enhance a standout running back’s production.
Lorenzo Neal was a fullback who played during two eras when running backs were still a huge, featured part of NFL offenses. He didn’t receive as many accolades as some of his teammates, but he helped make their success possible.
Neal played with some of the league’s most prolific and effective running backs, and in 16 pro seasons, he made life easier for them.
On December 27, 1970, Lorenzo LaVonne Neal was born in Hanford, California, a small town in central California. He grew up rooting for the San Diego Chargers, and one of his childhood idols was Dan Fouts, the Hall of Fame quarterback for the Bolts in the 1970s and early ’80s.
As a child, Neal says that his father was a major influence on him and that he helped him reach the heights he would attain later in life.
“Without a doubt, he was definitely the guy who was going to push you to make yourself uncomfortable,” Neal said of his father. “He made me uncomfortable.”
At Lemoore High School, Neal played both linebacker and running back. Being someone who could play well on both sides of the football made him an indispensable member of the Tigers.
“The craziest thing was he never came off the field,” said Thom Sembritzki, who coached Neal in high school. “He was on every special team, he was the defensive captain and we ran a cover one split six. Everybody’s covered, so they would spread everybody out and Lorenzo would just stand there and he would go C to C Gap and just hammer people,” he added.
Neal would rush for over 2,000 yards in a single season, which set a Lemoore High record.
But football wasn’t his only claim to fame as a teen. He ran track and field, and he was also a star wrestler for Lemoore High, and he would win a state championship in that sport as a senior.
He set a state record for fastest pin in a wrestling match, a mark that would stand for many years to come.
Neal even was named California State Athlete of the Year, which recognizes the top overall high school athlete in the state.
His accomplishments earned him a scholarship for both football and wrestling.
Coming Into His Own In College
Neal originally decided to attend the University of Arizona, but his grades weren’t good enough, so he ended up going to Fresno State University, allowing him to stay close to home.
He was recruited to be a linebacker for the Fresno State Bulldogs, but he ended up playing the running back position, allowing him to make his name as an effective rusher.
His sophomore year was his coming-out party, as he ran for 580 yards and nine touchdowns that season. He increased his yardage in each of the next two years, topping out at 988 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns as a senior.
That year, he, along with future NFL QB Trent Dilfer, helped lead the Fresno State University Bulldogs to the Freedom Bowl, where they faced the University of Southern California Trojans.
The Trojans possessed quarterback Rob Johnson and wide receivers Curtis Conway and Johnnie Morton, Jr., all of whom would make it to the pros.
But after falling behind early, Neal would score a touchdown to spark a comeback 24-7 win, and he would be named the MVP of the contest.
Neal also earned All-Big West honors as a junior and senior, and he finished his time at Fresno State University second all-time in career rushing yards with 2,405.
In the meantime, he continued to wrestle, and he participated in the 1992 NCAA wrestling tournament, finishing seventh. Ranked third in the nation, he was rewarded with an All-America nod.
At one point, he even took part in the Japan Bowl, which gave him an opportunity to try his hand at a different kind of wrestling.
“I played in the Japan Bowl and was able to experience the culture, while I was there,” said Neal years later. “We were able to showcase American football to the Japanese, and also had the opportunity to witness how huge sumo wrestling is in Japan.
“As an American wrestler, I was given the opportunity to attempt sumo wrestling. I was wrapped in a fabric thong and spun around. (It was pretty interesting!) I was given a nice tug (on the loin cloth) before stepping into the ring and thought to myself, ‘OK, I don’t know if I want to be out here (for very) long.’
“I went through three wrestlers and then faced the big boy, Akebono. (Akebono was the sumo champion at the time.) It wasn’t fun and it didn’t go well. Akebono hit me a couple of times in the throat, so I quickly jumped out of the ring and stated that I would stick to playing football.”
Once Neal’s NFL career was over, his No. 22 jersey was retired by Fresno State University.
— Fernando Ramirez (@RealFRamirez) October 24, 2021
Unlike some college athletes, Neal was also a devoted student. He graduated with a degree in criminal justice, and he had the desire to build group homes for children if football didn’t work out for him.
Starting Out In The Big Easy
But once the New Orleans Saints drafted him in the fourth round of the 1993 NFL Draft, it started to look like football would be Neal’s destiny.
In his very first game as a pro, he carried the ball 13 times for 89 yards in a 33-21 win over the Houston Oilers. In Week 2 that season, he rushed for 86 yards and a touchdown as New Orleans defeated the Atlanta Falcons, but he suffered an ankle injury that ended his season.
The injury sapped Neal of much of his ability to run the football effectively, and Jim Skipper, the Saints’ running backs coach, was the impetus behind converting him to a full-time fullback.
The fullback position has become a lost art in the NFL. In this era, teams rarely employ such players, as they usually opt for offensive sets with just one player in the backfield, and occasionally an empty backfield.
But in the 1990s, the pro game was still significantly based around the ground game. The conventional wisdom was that a team couldn’t make a run at the Super Bowl without a strong running game and that the lack of a solid running game would negatively affect a team’s passing attack.
