Humble, driven and a ‘neat freak’: What is Zach Wilson really like?

Friends, family members, coaches, former teammates and the author give us the skinny on BYU’s probable NFL top-two draft pick

Former BYU receiver Dax Milne couldn’t quite figure it out last summer and fall.

Milne knew his housemate, good friend and childhood sports rival, Cougars quarterback Zach Wilson, was good at reading defenses, predicting opposing teams’ tendencies and delivering time after time in the clutch due, in part, to hours and hours of watching game film.

But how did the probable No. 2 overall pick by the New York Jets in next week’s NFL draft and self-described “neat freak” know who was, or wasn’t, cleaning up after themselves in the kitchen of the house they were renting close to BYU’s campus in Provo?

“It was uncanny, but somehow Zach always knew who made what mess,” Milne said.

Then Milne found the hidden camera.

Turns out game film wasn’t the only thing Wilson was watching.

Wilson was so “OCD” (obsessive-compulsive disorder), Milne said, laughing, that when it comes to cleanliness and holding everyone accountable for the failure to take their plates to the sink and wash their own dishes, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, he set up a camera to catch the culprits.

“It was funny,” Milne said. “This dude, along with watching film all the time, he would always peek at the camera footage to see if we were cleaning up our ‘freakin’ mess,’ as he called it, or just see if we were doing something funny with the other roommates. So I always gave him crap for that.”

Plenty has been written, and said, the past eight months about Wilson as the fresh-faced, headband-wearing phenom with the matinee-idol looks has soared up NFL draft boards and led the Cougars to an 11-1 season and a No. 11 ranking in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll of the 2020 season.

“I am a big family guy. I love going home to see my parents and see my aunts and uncles, and just have that support. It is still weird to me to have people always wanting me to sign something or get pictures with me, because I am just a normal guy. That is something I will always stay true to, no matter where football takes me.” — Zach Wilson

Almost every broadcast, article and blog has focused on what Wilson brings to the table — a sparkling clean, sanitized table, presumably — in regards to his football playing ability and readiness level.

But what is Zach Wilson really like?

What is it like to live with, practice with, hang out with and play football or anything else with the most compelling figure in the 2021 draft? An NFL draft representative confirmed Monday that Wilson plans to be at the draft in Cleveland after being unsure whether he would attend the past few weeks.

Ask Wilson about himself, which is clearly not his favorite topic, and he often pulls out a pet phrase as he thinks of an appropriate answer: “It’s hard to say.” 

Throughout the past four years — heck, even before that, when Wilson was rising to prominence locally at Draper’s Corner Canyon High — the Deseret News has gathered comments, insights and descriptions from the aforementioned people and even Wilson himself about what makes him tick, what he’s like away from football, and also on the field.

Milne’s hidden camera story got first billing here because it illustrates how it isn’t just all football, all the time, for Wilson, who also enjoys an episode or two of “The Bachelor” or “The Bachelorette” from time to time. He told the Deseret News in December that he also loves action movies and listening to artists such as Usher, Drake and Chris Brown. He devoured Steve Young’s autobiography “QB, My Life Behind the Spiral” and the documentary on Michael Jordan, “The Last Dance.”

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He’s not into video games. The lifelong member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is spiritual, but not religious. He says he was a “not a big churchgoer” growing up.

But a religious-like devotion to the game he loves — call him a football junkie, a gridiron gym rat, what you will — is a common theme for all who attempt to describe him.

Milne, who declared early for the draft after three seasons at BYU, just like Wilson, has known Wilson since they were 7 years old and competing for rival Ute Conference football teams, Junior Jazz basketball teams, and the like.

Milne’s dad played baseball for BYU; Wilson’s dad played football for Utah. As the alpha dogs of their age groups in their respective south valley communities growing up, their lives converged in Provo.

Wilson’s other housemates this past season were another longtime friend and teenage rival, former Bingham High receiver Brayden Cosper, along with tight end Lane Lunt and his younger brother, linebacker Josh Wilson.

“We had a good time in that place,” Milne said. “A lot of laughs.”

And a lot of cleaning up.

Here’s a sampling of commentary gathered from dozens of interviews of Wilson and others over the years, then some perspective from the author of this piece, the only reporter who was present at all 30 games in which Wilson played for the Cougars — in Provo, Hawaii, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Annapolis, Maryland; Boca Raton, Florida; Toledo, Ohio; on the blue turf he despised in Boise, Idaho, after having originally committed to play for the Broncos, and many points in between.

