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updated 2:54 PM UTC, Jul 28, 2018

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Wilson boys' football success story is a family, large family, affair

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This week’s column is a feel-good story that offers an unusual blending of sports success and family values, a story that is emerging from the Salt Lake City suburbs and has already reached New York and, once shared, may find appeal in many places.

Before I get into my column about the Wilson family from Draper, UT, and their extended family and their football-filled weekend that included a Friday night high school game, a Saturday college match between Utah and BYU, and an NFL season opener in Charlotte, NC., a word of explanation is needed.

Regular readers of The Harp are aware that there is no specific topic that’s the focus of my interest. Thus topics may range from business, to venture and angel investing, to political issues to interesting people, and occasionally to sports.

Thus it was I once asked my son, Michael, what my readers would think if I wrote a column from days long ago on Gonzaga football (the basketball-prominent school once competed successfully on the gridiron).

“People don’t pay to read your column, right? So write about whatever you want.”

So that has been my mantra as I choose my topics to share with readers each week. Thus the column today on former BYU star quarterback Zach Wilson and his family. Wilson, the number two NFL draft pick, had his professional debut Sunday as the starting quarterback for the New York Jets against the Charlotte Panthers.

It was four years ago that I started hearing about Zach from his grandpa, Gary Neeleman, my closest longtime friend, and a one-time colleague at UPI. So I did a column on Zach because of the manner in which he arrived at BYU, which before that had been the hated foe of his Utah Utes-loving parents and family. Back to that part of the story later.
 
Zach WilsonZach WilsonMore than 200 of Wilson’s family, including parents Lisa (Neeleman) and Mike Wilson, plus friends and supporters, traveled from Utah to be in the stands at the game in Charlotte where the Panthers squeezed out a 19-14 win over the jets. It was a contest that saw Wilson pass for 258 yards and two touchdowns. But he also was sacked six times as the Charlotte linemen targeted him for punishment.

Most of the family and friends had been at the Saturday game in Provo, the annual rivalry between Utah and BYU, which Zach had guided to an 11-1 record and number 11 national ranking, in the strange 2020 season. This year all were all on hand to root for Zach’s Cougar linebacker brother, Josh, as well as BYU, which won the game, 26-17, in the first victory over Utah in nine years.

A day earlier, on Friday night, the Wilsons and a few of the family had been in Lehigh, about 30 miles south of Salt Lake, for the game between Lehigh and Corner Canyon High School of Draper.

Corner Canyon is now a nationally ranked high school football program where the third and fourth sons of Lisa and Mike Wilson, who played his college football at Utah State, have followed Zach and Josh to play.

Micah is a star linebacker who committed to BYU in April and will join the program next year while Isaac is the sophomore quarterback who threw two touchdown passes for Corner Canyon in its 52-7 victory. Isaac has already been offered a scholarship to play at BYU.

Corner Canyon has won Utah high school state titles the last three years, during which it compiled a 40-0 record. The school is 51-1 since 2017 when coach Eric Kjar took over and Zach was a senior who passed for 2,986 yards and 24 touchdowns while rushing for 752 yards and eight touchdowns.

In that earlier column on Zach, I shared the story of his arrival at BYU.

Zach had accepted a football scholarship to Boise State since Utah, wherefrom the time he was 12 he wanted to go, had not made him an offer despite the lifelong loyalty of his parents, who have 50-yard-line seats and know the coach. Then came a last-minute call from BYU coach Kalani Sitake, the nation’s only Tongan football coach who had played fullback for BYU as a collegian.

As I earlier wrote, Lisa agreed, with great reluctance, to let Zach visit with the coach and she went along.

Gary and Rose NeelemanGary and Rose NeelemanWhen Sitake made the point that if Zach were at BYU, he could most weeks get home for Sunday dinner with his family, and be close enough to come on Wednesday’s sometimes when his grandparents (Gary and Rose) came to dinner, that sealed the deal for both Zach and Lisa.

Another BYU selling point for the young man heavily focused on a family that Gary shared with me in one of our visits: Zach wanted to play where his immediate and extended family could come to watch him play.

That family tie, incidentally, explains how 200 family and friends got from a Saturday afternoon game in Ogden to a Sunday NFL game in Charlotte.

His uncle David Neeleman, founder of five airlines including Jet Blue, and his new airline, Breeze of which he is CEO as well as founder, has access to plenty of airplanes so he chartered one from Jet Blue.