Neal started to take great advantage of the era that he played in. With his help, running back Mario Bates notched 951 rushing yards and seven touchdowns in ’95, which was just his second season in the league.
It was a sign of things to come.
Standing 5-foot-11 and weighing 275 pounds, he started to carve a reputation for himself as one of the best blocking backs in the NFL. He felt that, if not for his injury, perhaps he would’ve been a star running back and that he’d “probably be a lot richer.”
But Neal decided to embrace the dirty work that may go ignored by many fans but paves the way for his teammates to be successful.
“There’s positives and negatives to it,” he said of being a fullback. “You’ve just got to have that mentality. It is what it is. It’s not that glamour position, but, hey, it’s a job, and one that you can get some respect.”
On occasion, he got the opportunity to make plays himself on offense. In ’94 he tallied 90 yards and a touchdown on 30 rushing attempts. The next season, he even caught 12 balls for 123 yards, which included a 69-yard touchdown reception against the New England Patriots.
Neal even served as a kick returner on rare occasions, flashing his all-around utility to his team.
In 1997, Neal signed with the New York Jets. Close observers started to notice the results of his handiwork, as Jets running back Adrian Murrell rushed for 1,086 yards and seven touchdowns that season.
That would start a long streak that was unheralded, but outstanding.
A year later he was traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After years of being a laughingstock, head coach Tony Dungy was starting to build a winner, and he did so with a hard-hitting running attack and staunch defense.
The Bucs possessed two young standout backs in Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott. The duo complemented each other well, as Alstott dished out lots of physical punishment, while Dunn run around and past defenders with speed and quickness.
With Neal blocking for them, Dunn had his first 1,000-yard year in ’98, his second season in the league, while Alstott put up 846 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground.
Lorenzo Neal leading for Mike Alstott. That is peak football. https://t.co/EdhSpXZidS
— Brandon Thorn (@BrandonThornNFL) July 1, 2021
The California native then moved on to the Tennessee Titans for the 1999 season. Coming off an 8-8 season, head coach Jeff Fisher was looking for the team to take the next step.
The Titans possessed Eddie George, a young and up-and-coming running back. With Neal clearing space for him, George rushed for 1,304 yards in ’99 and scored nine touchdowns on the ground and 13 overall, both of which were new career highs.
Tennessee won 13 games that season, setting a new team record. Still, they finished second in the AFC Central, and they started the playoffs as a wild card team against the Buffalo Bills.
It was in this contest that Neal would contribute to one of the greatest and most memorable plays in the sport’s history.
With 16 seconds left in the game, the Bills scored a field goal to take a 16-15 lead, and the Titans’ playoff livelihood was hanging by a thread.
Neal fielded the ensuing kickoff and handed the ball to tight end Frank Wycheck. Out of desperation, the team decided to run a play named “Home Run Throwback” that was devised by special teams coach Alan Lowry.
After getting the ball from Neal, Wycheck threw a lateral pass to wide receiver Kevin Dyson. With the Bills’ defense forced to shift left, Dyson ran the ball 75 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
Some thought Wycheck’s pass was an illegal forward pass, but officials upheld the play upon review, and Neal’s Titans had won thanks to what became known as the “Music City Miracle.”
Coming up tonight on News 12 Now sports..Lorenzo Neal and Mike Keith recall the greatest play in Titans history.
'The Music City Miracle'. pic.twitter.com/OXQj4KmZVD
— Rick Nyman (@RickNymanSport) May 25, 2020
On To The Big Game
In the AFC Divisional Round, the Titans went up against the Indianapolis Colts and their young stud QB Peyton Manning. The Colts had also won 13 games, but they fell 19-16, as George put up 162 rushing yards.
After routing the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game, the Titans were on their way to the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history.
There, they would face the mighty St. Louis Rams and MVP quarterback Kurt Warner. With dual-threat running back Marshall Faulk and wide receivers Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Ricky Proehl, the Rams boasted one of the greatest offenses in league history, earning them the nickname “The Greatest Show on Turf.”
The Titans were seven-point underdogs, and sure enough, they fell behind 16-0. The Titans scored the game’s next 16 points, setting up a furious finish.
After Warner found Bruce for a touchdown reception with less than two minutes left, Titans QB Steve McNair began what the team hoped would be a historic drive.
With six seconds left, Tennessee found itself on the Rams’ 10-yard line with a chance to tie or win. McNair found Dyson, who ran towards the end zone, but was stopped just over two yards shy of the goal line.
Dyson stretched out his arm in an attempt to get the ball to cross the plane of the end zone, but he came up just inches shy.
By the slimmest of margins, the Titans had lost the world championship. Still, Neal still values the experience of playing in America’s biggest sporting event.
“I think one of the greatest experiences was playing in the Super Bowl,” said Neal years later. “Being in the Super Bowl is what every young kid dreams of. It was a great experience. The outcome wasn’t, losing to the Rams, but that was a great experience.”
