Canzano: Sewell family down to one son, playing one college football season
Oregon LB Noah Sewell is the baby of the family.
I reached out to Mario Cristobal on Sunday morning. The University of Miami football coach was in his office, sipping from a plastic water bottle, excited to talk about one of his former players.
I’d sent a text message to the Hurricanes’ head coach a few minutes earlier, asking about Noah Sewell, one of his prized five-star players at Oregon. I expected Cristobal might shoot a text back. Or maybe arrange a quick phone call. But a few minutes later, my phone lit up with a FaceTime video call from Cristobal, who popped up on my phone screen smiling and wearing a “UM” polo shirt.
“He’s freakish,” Cristobal said of Sewell.
The former Oregon head football coach launched into a story. He and former-Ducks’ assistant Joe Salave’a were recruiting eventual Outland Trophy winner, Penei Sewell, when Sewell’s father, Gabriel, said: “You guys need to see my youngest son.”
Gabriel and Arlene Sewell have five children. Their four sons — James, Nephi, Penei, and Noah all played college football. Their daughter, Gabriella, ran track. But before that, the children slept alongside each other on the living room floor of a one-bedroom home in American Samoa. The house had metal roof panels that sometimes blew off in storms.
“It was crazy, but the fun thing is the kids had each other,” Gabriel told me.
Those are the Sewell-family building blocks. Everyone in the family helped with yard work and cooked meals. They spent afternoons together on the beach. And they worked as a team to clean up at the end of the evening.
“The kids took the dishes to the shower to wash them every night,” Gabriel said.
Arlene and Gabriel eventually decided to move to the United States, where their children would have better college opportunities. They studied a map and chose St. George, Utah, noting that it was the geographical nexus of Utah, Arizona and Nevada.
“It’s a wonderful place to raise a family,” Arlene would tell you.
A ‘freak’ on the football field
In high school in Utah, Noah played quarterback, running back, linebacker and whatever else was needed. He stood 6-foot-2 and weighed 250 pounds. This is where Cristobal’s story picks up. Because after landing Penei, the Oregon coaches went to scout his little brother, Noah, at an event for elite Polynesian high school players.
Said Cristobal, “Noah gets into this drill and he’s running a bunch of people over. Then, in the same drill, he goes straight at another guy as a ball carrier and just jumps over him. Joe and I just looked at each other and we were like, ‘Wow.’”
Penei was already at Oregon. A plan unfolded to eventually pair him with his soon-to-be-freshman-brother, Noah, for the 2020 season. One Sewell starring on offense, another on defense. It was all lined up and the Ducks expected they’d contend for a College Football Playoff berth.
“We never really got to see that,” Cristobal said.
The pandemic hit. The Pac-12 delayed the football season and, amid the uncertainty, Penei declared for the NFL Draft. Noah went back to Utah for a few weeks to help his father coach the high school football team. By the time the Pac-12 season re-started, the plan to see the Sewell brothers play alongside each other had evaporated.
“We all missed out on that,” Gabriel Sewell said. “They were both looking forward to playing that season. I’m not going to lie, when the college season re-started, Penei was like, ‘Dad, I want to play.’”
He’d already signed with an agent. The draft was a few months away. But in the first week of practice for the re-started Pac-12 season, Penei Sewell and his family explored whether the NCAA might allow him to unwind his decision and be eligible to play one final season at Oregon.
“I tried to figure it out,” Gabriel said. “It was difficult at that point, after you’ve hired an agent. In the end, we had to put Penei first. We made the right choice for Penei and he’s doing good things.”
It turned out well for both Sewell kids. Penei was drafted No. 7 overall by the Detroit Lions and was awarded a $24 million contract. Noah became Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year.
“They’re so different,” Cristobal told me. “Penei is essentially a recluse. He’s all about the business of football. Noah is super outgoing, more outspoken, and adventurous.”
Savoring one last college season
Gabriel and Arlene Sewell attended Oregon’s scrimmage on Saturday in Eugene. They watched Dan Lanning’s defense and visited with their youngest son — the now 6-foot-3 inch and 265-pound “baby” of the family — Noah.
“The only person who refers to him as a ‘baby’ anymore is my wife,” Gabriel said. “He’s a grown-ass man. He’s bigger than I am. We sit back and ask ourselves, ‘Where did time go?’ It’s all been in a blink of an eye.
“I don’t think we’re quite prepared for it.”
There have been tears this summer, Gabriel said. He and his wife have watched their four sons earn scholarships and suit up to play for Nevada, Utah, and Oregon over the years. They’ve traveled across the country, watching college football games, and now have two sons in the NFL. Penei is in Detroit. Nephi, who played in college at Utah, is with the New Orleans Saints.
Now, the Sewell family is down to one son.
And likely — one last college season.
“We’re going to try to savor this last one,” Gabriel said. “We get emotional. It brings tears. The college game experience is way different than the NFL. We’re going to slowly enjoy this one.”
Maybe you see Noah Sewell on the football field and see a future NFL prospect. But when I see him, I now think about his family, that living room floor and how none of us can ever really get enough time with our kids.
All you can do is hope the experiences you’ve given them prepare them for the world.
Gabriel Sewell spoke for a lot of us when he said, “It just goes too damned fast.”
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Great writing John. I now live in St. George and have a son that plays varsity football as a freshman. The Sewell’s are legends here. Not just for football. They’re really great people too.
Thank you, John, for a quick and concise biography on the Sewell family. I never get tired of reading your emails, sharing how some former Duck/Beaver athletes were raised and how their parents played an important role that brought them to now. Just like Marcus Mariota and the Rodgers brothers of OSU, they developed a strong work ethic as kids.
As much as I'd like to meet the players, I would also want to shake the hands of their parents. Thanking them for taking that role seriously and raising such outstanding people.