Wilson on himself: “I am a big family guy. I love going home to see my parents and see my aunts and uncles, and just have that support. It is still weird to me to have people always wanting me to sign something or get pictures with me, because I am just a normal guy. That is something I will always stay true to, no matter where football takes me. I will always resort back to being that same kid who has always been a big family guy and understands what got him to this point — hard work, humility, kindness and respect for others, the things my parents (Lisa and Mike Wilson) taught me.”

Wilson on his significant other: “I have a girlfriend from Sandy (Utah), just down the road (from Draper) who goes to UVU (Utah Valley University). Her name is Abbey Gile. She’s great. She’s very supportive. … I have known her since high school.”

Wilson recently told BYU Sports Nation he went on a couples trip to “somewhere in the middle of nowhere” (a cabin near Ashton, Idaho) with former BYU teammates Matt Bushman, Isaiah Kaufusi and Troy Warner and their girlfriends/spouses.

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Wilson on his sudden rise: “When the Mel Kiper thing came out, and I was on his top five quarterbacks board, that seemed like a big deal. I was kind of in shock, to see my name up there. … It wasn’t something I went into the season thinking about, but I always kinda felt like I would get a shot at the NFL at some point in my career.”

Wilson on whether he’s still the down-to-earth kid from Draper: “Yeah, no doubt. You have to have that passion and drive and love for the game, just for the game. There are a lot of distractions when you get to this level and for me, that’s the No. 1 priority is just keeping level-headed and just having that chip on my shoulder to keep improving and getting better.”

Milne on his history/relationship with Wilson: “I met him when we were around 7 years old, playing football against him at a Utah Utes camp. From there, just about every sport we would see each other and race each other in track and stuff like that. … He’s just matured in his emotional intelligence, in dealing with the outside noise.

“I wouldn’t say we are, like, best friends, just because the whole dynamic of growing up being rivals and on different (high school) teams and all that. But we are good friends and I think the relationship with us is we know we have benefited off each other, used each other, in a way. He has made great throws to me and I have made big plays for him. I think we understand that and have a mutual respect for one another.

BYU quarterback Zach Wilson holds up the MVP trophy after the Boca Raton Bowl in Boca Raton, Fla., on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020. BYU won 49-23. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“We do enjoy each other’s company. We don’t see each other that often, but when we do it is fun to see him and joke around a lot. I would say that is kind of our relationship.”

Milne on his favorite Zach Wilson moment: “My touchdown catch against USC (in 2019) and some catches last year against Houston and that 70-yard bomb he threw to me across his body (against Texas State), but the one that sticks out was our freshman year against Northern Illinois. I remember when he hurdled that guy, stiff-armed the dude on the sideline, and made ‘ESPN SportsCenter’ and everything. When he did that, I remember my jaw dropping. I couldn’t believe he just did something like that.”

Josh Wilson on his older brother: “How everybody else sees Zach is how he is with me. He’s awesome. He’s a great role model. And he has always been the best brother I could ask for. He helped me through new challenges when I first got here at BYU. He helped me get comfortable. At the same time, he is just like one of my friends. We can have a good time together and hang out. Honestly, he’s an awesome brother. He is just a really good guy. I love having him around.”

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Josh Wilson on what drives Zach: “It is not a bad thing, but he kinda gets obsessive over things. It just kind of drives him, even in football. I don’t know if he got that from my mom, or what, but he is just very determined and he cares a lot. You give him something to do, and he is going to go 110%. I don’t think a lot of people are like him in that way.”

The rising sophomore linebacker said an example of an obsession that Zach recently mastered is juggling. “He worked night and day until he got it.”

Last summer, the brothers worked together to trick out an old Jeep, Josh said.

Tight end Isaac Rex on Wilson staying at the Rex’s home in Southern California last spring/summer and doing DoorDash to help pay for it: “My parents literally said they would make him food every day, but he was too kind and he wanted to make his own money and he didn’t want to mooch off us all the time. We were going to cook for him. We did cook for him. But he wanted to do his own thing, so we let him go do it. I guess he made some good money from it.”

Rex on what he learned from Wilson: “Zach is really driven and he wants to be one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. He has that opportunity. The goals he sets and his willingness to work hard every day is really cool. He wants to be great. When he was at my house, he would watch film constantly. It was football a lot of the time, and we were always talking about it.”

