Austin Aaron’s life changed in December of 2015.
It changed during a football practice, with UC Berkeley preparing for its Armed Forces Bowl game against Air Force later in the month. It changed on one play that day at California Memorial Stadium, with Aaron, a redshirt freshman wide receiver, running a post route. He dove for a pass that was thrown by quarterback Ross Bowers. He made the catch as he hit the ground.
“(Inside receivers) Coach (Jacob Peeler) was saying to go back in, but my shoulder bone was out,” Aaron recalled in a telephone interview on Memorial Day, May 25. “Pretty bad break. It was a really, really bad injury.”
Aaron suffered a broken left collar bone, an injury that required surgery.
A highly recruited player and record-setting receiver coming out of Napa High School, Aaron said he began to question his future in the game after he reinjured his shoulder during spring practices a few months later. He had been in the Cal program for two years.
He questioned a lot of things – the daily routine that comes with major college football, his overall health, the time that you commit to the sport.
“I really wavered back and forth a long time, about what I should do,” he said. “I was really struggling with a lot of anxiety, depression – really having a hard time adjusting to both college and college football, and how grueling the schedule can be. I just felt like I had a lot more in me at that time, than just waking up every day and doing that, and grinding for something I didn’t love. The shoulder injuries definitely helped me come to that realization, that it’s time to check out other passions of mine during this time. I was tired of getting my head beat in, doing a lot of those crossing routes.
“I know they were paying for my school. I just fell out of love with the game. I felt like I had more in me than catching a football. I wanted to do something different. It was really, really scary. I wanted to focus on getting my degree, at the time.”
Aaron, honored as a second-team All-State selection as a junior in 2013 and first-team All-Northern California and honorable mention All-State pick as a senior in 2014, talked about his plans for the future with his parents, Justin and Darla Aaron of Napa.
He made the decision to give up the game – a game that he excelled at during his days at Napa High. He was a team captain and ranked as a 3-star wide receiver by 247Sports.com, ESPN.com and Rivals.com. He was the nation’s No. 59 wide receiver and the No. 67 player overall in California, according to Rivals.com. The 2015 graduate set school career records with 2,082 receiving yards, 23 touchdown catches, and 115 receptions. He was a three-time All-Monticello Empire League selection and was named as the MEL Back of the Year as a junior and senior. He was among the finalists for Player of the Year on the Napa Valley Register’s 2014 All-Napa County team.
As a junior, he caught 48 passes for 910 yards with 12 touchdown catches.
He was named as Napa’s Most Valuable Player and selected honorable mention offense on the Sacramento Valley Chapter of the National Football Foundation & College Hall of Fame’s All-Sac-Joaquin Section team after catching 35 passes for 629 yards with six touchdown receptions as a senior.
Aaron was among the nominees for the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. He received MVP honors at wide receiver during the Rivals Camp Series presented by Under Armour in March of 2014.
He was named to the All-State Underclass Team by Cal-Hi Sports during the spring, before his senior season.
He was Napa’s Offensive Player of the Year as a sophomore and junior.
He was going into his redshirt freshman season at Cal in 2016. Listed at the Z wide receiver position on the Cal depth chart, Aaron caught three passes for 30 yards during a spring scrimmage.
His plans changed.
“I went into (head) coach (Sonny) Dykes’ office and told him: ‘This is not my passion anymore. I don’t want to go to the NFL. I’m going to have to step away from the game,’ ” Aaron said. “I had given up a full-ride scholarship, which not many people do. My mental health was a huge reason I decided to give up the game of football. I was doing something every day that I realized I no longer loved doing.”
Dykes, in a story on www.scout.com, said: “I was sad to lose Austin. He’s a great kid, local kid. We had a great conversation. He’s an outstanding young man. He handled it the way that you would want anybody that leaves your program to handle it. I can’t say enough positive things about him as a person and as a player. He was one of those kids who showed up every day and worked incredibly hard, was a great teammate, and is going to do really positive things in his life. I’m excited to see what he ends up doing. I have a tremendous respect for him.”
There is a lot of Napa High and Cal history in the Aaron family.
* Austin’s dad, Justin Aaron, graduated from NHS in 1986 and as a soccer-baseball standout, is in the Napa High Athletic Hall of Fame. Justin played baseball at Cal, graduating in 1990 with a degree in English. Justin has been an English teacher at Napa High for the last 30 years.
