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This may be a year of losers in San Diego sports, but at least we don’t turn out jerks or cartoon characters. Our sports personality doesn’t venture to the dark side.

David Boston’s brief tenure with the Chargers and Milton Bradley’s pit stop with the Padres are rare exceptions. Another one is Kellen Winslow II, the Cleveland Browns’ tight end from Scripps Ranch High.

I’m reminded of this because the same week I heard Fox Sports NFL analyst Brian Baldinger credit Stephen Neal’s return from a shoulder injury as a reason for the New England Patriots’ improved offensive line play, the hype was building for a UFC 91 (whatever that is) bout between Brock Lesnar and Randy Coutre. That’s another reason to appreciate the career of Neal, a San Diego High alumnus with three Super Bowl rings.

What’s the connection, you ask?

Neal finished his college career as a two-time NCAA champion heavyweight wrestler at Cal State Bakersfield by defeating Lesnar in the 1999 NCAA final. Neal went unbeaten as a junior and senior to finish with 88 straight victories.

From there, Neal won the 1999 World Championships heavyweight freestyle title. What that means is in an Olympic year, he would have been the gold medalist.

He gave the Olympics a shot in 2000, but two-time Olympian Kerry McCoy avenged his loss to Neal in the 1999 World Championship qualifying by defeating Neal in the 2000 Olympic qualifying final.

Next, Neal set about fulfilling his dream of playing in the NFL, even though Cal State Bakersfield didn’t have a college football program. Neal, a 6-foot-4, 305-pounder, is in his seventh NFL season and Baldinger says he is a Pro Bowl-caliber offensive lineman, although he’s never been voted into the game.

Note to frustrated San Diego State fans: If the Aztecs hadn’t disbanded their wrestling program, Neal would have gone to SDSU as a scholarship wrestler and walk-on football player.

After the NFL, Neal wants to be a college wrestling coach. McCoy, his old rival, is the wrestling coach at Maryland after serving as Stanford’s head coach. In other words, real wrestlers don’t sacrifice their dignity to go into World Wrestling Entertainment, or WWE.

Neal could have easily cashed in on a contract with the WWE, but he wasn’t done testing himself as a legitimate world-class athlete. His response when uniformed people asked him if he was considering the WWE was, “I’m not interested in acting.”

Now let’s compare Neal to Lesnar’s career path after college at the University of Minnesota.

Lesnar became a fake wrestler with the WWE. What self-respecting athlete would become part of the WWE? Then he signed with the Minnesota Vikings as a free agent, but he was quickly cut from training camp.

He went back to the WWE and now he’s fooling the gullible American public as a UFC fighter. Are these the same people that watch Jerry Springer? I heard something about how Lesnar beat Randy Coutre, an all-time UFC champion or something like that. Then I learned Coutre is 45 years old! What kind of sport is that? Who’s next: Mike Tyson?

The sad part is Lesnar can laugh all the way to the bank.

Maybe if Lesnar had a little San Diego in him, he wouldn’t be the cartoon character that he is now with WWE and UFC.

— TOM SHANAHAN

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