The next season, Neal helped George gain 1,509 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns (14 on the ground), all career-highs. The Titans won 13 games again, but they couldn’t duplicate their playoff success of a year ago, as they lost in the divisional round to the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.
Neal then signed with the Cincinnati Bengals for the 2001 season. Although George was still a strong back, his production would permanently drop without Neal’s presence.
“He appreciated me,” Neal said of George. “They took away a lead blocker, and it was (more than) 500 yards in his productivity. I think they regretted (it). It was a situation where sometimes you don’t appreciate the fullback, but I think the fullback is the heartbeat of a team.
“(The fullback has) to be an unselfish guy to go in there, set the tone, hit guys and be physical. That’s the kind of guy you need as a fullback. He’s not necessarily a star, but he’s a guy that comes in with an attitude, a presence, and that’s what you need sometimes to jump start your team.”
A Running Back’s Bodyguard
The Bengals, Neal’s new team, had another young running back named Corey Dillon, and the 30-year-old fullback would help him attain 1,315 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground in 2001.
The following season, with Dillon again rushing for over 1,300 yards, Neal would finally get some official recognition as one of the league’s best fullbacks, as he earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl.
He then signed with the San Diego Chargers in 2003, where he would have arguably the most successful stint of his career.
Although San Diego was a weak team overall, it did have a third-year running back named LaDainian Tomlinson, who was starting to come into his own as one of the best in the world.
With Neal pushing and moving defenders around in his home state, “L.T.” would run for 1,645 yards and 13 touchdowns in ’03, while adding 725 yards and four touchdowns as a receiver.
With Drew Brees emerging as a star QB, the Bolts were building a winning program. Tomlinson registered 17 rushing touchdowns in 2004, and 18 the next season.
A young Philip Rivers replaced Brees for the 2006 season amidst a beastly year from Tomlinson. He sliced and diced opponents for 1,815 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns, leading the league in both categories and being named MVP.
Again, Neal did the blue-collar work that helped “L.T.” do his thing, and the fullback was getting recognized, earning his second straight trip to the Pro Bowl, as well as his first First-Team All-Pro selection.
While with his four previous teams, Neal never really had the ball in his hands, but Chargers head coach Marty Schottenheimer decided to sometimes utilize him.
The central California native had 140 rushing yards and one touchdown in ’06 as a result. The previous season he even added 145 yards and a touchdown as a receiver.
— Old Football Film (@FilmHistoric) July 13, 2020
Winners of 14 games, the Chargers had Southern California stoked about the prospects of a potential Super Bowl run. But Tom Brady and the New England Patriots ended San Diego’s championship hopes by handing it a gut-wrenching 24-21 loss in the AFC Divisional Round, as it blew an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter.
The Chargers made another run at the big game in 2007, winning 11 games, as Tomlinson continued to make mincemeat of opponents and Neal was again named to the Pro Bowl and earned First-Team All-Pro honors.
But once again, Brady and the Pats broke the Bolts’ hearts, this time with a 21-12 win in the AFC Championship Game.
Neal had missed the last three games of the regular season with a broken leg but had managed to recover just in time to play against New England.
Yet, just before the injury, Tomlinson had reached the 1,000-yard mark, making it the 11th consecutive season that he was the lead blocker for a running back who had reached the 1,000-yard milestone.
After one more season with the Baltimore Ravens, Neal decided to call it quits.
Neal has become a devoted family man since his NFL career ended. He is married to his wife Denisha, and the couple has a son named Lorenzo Jr. twin daughters named Nylya and Mia.
Lorenzo Jr. became a football player himself. Standing at 6-foot-2 and weighing 325 pounds, he is a defensive tackle that is almost the size of an offensive lineman.
He played collegiate ball at the University of Purdue, and although he went undrafted, he ended up signing a contract with the Saints prior to the 2021 season. Like father, like son.
Purdue’s DT Lorenzo Neal Jr. (Yes the son of HOF FB Lorenzo Neal) is a bully. One of my fav mid-late round prospects.
— CJ Errickson (@CJ_Errickson) March 3, 2021
The elder Neal has also been active in media. He hosted a podcast named “Ray and Lorenzo” along with Ray Oldhafer, then moved on to host another podcast named “Bleav in Chargers” which focuses on one of his former teams, the Chargers.
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Neal has also contributed to “Mornings with Joe, Lo, and Dibs,” a radio show in the San Francisco market, as a co-host and substitute host.
Additionally, the former fullback is focused on helping kids to become their best. In 2018 he held a football camp at Fresno City College for kids ages 7-14, and his former teammate Tomlinson, among other former NFL players, stopped by to help out.
Neal not only looked to teach attendees to fundamentals of the game but to also instill them with the right mindset and attitude.
“It is imperative that theses coaches push, they break down and they build,” stated Neal. “If I can get your mind, I can get your heart and I can get your soul.”
History shows that Neal paved the way for multiple elite running backs to have some of their best seasons ever.
Considering his talent and skill, as well as how the game has changed since his playing days, there may never be another fullback like him again.