Jesse Neal

Jesse Neal (Handout photo courtesy of TNA / May 12, 2011)

Professional wrestler Jesse Neal was relaxing at his home in Orlando, Fla., with his girlfriend a couple of Sundays ago when his phone was suddenly deluged with text messages.

That's how Neal learned that Osama bin Laden had been killed that day in a firefight with U.S. forces. The news elicited a range of emotions.

Along with feeling a sense of relief that justice had been done, Neal was transported back to Oct. 12, 2000 — the day the destroyer USS Cole was bombed in an attack directed by bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist organization.

Neal, who was 20 at the time and had been in the Navy for a couple of years, was on the ship that day. Seventeen American sailors were killed, including Neal's best friend, Marc Nieto.

"He was like a big brother," Neal said. "He was four years older than me and he took me under his wing. We became best friends right off the bat."

One of the things they shared was a love for pro wrestling. They talked about becoming wrestlers someday, and Neal — who wrestles for Total Nonstop Action Wrestling (TNA), a pro wrestling company based in Florida and Tennessee — now says that he is living the dream for the both of them.

Neal, who performs as a member of a tag team known as Ink Inc., certainly looks the part of a pro wrestler, as both he and his partner sport mohawk hairdos and are heavily tattooed (among Neal's tattoos are Nieto's initials on his right forearm).

Before the taping of an episode of "TNA Impact," however, Neal — who is 6 feet, 225pounds ("6-5 with the mohawk," he joked) — left his spandex and wrestling boots in the locker room. The day after bin Laden was been killed, an emotional Neal went to the ring wearing his Navy uniform and carrying the American flag. He led the crowd at Orlando Studios in a rendition of the national anthem.

In a move that Neal says was not scripted, his fellow wrestlers broke character, emptied out of the locker room and gave him a standing ovation.

"It was hard to wear that uniform again," Neal said, "and then when I turned and saw everyone come out and all the fans were going nuts, it was overwhelming. I get goose bumps just talking about it."

Neal still gets choked up when recalling the attack on the Cole.

"When the bomb happened, there was so much smoke that we couldn't see an inch in front of our faces," he said. "All we heard was the screaming of our brothers and sisters.

"At that point, the training kicked in and it was like I was outside myself looking at me doing what I was trained to do. We split off into teams, and it's amazing how we came together. It was a miracle that we saved our ship. We'll take that with us forever."

In the confusion immediately after the explosion, Neal's left arm was cut. Two days later, it swelled to twice its normal size. It was at that point that he was treated by a doctor, who told him that his arm was infected.

"He said that I was a lucky man because they would have had to amputate my arm if I had waited a couple more days. I had no idea it was that serious," Neal said.

Nieto was down below in the engineering space when the explosion occurred. It wasn't until later that night that Neal learned that his friend had been killed.

After getting out of the Navy in 2002, Neal said he was "lost." He pursued a career as a firefighter, but when that didn't work out, he did various manual labor jobs as well as bartending and serving.

Neal says he had an epiphany while working as a bouncer.

"I came through those bombings for a purpose," he said. "I knew there was much more I could be doing with my life."

It was at that point that Neal made up his mind to pursue his childhood dream of becoming a pro wrestler. He enrolled in a wrestling school in Orlando in 2007 and was signed by TNA two years later.

"Everyone always thinks of wrestling being a gimmick, but I want people to know that my story is real," he said. "I don't want to preach, but people need to know that if you have a dream, shoot for the stars. I want to motivate people to stop living in a little bubble. Tomorrow might never come."

Neal, who always points to the air either before he enters the ring or while in the ring as a tribute to Nieto, says he feels his best friend's presence every time he wrestles.

"I would do anything to take his spot," Neal said. "I feel like I'm here living for two lives. I hope I make him proud."

kevin.eck@baltsun.com

Neal will perform in a tag-team match as part of TNA's "Sacrifice" pay-per-view event at 8 tonight.

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