It took a good two hours for the man of the hour to arrive at the after-party Thursday evening.
The festive gathering at an Elk Grove banquet hall – adorned with balloons, banners and tables of food and drink, with large-screen TVs tuned into the NFL draft – was a reflection of Arik Armstead’s popularity with those close to him. And the defensive end from Pleasant Grove High School is generally the life of the party, so instead of a disco ball from the ceiling to radiate the place, Armstead’s smile fit the bill.
Shortly after the 49ers selected him with the 17th pick of the first round, Armstead bounded through the doors of the Falls Event Center and was given a hero’s welcome. The defensive end wore a championship smile and was moved by the crush of family and friends that greeted him – some from his youth, others from church who recall his good nature more than his 6-foot-7, 292-pound frame.
“Everyone’s excited, and it’s a big day,” said Armstead. “I was calm (through the first 16 picks). God had a plan for for me. Obviously, he wants me in Northern California and being a 49er. I think my family was a little more nervous and anxious than I was.”
As in the Armstead clan, family, faith and football run a strong current in Thompson household in North Sacramento, where Shaq Thompson sweated out the the first round with mixed emotions. Thompson, a linebacker from Grant, went No. 25 to the Carolina Panthers, giving the region a rare double-dip in the first round.
The only other time two area prospects were selected in the first round was in famed 1983 draft, when quarterbacks Tony Eason of Delta High in Clarksburg, and Ken O’Brien of UC Davis and Jesuit, were taken in the same haul as eventual Hall of Famers John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino.
Armstead and Thompson followed each other through high school as they became national recruits. Both considered Cal but wound up at different Pacific-12 Conference schools – Armstead at Oregon and Thompson at Washington. They remained close friends, worked out together leading up to the draft, and hung out together during the NFL combine in Indianapolis. And they chatted by phone Thursday after their draft selections.
“We’ll celebrate together,” Armstead said. “We’re two Sacramento guys, friends, and it’s exciting to know there’s a pool of talent here. We always talked about that, putting this city on our back (football wise), proving that there’s talent here.”
Thompson’s draft-gathering in his family home had a bit of a somber undertone. His mother, Patty, and uncle B.T. Thompson hosted family and friends while worrying about their mother in a Tampa, Fla., hospital. Patricia Thompson suffered a stroke and was bleeding in her brain, but she amazed family around her bedside Thursday night. As Thompson’s name was announced by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Patricia Thompson opened her eyes and squeezed the hand of Pilar Thompson, Patty’s niece.
“She called me right away to tell me that Mom did that, and wow, we’re so happy to hear that,” Patty Thompson said. “She’s a fighter. We’re worried about her, and we’re happy about Shaq, so it’s been emotional.”
Thompson has credited his mother and uncle with raising him, steering him to football as a positive outlet. Thompson expected to go in the second round but was “thrilled” to be taken in the first. It’s the second time Thompson has been drafted. The first was after his senior season at Grant in 2012 by the Boston Red Sox in the 18th round. He went 0 for 39 with Boston’s Gulf Coast League affiliate, but he learned “how to deal with failure.”
“A lot of people will laugh and joke at it, 0 for 39,” Thompson said. “But hey, some people don’t get drafted ... and I had a great experience.”
As far as his NFL draft experience, Thompson said, “This is much better.”
While Thompson was a star seemingly from the first time he slipped on a helmet at 8 years old, it took a few years for Armstead to grow into his body. And much like Thompson, Armstead never developed a big head, ego-wise. He has been equally defined by humility.
“Arik’s always been so humble, and he always knew what he wanted to do,” said longtime friend Pal Dhaliwal. “He’s just a great guy. That’s why so many of us are here. This means so much to the family and to this community.”
At a nearby table, Eddie Vanderdoes III beamed. He got to know the Armstead family in 2011, just as his son, Eddie Vanderdoes IV, was emerging as a national recruit playing the line for Placer High. That Vanderdoes is now a highly touted NFL prospect at UCLA.
“We reached out to the Armstead family to figure out the process, and they became friends,” Eddie IV said. “Great family. And it’s amazing how such a nice young man like Arik can be such a beast on the field.”