Mike Neal’s cell phone pinged and buzzed non-stop for minutes. The Seahawks-Cowboys game was nearing its conclusion, and Mike sat glued to his TV screen, hoping to see his brother, Ryan, make a play.
Ryan Neal had replaced an injured Jamal Adams at strong safety in the fourth quarter, marking his first defensive snaps since joining the Seahawks practice squad in September of 2019. The Cowboys trailed 35-31 while they marched down the field on a potential game-winning touchdown drive.
Mike’s feed of the game had a healthy delay, so it didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to deduce that the abundance of calls and text messages meant something happened with Ryan. Like someone avoiding spoilers to their favorite TV show, he placed his phone face down, inched toward the edge of his seat and watched anxiously.
“I already knew that something happened. I said, ‘Nobody is about to ruin this for me,’” Mike shared in a conversation with NBC Sports Northwest.
Sure enough, Dak Prescott rolled to his left, sent a prayer into the end zone and Ryan came down with the game-clinching interception.
It's over, Dak throws a pick to Ryan Neal and this great game is done.pic.twitter.com/dY8zHugQbc— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) September 27, 2020
Mike smiled to himself in his Tampa Bay home, elated his brother got to celebrate a moment that had been a long time coming.
“I’m proud of him, man,” Mike said. “I’m so happy I got to watch it live.”
The exaltation of Ryan’s first-career interception came less than a month after his morale had hit rock bottom.
Ryan stayed with Mike in Florida during the offseason. The two trained together through a COVID-19-altered offseason that was absent of any official Seahawks workouts, OTAs or minicamps. There’s an 8.5-year age gap between the two brothers, but they’ve become remarkably close over the last several years.
Ryan arrived for Seahawks camp in great shape, and it showed. He was a noticeable standout for the entire month of August. He exhibited comfort and confidence in the system having been with Seattle the year before. He showcased his versatility to play corner as well as safety. And yet, Ryan was one of the odd men out during roster cuts on Sept. 5.
The third-year defensive back was understandably crushed. He’d experienced being cut before. Ryan signed with the Falcons practice squad after going undrafted out of Southern Illinois in 2018. He eventually made the active roster and appeared in one game as a rookie but didn’t play any meaningful snaps.
Atlanta cut Ryan in Sept. 2019, and Seattle quickly scooped him up. He spent most of the 2019 season on the Seahawks practice squad before being promoted for the final three games of the regular season as well as both playoff games. But again, Ryan was limited to special teams duties.
Still, there was reason for optimism as Seattle re-signed Ryan in April of this year. That hope continued to crescendo before the deflating news that he didn’t make the Seahawks initial 2020 53-man roster.
His brother was equally devastated.
“That was difficult for me,” Mike said. “Honestly, I cried my eyes out because I know how hard he worked, especially this offseason. It tore me up.
Ryan began to ponder whether his opportunity would ever come. Even for the strongest of wills, it’s human nature to let mental demons creep in when faced with a seemingly endless slew of adversity.
“I don’t feel like I belong,” Ryan told Mike the night he got waived by Seattle. “I feel like I give and I give and this game takes and it takes. It might be time to just live life.”
That snapped Mike out of his grief. His brother needed him, and he wasn’t about to let Ryan tap out.
Mike is a former linebacker who spent six years with the Packers after being selected in the second-round of the 2010 NFL Draft. In 68 career games, Mike won one Super Bowl, racked up 133 tackles, 31 tackles for loss and 19.0 sacks. But his career was cut short after six season due to an unsalvageable arthritic hip.
So while Mike didn’t have a say in when his NFL dreams came to an end, he wasn’t about to let his brother walk away when he knew the Seahawks weren’t done with Ryan yet.
“I’ll let you be mad tonight, but I’m not going to let you be mad tomorrow,” Mike told his brother. “You don’t give up. You don’t quit. You fight for everything that you want. You don’t live with any regrets. You’ve come too far to stop, so why stop? It’s not over yet.”
Mike was right. Seattle offered Ryan a spot on the practice squad after he cleared waivers. Ryan accepted, put his head down and went back to work.
“When the going gets tough, you just keep pressing,” Mike added. “That’s how you know something is about to break. I don’t think a lot of people understand that. Life is hard. When life gets hard, people usually let off the gas. I told him that’s the time to go full force. It has to get ugly before it gets great.”
It didn’t take long for the Seahawks to get thin on defensive backs. Going into the Week 3 matchup against the Cowboys, Seattle’s secondary was already without Marquise Blair, Quinton Dunbar, Lano Hill and Neiko Thorpe.
Neal ended up being a benefactor of a new rule in 2020. Team’s are now allowed to flex up two players from the practice squad for gameday each week without subsequently having to subject them to waivers following the contest. Neal, as well as Shaquem Griffin, were made active against the Cowboys.
You know the rest, of course.
Two days after Ryan’s game-saving interception, he called Mike in the middle of the night. Mike joked that he doesn’t sleep much, so he was awake when his phone rang at 4:30 a.m. ET. Ryan wanted to share a series of sermons from Dr. Myles Munroe titled, “How to Face the Future with Fearless Confidence.”
The collection of poignant speeches resonated with Ryan. To him, the words of Dr. Munroe embodied his struggles. The message helped him find clarity and perspective after an exhausting month that featured the highest of highs and lowest of lows.
“Ryan told me, ‘I just want to make you proud,’” Mike shared. “I cried my eyes out again.
Added Ryan: “All (Mike) does is give me advice. That’s the person I turn to if I’m confused, if I don’t know how to do certain things. Heck, even film breakdown. He has knowledge. I ask him for that, too. He’s been second to none.
“He keeps me focused. We’ve had celebratory moments, but at the end of the day, it’s, ‘Let’s flush it. Let’s do it again.’”
That’s exactly what happened. Ryan made his first-career start and played all 71 defensive snaps in the Seahawks Week 4 win over the Dolphins. He grabbed his second interception in as many weeks on the opening possession of the game.
He later flattened Dolphins running back on a short pass to the left. Ryan finished the game with six tackles, the pick and two passes defended.
And there’s reason to believe Ryan has some staying power in Seattle’s defense. Sure, he’s a trending name in the Pacific Northwest right now, but his emergence might be more than a short-lived feel-good story. Even when Adams returns from injury, Ryan could (and should) leapfrog Hill on the depth chart. That would give him reps in sub packages and ensure that his roster spot is safe for the remainder of the season.
Yes, Ryan is a high-effort, hardworking guy with a tremendous personality that makes him easy to root for. But, as Mike will tell you, he’s also a damn good football player.
“I’ve seen guys with lesser skill, lesser talent and lesser work ethic make it. That, first and foremost, gave me the confidence that he could do it,” Mike said. “He can run. He has big hands. He’s lanky. He can cover bigger receivers at corner. At the same time, he can come down and hit you like a safety.”
All of those traits have been on display the last two games. Adams’ remains on the shelf with a groin injury, which means Ryan will start again in Week 5 when the Seahawks host the Vikings on “Sunday Night Football.”
Mike will assuredly be watching the primetime matchup down in Tampa Bay, proud as can be and likely with his phone face down to avoid any potential spoilers. For so long Ryan was known as “Mike’s little brother.” Now it’s little brother’s turn to enjoy the limelight.
“Go out there and do everything that you can, and I can live through you,” Mike told Ryan. “That will be enough for me, personally. I hate to be selfish, but that will be enough for me.”