Brandon Aiyuk’s star roots traced to Sierra College

Joe Curry hasn’t played football in five years but knew exactly what 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy was thinking when he let one fly to Brandon Aiyuk in the NFC Championship Game against the Detroit Lions.

“One-on-one, man-to-man, safety over the top, it doesn’t matter,” the former Sierra College quarterback said in a recent phone interview. “I know what Brandon can do.”

The result was a 51-yard completion when Purdy’s pass hit the facemask of cornerback Kindle Vildor and wound up in the hands of Aiyuk. The magnitude of what Aiyuk had done didn’t register until he saw the play on his cell phone in the postgame euphoria.

“It was just bang-bang,” Aiyuk said afterward. “You don’t really realize (what happened) until after, until now, when I finally got to my phone. In the moment, I was just playing football to the whistle.”

It belongs on the honor roll of 49ers postseason catches along with Dwight Clark (The Catch in 1981), Terrell Owens (The Catch II in 1998) and Vernon Davis (The Catch III in 2013) even if it didn’t cross the goal line. The touchdown came two plays later when Purdy hit Aiyuk for a 6-yard score to bring the 49ers within three points.

Aiyuk’s play threw momentum in the 49ers’ favor in a 34-31 win that landed them in Super Bowl LVIII against the Kansas City Chiefs on Feb. 11 at Allegiant Stadium.

“It kind of unlocked the whole team,” coach Kyle Shanahan said.

Celebrity beckons Aiyuk this week in Las Vegas. Conventional and social media, national and international, will descend upon him for an explanation of what he did and how he did it. There were enough network requests for his time that some local outlets — including this one — were told he was too busy to talk before the team departed to Las Vegas.

The onslaught begins Monday on NFL Opening Night, with all players available in a circus atmosphere at the game site. Reporters will crowd around Aiyuk’s platform to learn more about the man who caught 75 passes for 1,342 yards and seven touchdowns in the regular season before standing the NFC title game on its ear with his miracle catch.

They’ll learn Aiyuk is more about action than words.

“He’s a laid-back person basically, pretty chill,” said Draysean Hudson, one of his closest friends.

Aiyuk’s play against Detroit gained national attention. The reaction among those who were with him at Sierra College was different. There was an initial burst of excitement, followed by a knowing nod of the head.

“It was not a surprise to anyone who was on our team in the least,” said Curry, a freshman at Sierra when Aiyuk was a sophomore.

“You can ask anybody at Sierra, he was known for making crazy catches,” said Hudson, a former Sierra wide receiver from Berkeley and Aiyuk’s college roommate.

“Once a week he’d leap over someone at practice and make an insane catch,” said Sierra coach Ben Noonan. “It’s like he was flying and the defender’s helmet would be below him.”

“Saw it all the time,” said Sierra assistant Daniel Diaz-Romero.

Sierra College in South Placer County used to be the training camp for the 49ers between 1981 and 1997 — an era which encompassed all five of their Super Bowl wins. Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, Steve Young and Co. would toil in the brutal summer heat in late July and August under Bill Walsh and George Seifert.

Aiyuk grew up in Reno, born the year the 49ers moved their training camp to Stockton in 1998, and developed into an interesting athlete if not a big-time recruit at McQueen High. Interested colleges thought he’d be a good defensive back.

Matthew Marner, now the coach at McQueen, described Aiyuk as “undersized” as a junior varsity player.

“We were always concerned he’d get hurt,” Marner said in an email. “But as he is now, he was very difficult to tackle.”

Aiyuk didn’t play as a junior before playing again as a senior. In his first game, he touched the ball six times and scored three touchdowns, two on punt returns.

Sierra, about 110 miles from Reno, appealed to Aiyuk because Noonan wanted him as a receiver in a Mike Leach-style Air Raid offense instead of as a defensive back. Aiyuk blossomed physically, increasing his squat lifts from 250 to 500 pounds in two years. He caught 89 passes for 1,533 yards, 19 touchdowns and earned a scholarship to Arizona State.

Brandon Aiyuk (11) takes a break during a training camp practice. Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group

Aiyuk has maintained friendships with a handful of Sierra teammates as well as Noonan, who attends occasional 49ers games. He befriended Noonan’s son Benny, now a teenager, and has offered support and counsel.

The only bump in the road came in Aiyuk’s sophomore season when he suddenly gave Noonan the cold shoulder. Since Aiyuk had never missed a day of practice and nothing appeared wrong, Noonan was puzzled.

Aiyuk had been removed from the return game to preserve his body, and he didn’t like it.

“He didn’t talk to me for two straight days,” Noonan said. “I finally grabbed him and asked, ‘What’s the problem?’ He said ‘You took away special teams.’ So I told him I’d put him back on returns if the game was on the line.”

Aiyuk’s response?

“He said, ‘Coach, I can change the game on the first kickoff return. I can change the game on the first punt return,’” Noonan said. “He was pretty adamant, so I said, ‘OK, you’re back on.’”

In a 52-30 win over Santa Rosa, Aiyuk caught three touchdown passes and returned a kickoff for a touchdown. Two other punt return touchdowns were nullified by penalties.

“The most incredible performance I had ever seen,” Noonan said. “He made his point.”

It was a point Aiyuk would later make with 49ers beat writers in matter-of-fact fashion on a conference call after he was the 25th pick in the first round of the NFL Draft in 2020.

“I have that mentality that every time I touch the ball, I want to score,” Aiyuk said.

At 6 feet tall with a 6-foot-9 wingspan, Aiyuk has a large catch radius and sticky hands to go with his prodigious athletic gifts in terms of speed and agility. He was also serious about competing and getting better.

The spectacular catches are a byproduct of those physical traits and hard work.

“You see what he puts on tape,” Hudson said. “I don’t want to say it’s routine but I know him and when he goes out there he expects to do stuff like that.”

At Arizona State, Aiyuk caught 98 passes for 1,666 yards and 11 touchdowns in two seasons and was the sixth wide receiver selected in the first round after Henry Ruggs (No. 12 to the Raiders), Jerry Jeudy (No. 15 to the Broncos), CeeDee Lamb (No. 17 to the Cowboys), Jalen Reagor (No. 21 to the Eagles) and Justin Jefferson (No. 22 to the Vikings).

Aiyuk, who by edict of Shanahan has developed into an enthusiastic blocker, was known for staying late after practice at Sierra and playing with a controlled intensity that didn’t require a lot of talk.

Curry, who stopped playing football after Sierra and earned an engineering degree from Sacramento State, remembers Aiyuk pushing himself as well as his teammates.

“In the one-on-one drills, he would call out the biggest and baddest dude everyone was talking about and go at them,” Curry said. “He’d let me know what plays he liked and tell me in games, ‘This guy is no match for me.’ He was quiet and never a ‘put the camera on me’ type, but on the football field, he turns into a different guy.”

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