ROCKLIN - Ben Noonan remembers with mixed emotions the fall of 2017.
The coach took his Sierra College football team to Santa Rosa, his old hometown, to play the community college program he once suited up for. Noonan’s heart was heavy. He lost his mother, Pamela, days earlier, to a sudden illness at 66. Family and friends attended the late September game of JC powers.
What added to the coach’s angst was this: he was at odds with his star player. At least for a moment. That player was Brandon Aiyuk, who had his first taste of football stardom at Sierra as a classic late bloomer, and then at Arizona State as his stock soared, leading to a first-round selection by the 49ers on Thursday night.
“That was the week Brandon fought against me,” Noonan said Friday. “I took him off special teams, and he was pissed at me. Wouldn’t even talk to me. Finally, I go, ‘Brandon, what’s the problem?’ He said, ‘Coach, you took me off special teams!’”
He did, with reason.
Aiyuk countered with his own logic: He could impact and change a game on a kickoff or punt return, right from the start. What’s a coach if he doesn’t listen to his star player?
“He made his point, and I put him back on special teams, and he reached the end zone six times against Santa Rosa,” Noonan said with a laugh. “When a guy who works that hard and is that good and he’s upset, you listen. I knew then that Brandon was special, that he really cared.”
A DOMINANT FORCE IN JUNIOR COLLEGE
Technically, Aiyuk hit the end zone four times at Santa Rosa, three of them on receptions and one on special teams. Two punt return scores were called back due to penalties, but the point was clear. Feed No. 4 the ball and then ice him up later.
After Sierra’s 52-30 victory, Aiyuk hustled over to Noonan and presented him with the game ball, to honor his mother. Player and coach hugged and wept.
Noonan cherishes that ball. He keeps it in his Placer County home. He also appreciates his relationship with Aiyuk. They have remained close. They spoke by phone leading up to the draft and moments after the 49ers’ selection. Noonan watched the NFL draft from the comfort of the family couch, flanked by 9-year-old son Benny and 6-year-old daughter Adriana. Everyone wore 49ers colors.
The only one who sensed — and dreamed — Aiyuk would become a 49er was Benny. Someone hand the kid a stack of lottery tickets. Aiyuk grew up a 49ers fan and wore 49ers colors when he was as young as 4.
Benny never misses a Sierra of 49ers game. He had already changed his home closet space to look like 49ers lockers, including player names: Nick Bosa and George Kittle have spots. He saved the third spot for a player to be named later. That’s Aiyuk now.
“It’s all so incredible, just awesome, the hometown team getting the local guy,” Noonan said. “When the pick became official with the 49ers, we all went nuts on the couch.”
AIYUK MAKES IT EASY TO ROOT FOR HIM
Noonan said Aiyuk is easy to root for.
“Brandon’s an incredible kid, very humble,” Noonan said. “I think that’ll translate to a long NFL career. He’s a hard worker. He loves to practice. He’s a great teammate, and he was adamant on being on special teams.”
Aiyuk was a defensive back at McQueen High School in Reno but was lightly recruited. He did not catch many passes as a prep, which goes against the family norm. Aiyuk is cousins with Ariel, Daniyel and Joe Ngata of Folsom High football fame. The Ngatas are in college at Sacramento State, Arizona State and Clemson, respectively.
The Ngata family celebrated the draft news Thursday in their Reno home, just as the Aiyuk family did not far away.
“Oh, yes, definitely a lot of family pride,” said Ray Ngata, father of the Ngata boys. “The boys practically grew up together. We all watched the draft. Couldn’t control our excitement.”