* Austin’s grandmother, Peggy Aaron, is a 1959 Napa High graduate. She went on to Cal, graduating in 1963 as an English major.
* Austin’s grandfather, Jerry Aaron, is a 1959 NHS graduate who played flanker and linebacker for coach Bob Covey. Jerry Aaron, who passed away May 20, 2019 at his home on Mount Veeder, was very involved in youth sports. Along with Tony Costa, they started the Napa Yankees’ youth baseball team in the late 1980s, with Aaron serving as the organization’s president. The Yankees, a summer team, traveled to the Midwest and East, winning gold and bronze medals in AAU/USA Junior Olympic national tournaments. The team existed for just three years, from 1987-1989.
* Austin’s uncle, Jason Aaron, played football and baseball and is a 1989 NHS graduate.
Austin graduated from Cal in 2019 with a degree in sociology.
“I’m really proud that I was able to get out of there in four years with a degree,” he said.
With his football career over, Austin said he wanted to find a new passion in life. He found it in acting.
Luke Holliday in Netflix show, ‘13 Reasons Why’
Aaron said he has always had a passion for acting, going back to when he was in a school play in the fifth grade, as well as a musical he performed in during his senior year at Napa High.
He signed with NYLO Model and Talent Agency in San Francisco, and did a commercial for Mercedes Benz with the Golden State Warriors.
He is now with Momentum Talent Agency in Los Angeles; and Scott Silver, of Silver Mass Entertainment, is his manager.
He has been on the Netflix show, “13 Reasons Why,” since the third episode of the second season.
“I went in, did my line. I thought that was it,” he said. “Production called me back and they said, ‘Hey, we heard you can play football. We need a quarterback on the show for episode 11 of Season 2.’ I was like, ‘Yea, totally. I’ve done it my whole life. I had 10 full-ride scholarships out of high school. This is right up my alley.’ I was the quarterback for one of the last episodes in Season 2.
“I thought that was going to be it. And then production called me back and said, ‘We’re having some ideas for Season 3. We want you to audition.’ I did a monologue and sent it in. They called me a few months later and said, ‘We want you to be Luke Holliday. You’re going to be in nine of the 13 episodes.’ ”
Aaron, characters, Luke Holliday, is the quarterback for Liberty High, one of the fictional high schools where the popular show is set. He wears No. 17, the same number he had at both Napa High and Cal.
“13 Reasons Why,” based on the book “Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher, is a teen drama TV series on Netflix. The fourth and final season starts on Friday, June 5. The show was filmed on Mare Island in Vallejo and Analy High School-Sebastopol (Sonoma County).
Aaron is a recurring co-star in the final season, appearing in all 10 episodes.
“For Season 4, my role has gotten quite a bit bigger,” he said. “I’m kind of the main jock kid in Season 4. My character is very, very interesting. He has a reason for everything he does. That’s about all I can say at this point.”
Netflix said of Season 4, “Liberty High School’s Senior Class prepares for graduation. But before they say goodbye, they’ll have to keep a dangerous secret buried and face heartbreaking choices that might alter their lives forever.”
The game of football helped to instill the skills – including preparation, discipline and teamwork – that Aaron needs in his new field.
“I had no acting experience whatsoever. I just showed up every day. What I tried to instill in my mind is be nice to everyone on set and be as prepared as possible and great things will happen. They believed in me and wrote me a character on the show. My parents supported me in every way possible. I would never have had any of this opportunity if they had never said go for it.
“Football truly really helped me grind every day on set and be able to study your script in the off time. Football really, really gave me the skills to be able to come on set and compete against these seasoned actors who have been doing this their whole life.”
In “13 Reasons Why,” Aaron was also able to return to football, a game he grew up playing at a very young age.
“In Season 3 we did a lot of football and it was so much fun. I really enjoyed playing football again. I truly enjoyed the game again, being able to play on the show and be that character.”
Aaron, 23, said the show “tackles so many important issues that impact mental health.”
He said, “One thing I found, is we must be able to openly talk about how we are feeling and realize you are not alone in this battle. Being able to talk about how you are feeling with friends/family is so crucial.”
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