Neal attended San Diego High School in San Diego, California and was a letterman in football, wrestling, swimming, tennis, and track and field. In wrestling, as a senior, he posted a 45–2 record and placed fourth at the California State Wrestling Tournament in the 189-pound weight class. In 1995, he wrestled and defeated future NFL running back Ricky Williams.
Neal attended California State University, Bakersfield and became one of the top wrestlers in the nation, compiling a 156–10 record with four All-American seasons. He placed fourth in NCAA Division I as a freshman and second as a sophomore before winning titles his junior and senior year. In 1997, in his sophomore season, Neal lost to two time heavyweight champ Kerry McCoy. The 1998 campaign saw Neal win his first NCAA heavyweight title 20-5 over Trent Hynek of Iowa St. His final title in 1999 came via a win over future NCAA wrestling champion, WWE Champion, and UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar (in March 2011, Lesnar told Opie & Anthony that his loss to Neal still sticks with him). In 1999, Neal won the Dan Hodge Award following a year in which he won the U.S. Freestyle Championship, the Pan-American Games title and the 1999 World Wrestling Championships at 286 pounds. In 1999, he won the FILA outstanding wrestler award, an honor given to the best wrestler in the world. His 1999 season led up to the 2000 Summer Olympics trials where Kerry McCoy edged him for the trip to Sydney, Australia. After the trials, Neal retired from wrestling.
Neal set Pac-10 Conference records by finishing 34–0 in conference competition, while becoming the conference's first four-time winner in the same weight class, and second four-time winner ever. He finished his college career as Cal State-Bakersfield's career record holder in wins (156) and also set school records for pins in a season (31) and a career (71).
While at Cal State-Bakersfield, Neal was a four-time Academic All-American and a four-time Pac-10 Academic All-Conference selection.
Despite not playing football in college, Neal was signed by the New England Patriots on July 23, 2001 as an undrafted free agent. He was waived by the Patriots on August 26, 2001.
The Philadelphia Eagles signed Neal to their practice squad on September 4, 2001.
The Patriots re-signed Neal off the Eagles' practice squad on December 12, 2001, and he was inactive for the final three games of his 2001 rookie season, as well as the playoffs and Super Bowl XXXVI.
In 2002, Neal made the Patriots' 53-man roster out of training camp and spent the first four games of the season inactive before making his NFL debut as a reserve in Week 5. The next week against the Green Bay Packers, Neal made his first career start at guard, but suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the game and was placed on injured reserve on October 23, 2002. The shoulder injury caused Neal to miss the entire 2003 season as well, after being placed on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list to start the season.
After playing in two games as a reserve to start the 2004 season, Neal went on to start the final 14 games of the season, earning his third Super Bowl ring with the team by winning Super Bowl XXXIX. Neal started all 16 games for the Patriots in 2005, and re-signed with the team after testing the free agent market following the season.
Neal started 13 games in 2006 at right guard, missing three games with a shoulder injury. He would return in 2007 to play and start in only eight games due to injury, but started all three playoff games, including Super Bowl XLII.
After beginning the 2008 season on the PUP list with a shoulder injury, Neal returned to play in the final 11 games of the season, starting the final nine games. In 2009, Neal missed time with the shoulder injury again, but played in and started 12 games.
In March 2010, Neal was re-signed to a two-year contract. Neal then played in the first eight games of the 2010 season before being placed on injured reserve with the shoulder injury on December 2, 2010.
Neal retired on March 2, 2011 after filing his retirement papers with the league.
His cousin, Pete Thomas, also plays football.