How Netter’s life changed

By BOB PADECKY
PRESS DEMOCRAT SPORTS COLUMNIST

Here’s your bag and there’s the field, said the man Al Netter only knew as Hector. Go collect the cow manure. Netter, who grew up in Rohnert Park, played for Cardinal Newman and now as an offensive tackle for Northwestern, he was in Guatemala in the spring of 2010. He was with other Northwestern students working at an orphanage. Netter was there to volunteer.

So, OK, Netter thought, I’ll collect cow manure, stuff it into the bags, walk 30 minutes with it back to the orphanage in Rio Dulce, three bags slung over my shoulders, then spread the manure there to grow crops for the kids. So it’s 95 degrees, 95 percent humidity. It’s for the kids after all.

OK, so where’s the shovel? Netter asked Hector. No shovel, Hector said. Have to use your hands. Hector wasn’t kidding.

“I was hesitant at first,” said Netter, with no need to explain. “And then I thought about the 200 kids back at the orphanage.” Netter took a deep breath. Some of the manure was dry. Some of it was not.

“Picking up fresh manure with your hands is not something everyone experiences,” said Netter, in what may be the mother of classic understatements.

Netter didn’t know how many trips he made back and forth to the orphanage when Hector told him to go have lunch.

“Then Hector just turned around,” Netter said, “and went back to the fields to keep doing what I just did.”

Netter realized he had just participated in one of the seminal moments in his life.

“It changed me,” Netter said. “How could I ever feel sorry for myself again? A bunch of us probably had saved Hector two-three weeks work but he didn’t take a break. I always thought I was a hard worker but this redefined hard work for me. The people there, they had no phone, no computers. They were there just to survive.”

At night Netter would sleep on a mattress with no pillow, no sheets, no air conditioning, not even a fan to move the stale air. It could have been a scene from the movie “Cool Hand Luke.” Still picking up the bags of manure, boss.

Netter returned to Northwestern determined not to leave anything on the football field, to pardon the pun. He came to the university weighing 240 pounds, ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, lived in the weight room, gained 70 pounds – and has started 41 consecutive games at left tackle for the Wildcats. A senior, Netter is projected right now to be a mid-level NFL draft choice next year. He stays clear of agents but can’t stay clear of friends and family asking him about pro football.

Netter shrugs. Hector lived and thrived in the moment, even if the moment was quite aromatic. Netter didn’t learn perspective from Hector just to forget it.

“Most important thing,” said Netter who earned his degree in economics in the spring, “is not to get caught up in all the conversation. I have to focus on our next game, not next year.”

At Newman, Netter attracted attention because he had quick, mobile feet for someone who stood 6-foot-6, and quick, mobile feet are essential to be a skilled offensive lineman. Sloths need not apply, in other words. But at 240 pounds, he would be a matchstick to a defensive lineman.

“Pac-10 recruiters said I was too small for the Pac-10,” Netter said. “Northwestern took a chance on me.”

Netter rewarded the Wildcats’ faith. He is a preseason Outland Trophy candidate and an honorable mention All-American tackle. He is a two-time Academic All-Big Ten. He has been nominated for the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team, which honors players for their off-field character. He has founded the Northwestern chapter of Uplifting Athletes, Inc., a non-profit run by the football players to raise awareness and money to combat Niemann-Pick Type C, a rare disease afflicting children.

“My parents always taught me to look beyond myself,” said Netter, who delivered as a high schooler groceries to those diagnosed with HIV.

See the big picture, in other words. For skilled athletes, too many times the picture is not big but small, containing their face, their life, everyone else is somewhere in the background.

“This is all so surreal to me,” Netter said. “I wake up and pinch myself all the time.”

Netter spoke as if he was living a dream. And that maybe the best part of all. His dream is real.

For more North Bay sports go to Bob Padecky’s blog at padecky.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

Related link: 49ers Release Al Netter (Aug 26, 2013)