Keanu Neal was 6 when Tom Brady collected MVP honors in Super Bowl XXXVI.
The Florida product, drafted No. 17 overall last spring, now finds himself as the youngest member of the Atlanta Falcons’ roster at 21 years old. And he finds himself preparing to face that same New England Patriots quarterback, drafted five rounds after him and 16 springs before him.
Only age has been little more than a number for Neal, who was born on July 26, 1995, right around the same time as Brady, born Aug. 3, 1977, was embarking on his freshman campaign at Michigan.
“The biggest thing for me is my understanding of the game, understanding how offenses are trying to attack me,” Neal told reporters of his progression during Monday’s opening night in Houston. “I knew a little bit, but now I kind of really have an understanding of it. At the end of the day, it allows me to play faster.”
Fast – and hard-hitting – Neal has been. The strong safety earned All-Rookie accolades from the Pro Football Writers of America after amassing 106 tackles, nine pass deflections and five forced fumbles over 14 starts this regular season. He ranked second among rookies in stops and third among all defenders in fumbles jarred through that span.
An additional 17 tackles have been accrued by Neal in Atlanta’s two postseason games. Yet the 6-foot, 211-pounder’s early success, which he credits to communication and trust in the growing process of a defense comprised of four rookie starters, hasn’t made this stage any smaller.
It’s still Super Bowl LI.
“I was hoping that I’d help the team get here, but you never know,” Neal said. “You just take it day-by-day and just hope for the best. Shoot, being here is just surreal. It’s just a blessing.”
On the opposite end of that blessing is Brady, who, at 39 years old, has also made a case for age being little more than a number. He checks in as the Patriots’ oldest player and the NFL’s oldest active non-kicker or punter.
Seventeen seasons into his tenure, Brady is fresh off a regular season in which he completed 67.4 percent of his passes for 3,554 yards, 28 touchdowns and two interceptions over 12 appearances. He stands a week removed from setting a playoff career-high with 384 passing yards in his record-setting 11th AFC Championship Game, too.
Brady and Neal will soon be lining up across the ball from one another on the NRG Stadium turf. One will be playing in his first Super Bowl. The other, with four rings and three MVPs in hand, will be playing in his seventh.
The contrast between them is stark. But there is common ground leading up to Sunday. There is an appreciation for the moment.
“We’re fortunate to be here,” Brady told reporters during his media availability Tuesday. “There’s only two teams that get a chance to play in this game, and we’re one of them. We don’t take it for granted by any stretch. I know how hard it is to get here. There’s a lot of things that need to go your way. You need to get a lot of lucky breaks, you need to overcome a lot of injuries, and every team faces different challenges throughout the year. But it’s tough to get to this point. We’re here and we’ve got to go take advantage by trying to win this game.”
Brady hasn’t faced Atlanta’s defense since Sept. 29, 2013, when he went 20-of-31 through the air for 316 yards and two touchdowns in a 30-23 win at the Georgia Dome. Neal wasn’t even starting for the Gators at that time.
The four-star recruit finished that season with four games played.
The games and the seasons have moved fast, however. Neal knows he’s had some catching up to do when it comes to studying Atlanta’s next opposing signal-caller. He knows he can’t watch Brady’s eyes. But the Falcons have watched as far back as Super Bowl XLIX – versus head coach Dan Quinn’s then-Seattle Seahawks defense – to get a glimpse of what there is to see.
Because, “You never know,” according to Neal.
“He’s very intelligent. He’s been in it for a while,” he said of Brady. “His experience is up there and his knowledge for the game is up there as well. He definitely knows it. Just sticking to the details and doing what we do, that’s the biggest thing with us.”
The details are something Brady’s game has been predicated on as well. Whether it be through preventative maintenance or his preparation – studying film on the Falcons until 1:30 a.m. on the same night the Patriots defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers, 36-17, for the AFC title – the results have spoken for themselves.
Brady will let them speak for themselves, too.
“I don’t think anything about a personal legacy,” Brady said. “I mean, those words wouldn’t even come out of my mouth unless I just repeated them. Those things have never been important to me. I never thought I’d be at this point in my life. I never thought that I could play professional football. I didn’t think I’d play any professional sport. Of course, I had dreams and hopes like probably a lot of kids, but never could imagine that I’d be here after 17 years doing this. It just feels very much like it’s still ongoing. There’s no time for me to look back or look ahead – there’s so much going on. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”
With a fifth Super Bowl win, Brady will have accomplished what no other quarterback has. With a third Super Bowl loss, his seven starts will still stand in the company of their own and well ahead of the four made, and won, by Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw.
But the present is what matters. The 6:30 p.m. ET kickoff looms. And Neal, for one, isn’t interested in putting a number on Brady’s place in history leading up to it.
“Where does he stand? I mean, he’s up there with them, that’s for sure,” Neal said. “I wouldn’t put them [Nos.] 1, 2 and 3, but they’re all great in my eyes.”