It has been 23 months since Lorenzo Neal has played a down of football.
After a brutal knee injury suffered in a 2018 game against Indiana, the then-junior defensive tackle started his winding road to recovery. Fast forward to Monday, the now fifth-year senior's knee is as good as new.
"I feel good," he said over a Zoom call after practice. "I feel great, I'm ready to play football."
Neal, standing at 6-foot-3 and weighing 315 pounds, was a projected first round pick in the NFL draft before his injury. Since then, he has strived to keep a positive mindset throughout his recovery process.
"I won't go into detail about all the things I've been through in my life, but an injury would never make me quit the sport I love," Neal said. "So that was never a thought that crossed my mind. I took it day by day, just trying to get back out here as quick as I could, and when I was ready, I was ready."
Neal prefaced his first answer of the conference by vocalizing his support of the social activism that has swept the world this past summer.
"I wanna start this off saying rest in peace George Floyd," he said. "Rest in peace Breonna Taylor, any victims of police brutality."
The player has been one of the most politically vocal Boilermaker student-athletes, and has often tweeted about racism and other social issues in recent months.
Neal addressed racial justice twice more during the conference, both times unprompted and unheralded.
"I think that over these last what, nine, ten months since the pandemic has started, I think a lot of awareness has been made to social justice causes, especially the treatment of minorities of our communities in America especially,” Neal said. “And I think that’s really important for us to keep that narrative going, because we have a lot of work to get done as a country."
Purdue Athletics policy discourages reporters from asking student-athletes questions on controversial topics, and no reporters furthered the dialogue.
Back on the football field
After almost two years without playing, some began to wonder if Neal would ever see the field again. For him though, returning to play was an obvious choice.
“I have eligibility left and I haven’t played a whole season, I needed to get back out here and play again with my guys,” he said, “For me, that was a question I never really had to ask myself. There was work I needed to get done here, and there are still games I need to win.”
Regardless of past adversity, Neal never lost his confidence, and when asked if he could play a game right then and there, he showed that he hasn't lost his sense of humor, either.
"Do I feel like I could play a full game today?" he asked. "Well we just finished practice, so I don't feel like I could play a full game right now, but (with) a good night sleep, some food, I could probably play a game."
While defensive line coach Terrance Jamison said starters will not be named until kickoff, sophomore defensive end George Karlaftis has been impressed with Neal so far.
"He's lookin' good," Karlaftis said. "He's putting his best foot forward and giving it everything he's got for the team."
Now that he is back, Neal said he feels confident in the new Boilermaker defense.
"I would say the biggest thing this offseason was that we really got as good of an understanding as I think we have of the playbook," he said. "We're learning an all-new scheme, brand new football."