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Lorenzo Neal has long been the most popular fullback in the National Football League.

Now you can also count him as the highest paid fullback in the NFL with a $5.95 million contract extension that Chargers announced this week. Neal had one season remaining on his deal when Chargers general manager A.J. Smith signed him through the 2010 season.

The reason he’s the highest paid fullback in the NFL is the ageless Neal — a workout wonder who incorporates boxing drills with Paul Vaden, the San Diego boxing fitness trainer and former world junior middleweight champion — clears running room for NFL MVP running back LaDainian Tomlinson.

LT’s 1,815-yard season was the 10th straight year Neal has blocked for a 1,000-yard rusher. Before Tomlinson, Neal blocked for Corey Dillon in Cincinnati for two years, Eddie George in Tennessee for two years, Warrick Dunn for one year in Tampa Bay and Adrian Murrell for one year with the New York Jets.

Neal, who turned 36 in December and will be entering his 15th NFL season, is coming off his second straight Pro Bowl season and third of his career (2002, 2005 and 2006).

He is building a case for consideration in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Fullback is a blocking back position in today’s game, and the NFL recognizes that evolution with its Pro Bowl selections.

The next step is to see if sports writers, often narrow-minded in Hall-of-Fame voting, will recognize there should be a blocking back in the Hall of Fame.

The reason Neal is one of the most popular NFL players is evident before games during warm-ups at NFL stadiums around the league. As Tomlinson says, someone always stops Neal to chat with him.

“You see guys from the other team jog out on the field before the game, and they always talk to him,” Tomlinson said. “They say, ‘Hey, Lo.’ When somebody does that, you know they respect him. I’ve seen it time and time again — they want to talk to him.”

But then Tomlinson laughed, suggesting opponents might have another motive to learn Neal’s state of mind.

“They know if he’s in a bad mood, or whatever, and he doesn’t think he’s the world’s greatest anymore, he’s coming after you,” LT said.

TOM SHANAHAN

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