Bemidji State hoopster turns down NFL (for now)
MAY 28, 2014 10:50a ET
As Zach Noreen stood in the student section at Chet Anderson Stadium, the glistening water of Lake Bemidji visible through the surrounding trees, the sensation would start pricking him again.
It could've been him out on that patch of grass. The Bemidji State basketball player couldn't help but recall his last catch as a high school star, a touchdown in a section final loss in 2009.
"I started getting that itch back again," Noreen said.
But for four years, Noreen suppressed it. He was on a hoops scholarship, after all, and transitioning from a raw, prosaic big man into one of the Beavers' best players this past season would require his full attention.
Basketball, though, came and went. The itch remained.
This spring, Noreen finally scratched it.
San Francisco 49ers general manager Trent Baalke may have done his alma mater a favor in trying, initially, to yank Noreen out of school before he finished his degree. During a February trip to Bemidji to watch his daughter play for the women's basketball team, Baalke stuck around for the men's game and was wowed by Noreen's ability to carry his 6-foot-6, 250-pound frame with such agility.
The impression lasted. Earlier this month, Baalke called Noreen and invited him to the 49ers rookie minicamp, which was held last week.
By then, Noreen already had upped his collegiate football experience from zero to a handful of spring practices, signing on with coach Jeff Tesch to use his one year of football eligibility this fall while completing his sports management degree.
"The NFL stuff came as a definite surprise to me," Beavers basketball coach Mike Boschee said. "He does have good hands, good feet and good size -- all the things, maybe, an NFL team would look for.
"But he doesn't have the experience you need."
At first, Noreen and his family -- especially his brother Seth, a former St. Cloud State tight end and long snapper himself -- were ecstatic. But reality soon set in after the initial shock of a chance at an NFL contract.
Undrafted, Division II rookie camp invitees rarely cash in on that chance. And those are the ones that actually played football in college.
So Noreen turned down the offer, deciding to take advantage of another year in school to finish up his studies and get some game experience. Upon learning he had a year of football eligibility remaining, the San Francisco front office encouraged his choice.
"If I go (to the rookie camp) and nothing comes of it, I'm done," Noreen said. "That was the main thing. Everybody would agree it was smarter to do football for another year."
Especially considering he'd last donned pads five years ago.
A three-sport athlete at Albany High School, the Avon, Minn., native turned his attention toward the hardwood upon graduating. He didn't blossom till his senior season, averaging 16.5 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game.
As a sophomore, he weighed 245 pounds. A year later, he checked in at 265 but maintained a quick first step, solid straight-line speed and remarkable coordination for a man of his stature.
During the fall, he attended every home football game. When the Beavers were on the road, he watched every snap via online streaming.
"I've always had it in the back of my head," Noreen said. "I knew my first few years were going to be strictly about basketball; that's what I was brought there for and wanted to succeed at. But then I got bigger and started watching football games and realized I was missing it."
Noreen briefly explored the possibilities of playing professional basketball overseas, but nothing concrete materialized. So he and Tesch hatched a plan to cure his itch and provide Bemidji an athletic, sure-handed behemoth at the tight end position.
"We have him in class, we see him around the building, and we were always just kind of bantering back and forth," said Tesch, who's entering his 19th season at the helm. "I'd always be like 'hey, we'd love to have you come out.'
"He came up a day before spring ball -- we had kind of talked a little bit -- he said 'where do I get my gear?'"
The 49ers invite came later. But it did vindicate Noreen's decision to pursue the sport.
"That's increased my motivation even more," he said. "If I take advantage of it, if I keep improving physically and mentally, I think the option will still be there next year."
Said Tesch: "I think getting some attention from the NFL would certainly entice you to work harder and put more effort into this. Not that wasn't going to anyway, but to know you have that in back corner a little bit, it's a pretty cool deal."
Although neither Boschee nor Tesch had ever coached a player making the same transition as Noreen, there is precedent for it. NFL tight ends Jimmie Graham, Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates all played college hoops before setting their sights on football stardom.
Tesch said Noreen looked good in the spring before being sidelined with a hip flexor strain. Noreen attributed it to blasting low out of his three-point stance, a motion his body hasn't yet adjusted to.
But he's 100 percent this summer and has his brother acting as his personal trainer and chef to get him ready for the rigors of fall camp, a full Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference slate and whatever else may come after.
Earning another NFL shot won't be easy. But at least the itch is gone.
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