The man of the hour was the last to arrive.
Then, there he was, at 6-foot-8 and 295 pounds, wading through a sea of people, towering over everyone, a shock of hair adding to the regal look.
“Wow,” said a little boy, pointing, eyes bulging, “he’s a giant!”
Actually Arik Armstead is a 49er, a defensive lineman from Pleasant Grove High School and Oregon preparing for his second NFL season.
On Tuesday, Armstead was the centerpiece of a free youth-football camp that carried his name at Hal Bartholomew Sports Park in Elk Grove. Armstead gives back to the community during the offseason with the same passion he has for his role as a run-stuffing, quarterback-chasing stopper.
After his rookie season, Armstead visited elementary schools throughout Northern California. He read to children, stressed school involvement and good grades, and he always made sure to take a knee to better look them in the eye.
“I want to be a positive influence on lives, show kids that hard work can get you a long way,” Armstead said. “It’s an honor to impact lives, and it’s my duty. I know a lot of people had an impact on my life, and that’s a big reason I am where I am now.”
Before Tuesday’s camp began, with 180 giddy kids eager to learn football drills, run and play, Armstead knelt next to Cooper Miller, a boy weeks shy of his ninth birthday who longed to meet the 49ers player. They spoke for a moment, the big guy’s smile matching the little guy’s. Armstead signed Miller’s flat-brimmed hat and hugged him.
Miller, participating in the camp through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, left his Reno home at dawn. He endured three years of daily chemotherapy to treat leukemia, days when he was too ill to move. He has been cancer-free for 14 months.
“This is pretty incredible, very special, to see a 49ers player like Arik Armstead do this, to make so many kids happy,” Alexis Miller, Cooper’s mother, said. “We’ll always remember this.”
Armstead always has been able to charm a crowd, whether in sports or in church; parents Guss and Christa Armstead insisted their children experience a full life.
“Arik is very genuine,” said Guss, a longtime area strength and conditioning coach for athletes from high school to the pros. “He spreads his gratitude and humility by doing things like this. And it wasn’t too long ago that Arik was a kid attending a Bobby Jackson or Peja Stojakovic camp. He’s not too far removed, so he can relate.”
Armstead told the children to “work hard, listen to your parents, be accountable, be responsible, study. If you want to do something, want to achieve, you can do it by doing the right things. And be young, healthy, happy people, and have a good life.”
After being drafted by the 49ers with the 17th pick in the first round in 2015, Armstead had a solid rookie season, playing in all 16 games.
In April, the 49ers drafted another defensive lineman from Oregon in the first round, DeForest Buckner, who was Armstead’s teammate with the Ducks for three seasons. They also will be reunited with their college coach, Chip Kelly, who replaced Jim Tomsula as 49ers coach after last season.
“I think we’ll be much better as a team this season,” Armstead said. “I’m excited about it, the opportunity. And DeForest, that’s my guy. It’ll be super fun playing with him on the line again. I was ecstatic when we drafted him, and it’ll be an awesome experience.”
Armstead said the 49ers made a good choice in Kelly.
“Chip’s a smart guy, and he makes you work hard, knowing that hard work pays off, and you win games that way,” Armstead said. “It’s very exciting to work with him again.”
Armstead said he’s in the best shape of his life, and he looked lean and sturdy, with broad shoulders, a narrow waist and big legs. But he said he has much more work to do on his game.
“I need to work on every aspect of it, and I’m constantly trying to improve in every area,” he said. “I’ve been working hard, always have been. I always expect greatness out of myself.”