ALAMEDA

A THICK man extends a thick hand, introduces himself and announces that he has come to fix one of the most troubled systems in American sports today.

His credentials are solid; he knows his business, has been at it most of his life. He is one of the best ever at his job.

But how can he comprehend the magnitude of the task ahead? It's his fourth week of observation. He is new to the Raiders and everything they have become.

Yet Lorenzo Neal insists those dreadful days are over.

"I can honestly say — and I've been in a lot of places — that this team is doing a lot of the things that good teams I've been on were doing," the veteran fullback says, wiping sweat from his brow after an organized team activity.

I remind Neal that the Raiders have not been a good team for quite some time, wondering what assures him 2009 will be appreciably better than the past six seasons.

Neal understands my skepticism, based on years of misplaced priorities, unproductive agendas, demoralized players — and that embarrassing 24-72.

Yet Neal wants to show me the way out. Moreover, he believes he can show the Raiders the way back.

This, he says, is why he signed with Oakland rather than Houston or returning to Baltimore for a second season.

"What better place — especially with the odds stacked against you?" he says. "Everyone is asking, 'Why? What's up with the Raiders? Why would you go to the Raiders?' Hey, the year before I went to Baltimore, they won five games. Last year, we were in the AFC championship game. Last year, people might have asked: 'Why Baltimore?'


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"Listen," Neal adds, his voice rising and turning evangelistic, "it's about the opportunity; that's why I'm here. It's not about Lorenzo. Lorenzo has been to Pro Bowls. Lorenzo has been voted All-Pro. Those are individual accomplishments. It's now about grabbing these young men and challenging them, letting them know that if they want people to change the way they think about them, they have to change what they're doing."

Neal is long on words, energy and faith. Has been a terrific player, too, generally acknowledged as the best blocking fullback of his generation. Born in Hanford and a product of Lemoore High, he stayed in the Central Valley and went to Fresno State. He's a California kid, yes, but tougher than a Buffalo winter.

Wherever Neal goes, and he is now with his eighth team, running backs thrive. His five years in San Diego were the best of LaDainian Tomlinson's career. It's not by coincidence that the Ravens last year had the league's No. 4 rushing attack.

Still, I'm skeptical, as are others around the NFL. The Raiders have fallen so far they have become magnets for well-founded criticism.

"It's been that way and rightfully so," Neal says. "If a bully is taking my lunch money every day, man, how do I change that? I have to stand up, let him know he's not taking it today without a fight. Until we do that — and I mean WE because I'm now part of the Raiders and their tradition — it won't change. It's about us. We gotta fight."

Neal is speaking as if from a pulpit, which may be natural insofar as he is the son of a Pentecostal minister.

"It's not that these guys don't want to win," he says. "They're looking for leaders, looking for guidance."

That the Raiders are a run-oriented team makes signing Neal theoretically astute from a purely football point of view. That they need leadership makes it a potential chemistry jackpot.

What's in it for Lorenzo?

"When I first got into league, it was about me. Now it's about the journey, the experience. It's about going where the odds are stacked against you, going where people are saying you can't win, that it can't happen. When it's too hard for man, it's just right for Him."

Neal points to the sky, says God sent him here and that he sees himself as Moses.

"I'm here," he shouts, "to bring them out of Egypt!"

He rises, rolls his 5-foot-10, 255-pound body toward the weight room but turns to deliver a postscript.

"I'm telling you, man," he says. "Talk to me after the season. Come see me then. Come see me then."

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com