BYU quarterback Zach Wilson (1) calls a play in the huddle as BYU and Boise State play at Albertsons Stadium in Boise on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020. BYU won 51-17. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Offensive lineman Brady Christensen on how Wilson handles the pre-draft hype: “Zach is the same guy he’s been since he got here: humble, kind and incredibly driven to succeed. He just loves the game of football. He eats it, breathes it, loves everything about it. We have been training a little bit together here at Stroformance here in Utah, and he goes hard in everything he does, all the time.”

Backup quarterback Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters on Wilson at practice: “He doesn’t care what people say about him, he just goes out and competes. He is not afraid to compete against anyone. He could probably make the (BYU) basketball team, he is that good. … In football, though, he doesn’t play around. He doesn’t joke, he is almost always serious. But at the same time he knows how to have fun.”

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Former BYU receiver Aleva Hifo, who was in Kansas City Chiefs training camp with Patrick Mahomes: “They definitely have a lot of similarities. Patrick throws with a lot of touch and he is smooth and definitely his arm angle is what Zach demonstrates when he throws the ball. That’s what I would compare the most, is their arm angles and how they are able to maneuver around linemen just to get to their targets.”

Former BYU tight end Matt Bushman: “We knew he had the smarts and the athletic ability and the drive to make it happen, to be able to be an NFL-caliber quarterback.

“But yeah, it was definitely crazy to see the rise that he had from one season to the other, and the attention that he got. It was cool to see for him. I just wish him the best. I hope he gets drafted as high as possible and has a great career. Who knows? Maybe I will be catching balls from him next year, too.”

BYU quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick on Wilson’s personality, superstitions: “I wish I had a more exciting answer for you. Zach just works at it every day. That’s all he does. He is football 24-7. He’s cheap and sometimes he eats crappy food. … I don’t want to make an unfair prediction (on his NFL prospects), because that league is really, really tough. But his ceiling is so high, I think he has what it takes to be very successful in the NFL.”

BYU coach Kalani Sitake: “He’s worked hard for everything that comes his way. If we had a team full of guys with Zach Wilson’s work ethic and desire to win, we’d probably never lose.”

This reporter’s perspective: In the past four months, ever since Wilson declared for the NFL draft on New Year’s Day — unintentionally interrupting the holiday for a lot of us, I am sure (wink, wink) — I have appeared on dozens of podcasts, sports talk radio shows and the like across the country, but mostly in New York, to talk about Wilson. Almost all the questions have been about what Wilson can do on the football field, and what I think he will do in the NFL. But once in awhile I’m asked to describe what his personality is like.

What’s he like off the field?

Unfortunately, the pandemic robbed us all of the opportunity to speak face to face with Wilson last season, so we weren’t able to get a lot of close-up views of his interactions with teammates and coaches at practice, before and after games, and the like. So a lot of my memories are from his freshman and sophomore years.

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There was the time during a news conference his freshman year when I asked him what he was doing for Thanksgiving dinner. He said that was none of my business, then invited all my media colleagues to my house for the holiday. That got a big laugh.

I often use that story to illustrate how Wilson came ready to interact with media members, dish out a few good-natured jabs. New York City’s media is an entirely different animal, as everyone knows, but if there is any BYU player equipped to handle it, it is Wilson. He takes his craft seriously; he doesn’t take himself seriously. That trait will serve him well in the Big Apple.

I’ve done a lot of one-on-one telephone interviews with BYU players familiar with Wilson the past few months, and have always asked about Wilson’s personality, knowing I’d be penning this article before the draft. I even offered anonymity if said players had anything negative to say. None did.

That speaks volumes about this kid. The love and admiration his teammates have for him is genuine. I’m convinced of it.

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I was hard on Wilson at the end of his sophomore season, when he failed to deliver wins against San Diego State and Hawaii. He didn’t block me on Twitter, as another former BYU QB once did when I asked him about a late-game mistake at Boise State.

Instead, I got a death stare from Wilson in the bowels of Qualcomm Stadium when I suggested his bad decision-making cost the Cougars in the red zone. Then he politely answered the question — maturely, calmly, professionally. He held himself accountable.

I saw an interview in which Wilson’s mom, Lisa, said if nothing else she wanted her son to be humble, kind, grateful for his opportunities and generous with his time.

From my view, she succeeded.

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