RICHLAND -- To watch Aaron Neary during pregame warmups with the Hanford basketball team is to see a man in his element.
The 6-foot-3 redhead bounds around the floor like an oversized puppy, flashing a natural smile and shaking hands with passers-by in the minutes leading up to the game.
Neary might not look like a basketball player, but the athletic 260-pound post already has you fooled. He can play with the best of them.
With relative ease, Neary explodes from the floor and -- getting both hands above the rim -- literally throws the ball down through the hoop during a layup drill, displaying the raw power that he's waiting to unleash on the Big Sky Conference in the fall.
"He has a fire and a determination to win," Falcons teammate and junior guard Jalen DeVine said. "If a shot goes up, it's his ball. He's getting the rebound."
Beneath it all, Neary is a football player -- a very good one. A two-way lineman, he's good enough to earn a scholarship to Eastern Washington University, the defending FCS champion. But his road to Cheney took a few turns along the way.
Neary was born in Richland but lived in Desert Aire, just outside of Mattawa, until his sophomore year. He made a big impression for the Wahluke High football and basketball teams, but the budding star felt it was time to make a move if he was to fulfill his dream of playing college football.
"We spent a year and a half living in a fifth-wheel trailer at Horn Rapids ORV Park so we could be in the (Richland School) District," he said. "I talked to (Hanford football) coach (Rob) Oram and he said he'd do everything in his power to help me. Getting down here was the right move."
Neary was a hit in his first season with the Falcons, earning second-team all-CBBN honors on defense. But his chances of playing at the next level took a potential hit this season when he broke his foot during a football game against Pasco.
But even that incident, according to Oram, revealed something about his character.
"He's got a real competitive spirit that drives him to be a great player," Oram said. "He hurt himself chasing (DeVaunte) Wright-Lamb down. Lamb can run, and that's a 260-pound kid sprinting to the sideline to catch him.
"Even after the fracture was diagnosed at halftime, he was told that he could still play, that he wasn't going to make it any worse. So he went out and played another quarter."
But with his season over after just four games, Neary was worried that college scouts might back off without a full senior season under his belt.
"I knew it would be difficult to send film out without playing six or seven games. I remember coach Oram right after the game told me, 'Aaron, without any senior film, Big Sky football will be difficult. It's not impossible,' " Neary said. "He told me they know talent when they see it, so all they needed to see was junior film."
Apparently, it was enough for EWU. Neary signed a Letter of Intent on Wednesday to play for the Eagles.
"We might be talking (offensive) tackle. They said they're looking for big and athletic, and once I get down there they will find a spot," Neary said. "They made the right decision. I'm not going to let them down up there."
Though his future remains in football, Neary has been the heart of a Falcons basketball team that is tied with Southridge for second place in the CBBN 3A division. The team went 1-5 while he recovered from his broken foot but has gone 7-5 in league since his return.
Hanford hoops coach Paul Mayer thought he might have something special the first time he worked with Neary.
"He had a really funky free throw. I spent about 5 minutes working with him on it the next day, and he changed it immediately. He's still not an awesome free throw shooter, but I was impressed with his willingness to change," Mayer said. "Another thing I remember is that about five coaches from our summer league (many of whom coached against Wahluke in the SCAC), all said to me, 'Wow, you got a nice pickup.' "
Neary's positive attitude extends well beyond the athletic realm. He's a strong student, well-liked by his classmates and he has a healthy respect for the teachers and coaches around him. He's even considering a career in secondary education.
"It would be so much fun to be a high school teacher. I see the teachers around here, and no one's ever in a bad mood," Neary said. "I really want to be a high school football coach. I think I'd really love interacting with kids every single day."
* Jack Millikin; 509-582-1406; email@example.com.