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Why is William Penn, a Quaker university in Iowa, a major destination for Utah high school football players?

There is a common phrase used by members of the Quaker faith that links back to their founder George Fox: “That of God in everyone.”

While some in the faith have debated over what the saying actually means, for William Penn University — a Quaker school in Oskaloosa, Iowa — it’s used as a call for diversity, a message to give everyone an opportunity.

That message has resonated in Utah.

On Feb. 4, college football coaches and fans eagerly awaited word as high school players across the nation sent in their Letters of Intent, signifying what school they had chosen to play for. While many of the state’s eyes were focused on who was committing to BYU and Utah, there was another school that was landing Utahn after Utahn, and initially it didn’t make much sense.

Emails kept rolling into the Deseret News, and by the end of NLI Day a total of 14 Utah prospects had committed to spend their college years in Oskaloosa. That's when this question arose: Why were so many local kids heading to a Quaker school in Iowa?

The roots of the odd pipeline were planted before any of the newly signed Statesman athletes were even born.

William Penn President John Ottosson was — he believes — the first Statesman athlete from Utah. After graduating from West High in 1978, Ottosson started his collegiate basketball career at Snow College before finishing at William Penn.

“I was one of these kids that was Second Team All-State,” said Ottosson, “but I was one of these in-betweeners who was too slow play a guard at a big school and too short to play a forward. But for our size, and for NAIA, we can play.”

Ottosson started working at William Penn in 1990. At that time, he was asked by the admissions director if the school could bring in more athletes from Utah. His response: “Yeah, this type of school and opportunity doesn’t really exist out there.”

And with that the pipeline was open. Actually it was more like a floodgate with 40 Utahns, in various sports, competing for the Statesman at one point. Things, however, started drying up and in 2014-15 only seven athletes from Utah were on William Penn rosters. But it is making a comeback on the football field.

There is little doubt that college football is king in the Beehive State. With BYU, Utah and Utah State all having loyal and growing fan bases, it’s pretty rare that a day passes when the sport isn’t mentioned. But even with college football being so pertinent in the state, there are surprisingly few colleges that offer it.

The Cougars, Utes and Aggies are the headliners, clearly, but apart from those three you only have Division I Southern Utah, Weber State; Division II Dixie State and NJCAA Snow College — that’s it.

So for those high school athletes who don’t receive offers from those schools, William Penn provides an option to keep on taking the field.

“First off, it’s a chance to play,” Clint Peery, who played for Payson High and Snow before finishing his college career at William Penn, said. “It’s one of those things, growing up in Utah, you don’t realize how few opportunities we have to play out here. If you go to the Midwest, like Iowa, you have eight NAIA schools, five DII schools and 12 DIII schools that offer football, so as far as small football, Utah doesn’t have opportunities.”

In 2003, Snow College assistant Tom Fell (who is now an assistant at North Sanpete) accepted an assistant coaching job with William Penn, and he brought some of his Badgers (including Peery) with him. Before Fell arrived in Iowa, William Penn fielded just two football players from Utah, the next season that number had jumped to 10.

And the Utahns left their mark.

“Most of us Utah kids had a lot of success out there, so it was one of those no brainer things for William Penn to continue to look out here for good kids that kind of fall through the cracks, but are still really good football,” Peery said.

Peery was a two-time NAIA All-American and Andy Stokes, a Pine View High alum, was drafted with the final pick in the 2005 NFL draft by the New England Patriots.

The success of the first crop of Utah-born football players helped open the door for more Utahns to follow, including Peery’s little brother, Brock.

“I’m always encouraging kids that want to play to go out there,” the younger Peery, who met his wife Krya (a fellow Utahn) while they were at William Penn, said. “I think that’s the big thing with Utah is if you aren't a DI talent you generally don’t get recruited much in the state. … In Utah you only have so many really good athletes that you don’t really get the looks from the DI schools here, so (the athletes) think there isn’t very much outside of that.”

Ever since the initial wave of Utah football players, the school has always had a few Utahns taking the gridiron. But nothing compared to the massive haul that the 2015 class brought in. So what caused the difference?

Last season, during his junior year with the Statesman, Highland High graduate Hea Tuifua was named NAIA Second Team All-American, and in a way his accomplishment served as a reminder of what Utahns could offer.

“They had some really good success with (Tuifua),” Ottosson said. “They like the commitment, the discipline, so this year they said, ‘You know what we need to go out there looking for them.’”

This past December, two William Penn assistants blazed quite a recruiting trail. The pair spent four days in Utah, with each visiting four schools a day, talking to coaches and athletes. On the final day of their trip, the two coaches held a meeting at their hotel to tell the athletes and parents even more about the opportunities that await at the Midwestern Quaker university, and offered up the invitation for anyone to come out and see the campus.

“When I first got the (head coaching) job 12 years ago, we had some players on our team from Utah and they were really, really good football players,” William Penn head coach Todd Hafner said. “So we were able to make the connection that way, but we kind of lost connection and went a little bit of a different recruiting direction, and kind of lost our way with Utah until this year, when we said, ‘OK, we got to go back. We know what we are going to get from those kids. They are going to stay in school, they are going to work towards getting their degree, we’re going to find quality football players there … and we did.

“It was a lot of hard work on the coaches part, but the families took the time to come visit and liked what they saw and it just worked out for us.”

It also worked out for the local prospects by giving them an opportunity to continue on with their football careers.

2015 William Penn NLI signees

Hunter Anfinsen, quarterback, Viewmont

Webber Ava, fullback/linebacker, West

Ben Cummings, wide receiver/safety, American Fork

Grayson Granley, wide receiver/linebacker, American Fork

Zack Hodgson, quarterback, Olympus

Kody Jarvis, safety, Herriman

Preston Little, wide receiver, Payson

Sione Mafua, offensive line, East

Sione Mafi, running back, East

Sioeli Olive, offensive, defensive line, West

Ethan Penrose, defensive end, Viewmont

Phil Perez, running back, Payson

Azia Se'ei, fullback/linebacker, West

Junior Tuamoheloa, defensive line, East