Mike Neal finishing transition to linebacker

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Lori Nickel, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Monday, December 2, 2013

GREEN BAY—Long before the season cracked like thin ice under the Green Bay Packers’ feet, Mike Neal was in training for the heavyweight fight of his career.

He could have never predicted the five-game winless streak he is enduring with the rest of the Packers.

All he could do—months ago—was consider the major challenge presented to him.

And the 26-year-old decided he would not only answer the Packers’ call for him to move from the defensive line to outside linebacker, but he would approach his transformation with a disciplined and scientific obsession to drop 30 pounds for the role.

After requests since August, he recently opened up about this weight loss and the work behind it.

“I didn’t know what position I was going to play,” said Neal. “I didn’t know the transition was real until like the third week of the season. So I didn’t want to give anybody a false sense of anything.”

It began with his routine, postseason diet regimen to lose weight. His goal was to go from 305 pounds down to 285. For four days, he abstained from all food and drank nothing but a juice cleanse of water and herbs.

“You know, I’m a supplement freak. My trainer has his own supplements,” said Neal. “The cleanse is to clean your body. I lost about 12 to 15 pounds. I lost a lot of water weight. You could tell because my face was the first thing that shrunk.”

Neal felt lethargic and groggy until he added plain vegetables, spinach salads (no dressing or oil) and chicken.

“Very dry. Pretty brutal,” said Neal.

His trainer, Jason Riley of Performance Compound in Tampa, said a clean slate is a good first step to lose weight.

“Guys go through a season and their body gets so beat up,” said Riley. “They kind of live off of painkillers or antibiotics. … A lot of times, at the cellular level, your cells can become blocked to absorbing the nutrients you’re taking in.”

The cleanse, Riley said, is like a detoxification and in combination with some calorie deprivation, kicks off weight loss and allows the body to absorb nutrients again, which is very important for repair and recovery.

After he lost the cleanse weight, Neal aimed to lose more. The thing is, Neal had little fat to lose. When Neal was drafted in 2010, he said he was down to about 12 percent body fat at 294 pounds. By the end of his training this offseason, his body fat got all the way down to 11 percent at 280 pounds.

He kept pushing through until he got to about 273 pounds.

That is really hard to do. Neal is 6-foot-3 and looks like a body builder.

“For a guy with his frame, he’s big-boned, he carries naturally easy, puts on naturally easy,” said Riley. “He really committed himself to helping the team out and making this transition. Staying in the league—that’s a constant motivation as well. So what he did on a day-to-day basis is extremely difficult.”

While many professional athletes are very guarded in discussing their diets and supplements, Neal opened up about his to illustrate what he did to get so lean and yet fuel his still-muscular frame.

“We had to maintain his same athleticism, same speed, same explosiveness—but we had to drop 30 pounds doing it,” said Riley.

Neal took wheatgrass shots and kombucha to kick-start his body’s metabolic process. He sat in infrared saunas. He watched what he ate and when he ate it.

“I absorb most of my carbs through fruit in the morning,” said Neal.

Neal’s morning fruit smoothie, loaded with every fruit available, is balanced out with amino acids and supplements “so you don’t get that real big spike from all the sugar.”

He eats a 10-egg white omelet for breakfast, loaded with vegetables, except tomatoes.

“They have an inflammatory response to them,” said Neal. “But I do love the avocado because that’s got good fat. I like turkey chopped up in there. I do a lot of spinach; I love spinach. I probably eat two pounds a day.”

A snack is a protein shake. Dinner, since he’s not as big of a fan of chicken, is usually organic salmon, which is packed with healthy omega fats and a lot more protein. If he has rice, it is only half a cup.

“I’ll get carbs from asparagus and then another protein shake,” said Neal. “I will eat my last meal about 6 o’clock—and that’s just straight protein. I won’t have anything else.”

Protein is very satiating, so Neal kept dropping the weight.

“My stomach shrank a lot,” said Neal. “So did my ability to eat a lot. People will think I am crazy, but I probably only ate once or twice a day. I eat in the morning when I come to work and sometimes I will eat at night and sometimes I won’t. I won’t even eat lunch. I just don’t have an appetite.”

Even while taking in fewer calories, Neal pushed through his workouts and changed those, too. He didn’t do powerlifting with maximum weight; he did metabolic training.

“That’s like CrossFit training,” said Neal. “It’s all reps. My workouts would be an hour with no breaks. So I was really drained.”

But Neal did not want to sacrifice any strength; he wanted to be able to last a 16-game season, so he kept pushing under the guidance of Riley.

“We even did some muscle-stim-machine stuff on training days” to help with recovery, said Riley. “Really emphasizing the fast-twitch muscle fibers in his core and lower body.”

Neal made another sacrifice. When people lose weight, the first pounds gone are commonly water weight, and then after that, they can lose fat and muscle. Neal didn’t have very much fat to lose. So guess what.

“I lost a lot of muscle,” said Neal.

But he knew he had to change his body to play the position the Packers felt was best.

“I realized my career in the NFL is not really built on brute strength,” said Neal. “So I wanted to try something different. I just wanted to be in great shape. I wanted to fly out there and run all day and I wanted to be a little more flexible. I wanted to be able to generate power and explosiveness with what I had instead of trying to add on. That was different for me, training-wise.”

Neal said he has maintained his weight—and his strength—through the season, but he cannot be so strict with his eating during this grind.

“Four days a week I will eat really healthy but three days I eat absolutely whatever I want,” said Neal. “Joints, ligaments and tendons need fat, and if you don’t provide them enough fat when you’re doing all this (playing football), you don’t have enough to shock absorb when you get hit.”

And so there are days where you might see Neal at Hardee’s ordering one of everything from the menu.

If all had gone according to plan, Neal would be having a solid year of transition for a team contending for the playoffs.

Instead, the Packers are losing and every mistake is under the microscope.

Neal was entirely skeptical of the move to linebacker, but his attitude since has been positive even through his on-the-job training. His contract is up at the end of the season. He said the support of position coach Kevin Greene and Aaron Rodgers helped him.

“If Aaron would have never vocally said anything about me moving to this position, I probably wouldn’t be here,” said Neal. “Aaron believed in me; he’s always been in my ear. I don’t think anybody knows that. I thank him for that.”

Neal has heard it all: He’s no Cullen Jenkins. He’s no Clay Matthews. He doesn’t have enough sacks. He was injury prone early in his career, although it might be noted he has played all this year and in 2012.

But there’s no denying his commitment to the new role on what he could control.

“You know, from the start of my career, it’s been an emotional roller coaster,” said Neal. “When I first moved to linebacker, it was new. I felt a little frustrated. I felt like I was being put in a bad position. I was worried more about what people would say about me, being as big as I was and trying to make that transition.

“People don’t realize when you convert somebody to outside linebacker, it’s usually a defensive end that’s 270 pounds. They took me from defensive tackle, who was 305 pounds, and made me an outside linebacker. I lost 30 pounds, learned a whole new position. And there’s a lot of hard work in there.”

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