If you’re trying to find Aaron Neary over the next three days, don’t check in front of his TV.
Few folks, if any, around the Mid-Columbia will have quite the vested interest in the NFL draft as the two-time All-America offensive lineman from Eastern Washington University. But the former Hanford High School standout doesn’t plan on sweating it out round by round watching the tube.
Projected by some to go in the sixth or seventh round Saturday, Neary plans to spend the weekend with his parents and brother, likely at a golf course or doing a little fishing.
He’ll try his best not to think about one of the biggest moments in his life.
“When all this (NFL interest) started picking up, I wrote a note and stuck it in my bathroom so I would see it every morning,” he said Tuesday, two days before the start of the draft. “ ‘Remember how you got here.’ My whole life, I feel so comfortable being at the bottom of the totem pole. When I came to Eastern, they gave me (a) partial tuition (scholarship), which paid for half. I wasn’t a walk-on, but I was pretty darn close.”
Neary’s spring has mostly been filled with workouts to stay in shape. He needs one class to complete his history degree — with an eye on getting his master’s and becoming a teacher if a football career isn’t in the cards.
He didn’t attend the NFL combine, but 22 NFL teams and a couple of CFL clubs were on hand for Eastern Washington’s pro day. Since then, five teams have flown out to Cheney to have Neary work out for them.
He said the Minnesota Vikings have shown the most interest along with New England, Detroit, Arizona and Jacksonville. Most teams see him as a center, with his 6-foot-3, 301-pound frame being a tad small — small! — to play at the guard spot where he dominated in college.
He said talking to eight or nine NFL teams each day is not out of the norm. Most of them are calling to check up on him, make sure they have the right phone number, make sure he is still in school, and hasn’t been in any trouble or been arrested.
“I’m a grandpa,” Neary said. “I never go out. I don’t put myself in any bad situations.”
He recently talked to the Philadelphia Eagles’ general manager, and quite a few offensive line coaches have called.
“Last week and this week, every single team has called me,” he said. “ ‘Who are you talking to? Who’s working you out?’ ”
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The calls are routine for him, not so much for his mom.
LeeAnn Neary is a third-grade teacher in the small farming town of Mattawa, where she and husband Ron moved back to after Aaron finished up at Hanford.
One day, while LeeAnn was in the middle of teaching class, her phone rang with an out-of-area number. It was the Cleveland Browns, and they were having trouble getting ahold of Aaron.
“I was in a class with 30 third-graders, and it’s ‘Ron with the Cleveland Browns,’ ” LeeAnn said. “I was like, ‘Oh my goodness.’
“I was calling my husband, calling Aaron, leaving messages. ‘Will somebody please call me back? The Cleveland Browns guy called 10 minutes ago and asked for Aaron’s number, and I couldn’t even remember it.’ ”
Dream becoming reality
LeeAnn said the NFL has been on her son’s mind almost his entire life.
“When Aaron was, gosh, little, he always told us he had two jobs he wanted to do when he grew up: work at McDonald’s or play for the Green Bay Packers,” she said. “He was Brett Favre for Halloween — his dad is from Wisconsin.
“And as he has gotten older, he’s just an extremely dedicated individual, beyond anything I can verbalize.”
LeeAnn recounted stories of cleaning Aaron’s room as he was growing up and finding affirmation notes: “I will dunk the ball my freshman year” or “I will make the varsity as a freshman.” His high school days were still years away.
She remembers thinking: “ ‘Holy cats! How does this kid have high expectations or high goals like that?’
“He’s always done that. He strives for so much.”
Now so close to realizing a lifelong dream — the NFL, not McDonald’s — Aaron Neary said it isn’t always easy to stay focused on his day-to-day life.
“I can’t lie; it’s always in your head,” he said. “You get seven or eight phone calls a day, you can’t not worry about it.”
Rewarding college career
Known to be goal-oriented with an incredible work ethic, Neary has stayed focused on what is most important: finishing his degree. Part of that comes from a certainty that “I don’t know what team I’m going to, but I know I’m going to some team.”
Whether in the draft or via free agency, he knows he will be in an NFL training camp this summer.
That confidence comes from succeeding against odds so many times before.
His family moved to Richland the spring of his sophomore year in high school, and he made an immediate impact in football and basketball the following year. Four games into his senior football season with the Falcons, he broke his foot and was done for the fall.
With only about 14 varsity games under Neary’s belt, colleges weren’t exactly beating down his door. LeeAnn said it took a lot of support from then-Hanford coach Rob Oram to get a meeting with EWU coach Beau Baldwin.
Sitting in Baldwin’s office, the Nearys got a scholarship offer of $3,000 to cover half of Aaron’s tuition — no books, no dorm, no food. LeeAnn and Ron looked at each other and said: “We’ll make it happen. We’ll come up with the other 20 (thousand dollars).”
Aaron redshirted his first season and played little as a freshman. But the first game of his sophomore year was Eastern’s big upset of Oregon State, and he played the last three quarters.
“We won. It was a huge upset, and being part of that — ‘Hey, I had a legitimate role in beating this team,’ ” he said. “ ‘Wow!’ I loved it. I became completely consumed with it.”
He got quite a bit of playing time that season, then became a starter as a junior and earned All-America status. For his senior season, he was voted a captain, repeated as All-America and, perhaps most rewarding, played as a full-scholarship athlete — tuition, books, room and board.
“If you come in on a full ride, it’s hard to lose,” he said. “But if you don’t, it’s freaking hard to get.”
One of the best parts of his college football experience, Neary said, was being on a playoff contender all four seasons.
“My favorite part about playing football is playing meaningful games in November and December,” he said. “You play a 10-game schedule, every game matters. But when you get into November, pretty much every game is a playoff game. And we got to do that every single year I was there.”
It isn’t much of a reach to believe more meaningful games in November and December could be in Neary’s future. Perhaps even a few in January and February?
So yes, this weekend is a big one for Neary. And even with his low-key plans for this weekend, he expects to experience a few nerves. So if you happen to be a buddy of his, might want to do him a favor and wait until the weekend to give him a call and say hi.
“Every time that phone rings,” he said, “my heart’s going to stop.”
Kevin Anthony: 509-582-1403