When Aaron Neary was playing football and basketball at Hanford High School, he looked up to former Falcon great Mac Tuiaea.
Friday night, Neary still was looking up to Tuiaea, but only because he stands a few inches taller.
The two former Hanford greats were on hand as Hanford High retired their football jerseys during halftime of the boys basketball game.
From this day forward, Neary’s No. 77 and Tuiaea’s No. 78 are off the market.
“I was surprised,” Neary said when he got the call. “Never did I think I would get a jersey retired. It’s the biggest honor I can think of. I remember when I was playing and Mac got inducted into the Hall of Fame. You look up to those guys, you want to follow in their footsteps when you are in high school. Huge to be honored on the same night as him. He is ginormous, and I’m not a small guy.”
Tuiaea echoed the sentiment: “I’m already in the Hall of Fame, but this is a big honor,” he said. “I just think about about being at Hanford and how great it was. I’ve met (Neary) a couple of times. I knew he was good at Eastern (Washington) and I know Hanford is really proud of him.”
A monster for his time
At 6-foot-6, 290 pounds, Tuiaea was larger than life when he played high school ball. His size and athleticism earned him a scholarship at the University of Washington, where he was a standout defensive tackle from 1996-99, earning second-team All-Pac-10 Conference honors as a junior.
A 1995 Hanford High graduate, Tuiaea started every game for UW during the 1996 season as a redshirt freshman.
After the Huskies lost to Kansas State in the Holiday Bowl, Tuiaea put his purple and gold helmet on one last time for the 2000 East-West Shrine Bowl at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif.
“I was All-Pac-10 as a junior and rode the waves into the pros,” Tuiaea said. “I was proud to be part of football. It’s hard to give it up. You just keep saying a year or two more. It doesn’t last forever. Neither do your knees.”
Tuiaea received an invitation to the 2000 National Football League combine, and spent time in the San Diego Chargers’ camp, but the NFL never panned out.
From there, he played with the Chicago Enforcers of the XFL, the Canadian Football League’s British Columbia Lions and the San Diego Riptide of the Arena Football League.
Tuiaea made his CFL debut in July of 2002 after spending 2001 in the XFL with the Chicago Enforcers and the Memphis Maniax.
While he was playing at Washington, his sister, Ana, played for the women’s basketball team.
“That was special,” he said.
In the twilight of his football career, Tuiaea played with current Hanford coach Brett Jay with the Tri-City Rattlers in 2004. The team was 11-0 under coach Warren Hull.
He also played a few games with the Tri-Cities Fever, but injuries limited his playing time.
With football behind him, Tuiaea, 40, is a bus driver for Ben Franklin Transit.
Neary, 25, attended Wahluke High School in Mattawa for two years before transferring to Hanford. That’s when his world was turned upside down.
“We specifically chose Hanford to move (from Mattawa), and hopefully with help from the teachers and staff, I would go on to do better things,” Neary said. “Between Coach (Rob) Oram and the teachers and the school, it was amazing.”
Without moving to Hanford, Neary would likely have been the pride of Mattawa, but that’s where the road would have ended.
“When I came to Hanford, I had never seen anything like it,” he said. “Homecoming and dances and other things. I didn’t know that stuff. I didn’t get to experience that before. I have never been around a group of kids just more inviting and friendly. Without Hanford, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today.”
Neary was 2 years old when Tuiaea graduated from high school, so he only had stories and photos as a guide to the legacy he left behind. But soon Neary was forging his own path.
He was a standout football and basketball player for the Falcons, earning all-league honors.
Neary, a 2011 graduate, captured the attention of the Eastern Washington football staff with his dominant play and accomplishments as a multi-sport athlete.
He was a two-time All-America offensive lineman for the Eagles and started 24 of his 46 games played.
After the 2016 NFL draft came and went, Neary signed a free-agent contract with the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos.
Though he played mostly guard at EWU, Neary was considered small for an NFL offensive lineman at 6-3 and 300 pounds.
“I am pretty much a center now,” he said. “At Eastern I was a guard my sophomore and junior years. My senior year, one game I hit all the positions — guard, tackle and center.”
While he didn’t stick with Denver or Philadelphia, he found a home with the L.A. Rams, where he joined forces with former EWU teammate Cooper Kupp, a wide receiver.
“When I was with Philadelphia, they were pumping me for information on Cooper really hard,” Neary said. “Before I went to L.A., I’m sure they were in his ear about me. When I walked in the first day (at L.A.), Cooper was waiting there in the training room with open arms.”
Neary has spent nearly his entire NFL career on the practice squad, but he was ready when told he would start at center Dec. 31 against the San Francisco 49ers. The Rams were resting several starters, including center John Sullivan, to prepare for the playoffs.
“That was huge,” he said. “To get that call, for coach to say you are going to start this week. Not just activated, but thrown into the lineup. I was ready after spending all that time on the practice squad. I just wanted to play. I had been sitting out for almost two years at that point. I was so ready to play. I had never put in so much work or time to get into a game than at that point.
Neary admitted he was a bit nervous for his first game.
“It was nerve wracking — that is the dream when you are a kid. To run out of that tunnel. It’s huge. That was crazy. Even sitting on the bench before I went in, I’m thinking ‘what is going on?’ What everyone will tell you, when that first snap gets out of the way, you are just playing football. And that’s the way it was. Doing the same thing I had been doing since Grid Kids.”