The 200 headed for the Salt Lake airport after the BYU game and flew overnight, arriving at 7 a.m. to head to a hotel to shower and dress and get to the stadium, flying back to Utah after the game.

No other gatherings of family and friends for an NFL game are planned this season, at this point. But as Gary noted, you never know when the family ties are going to tug.
 
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Maybe Seahawks could start a new 'Wilson era,' with Zach — not Russell

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As sports media types toss around ideas about possible outcomes for the apparent growing gulf in the relations between the Seattle Seahawks and star quarterback Russell Wilson, none has offered, or likely considered, the idea of just starting a new “Wilson Era.” Not with Russell but with Zach.

Zach Wilson is the BYU quarterback who has risen dramatically since he entered BYU as the top Utah high school quarterback. He capped his freshman year earning MVP honors in the Potato Bowl in which his passing (including an 18 for 18 perfect day in the air) and running guided BYU to victory over Western Michigan.

So in the 2020 season, his junior year after which he decided to turn pro, Zach Wilson was number one in the nation in pass attempts (336), completions (247), total yards (3,692), and touchdowns (33). Incidentally, 10 of those TD’s were on runs. Zach ran 70 times for 254 yards, evidencing a penchant and talent to put it in the air or run for it with equal confidence, similar to Russell Wilson.

Zach WilsonZach WilsonNow a top NFL draft expert has declared that Zach Wilson, assumed to be one of the top quarterback picks in the forthcoming draft, is not only better than Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence but more polished for the NFL than any quarterback in the 2021 draft.

Some of those media types are theorizing on what backup quarterbacks are out there whom the Seahawks could look to trade for if Russell Wilson presses to be and is traded.

Interestingly, Zach, at 6-3 and 210-pounds, has four inches on the 5-11 Russell to get a better look past oncoming pass rushers.

And he would be most likely of any prospective successor to Russell Wilson to emulate the good-guy image that Russell evidenced prior to the finger-pointing between him and the Seahawks now being played out.

In fact, the final sales pitch to Zach three years ago by BYU coach Kilani Sitaki may be without precedent in the annals of college recruiting.

Wilson was already committed to Boise State from among nearly 20 offers from schools around the country but decided, at the end of a four-hour conversation he and his mom, Lisa, and dad, Mike, had with head coach Sitaki to change his mind.  As the four-hour meeting ended, coach Sitake, a one-time starting fullback at BYU, made one final pitch.

“Zach, you can drive home every Sunday night and have dinner with your family.” Offered Sitaki, knowing Wilson’s home was in Draper, about 18 miles from BYU in Provo.
Zach is just a home kid,” explained Lisa. “He wanted to be home for Sunday dinners. He wanted to be home for Tuesday night dinners when his beloved grandparents have a standing invitation. He wanted his family to be able to see him play.”

I have written about Zach before he was known to any but local Utah writers because his “beloved” grandpa, Gary Neeleman, is my closest longtime friend from our days as colleagues as western executives with United Press International.

Gary began sending me emails about Zach from the point at which he was judged the best high school quarterback in Utah.

Zach hasn’t made any comments about where he’d like to play and when I asked Gary if I could maybe talk with Zach about that he said: “he’d have to get his agent’s ok and he’s a shy kid who wouldn’t press his agent about doing an interview, or indicating whether he might like to come to Seattle.”

My hope was that a week after getting an unlikely interview with Gonzaga basketball coach Mark Few I might have a chance to talk with the 21-year old who (were he to be Russell’s successor) might soon make Seattle fans happy with the outcome.
Gary relayed the word from Zach yesterday. “I talked to my agency and they said no to the article, unfortunately. Tell your friend I am sorry.”

Much would have to occur in terms of a deal for a Russell Wilson trade and successful dealing by Zach’s agent for there to be a new Wilson leading the Seahawks into the future.

But should that come about, Seattle could be like a second hometown to the young Wilson. Gary told me Zach’s teenage cousin, one of three daughters of his prominent Seattle attorney uncle, John Neeleman, “was glued to the TV for every play of every game.”

“She keeps pleading with him, ‘please come to the Seahawks,” Gary chuckled.

And another uncle, David Neeleman, founder of Jet Blue and Brazil’s Azul, will have a fleet of jetliners for his new Salt Lake-based airline and could presumably borrow one to fill with the dozens of relatives to fly to Seattle home games. As when 50 family members were in the stands in Boise for that 2019 Potato Bowl.

 
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