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Conner Mortensen’s improbable journey from returned missionary to walk-on to Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Year

Mortensen, the pride of tiny Moapa Valley High in southern Nevada, leads undefeated Weber State (5-0) into the FCS Playoffs on Saturday against Southern Illinois at Stewart Stadium in Ogden, Utah

Weber State linebacker Conner Mortensen makes a tackle against Idaho State on Feb. 27, 2021. Mortensen, who began his career in Ogden as a walk-on, was named Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Year earlier this week.
Weber State Athletics

Senior linebacker Conner Mortensen doesn’t like to admit it, but there have been several times over the course of his five years as a member of the Weber State football team that he has thought about quitting.

And nobody would have blamed the former walk-on from tiny Moapa Valley High in southern Nevada if he had.

“I felt hopeless,” Mortensen said Tuesday as the Big Sky champion Wildcats (5-0) continued preparations to take on Southern Illinois in the NCAA FCS Playoffs on Saturday at 2 p.m. at Stewart Stadium in Ogden. “I felt maybe my time would be better spent on other things, that I probably wasn’t going to get a shot.”

But get a shot he did, after years of persevering, and now he’s the Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Year — having picked up that honor Wednesday — and eyeing a possible national championship with the Wildcats, who just won their fourth straight Big Sky title.

He described his five years as “just a roller coaster” and an “improbable journey” to stardom.

“I always hoped to be in a position where I could contribute to the team. Did I think it would be to this magnitude? Not really,” Mortensen said. “But I always tried to work as hard as I could, and I guess that is the result oftentimes. It has been insane. I feel super grateful all the time for the opportunities coaches have given me and the support they have given me, and teammates and family support. Yeah, I am super, super blessed, to say the least.”

Mortensen, who served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to the Dominican Republic before walking on in 2016 and redshirting his first season in Ogden, is one of 13 WSU players honored by the conference after the five-game season, a season that was pushed to the spring by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mortensen was put on scholarship in the fall of 2018 — just prior to his redshirt sophomore season, after paying his own way as a redshirt in 2016 and a redshirt freshman in 2017.

Running back Dontae McMillan is the co-Freshman of the Year, while first-teamers from WSU include offensive lineman Noah Atagi; running back Josh Davis; defensive back Eddie Heckard; defensive tackle Jared Schiess; kick returner Rashid Shaheed; defensive back Preston Smith; offensive lineman Ty Whitworth; and defensive back Desmond Williams.

Second-teamers are Sione Lapuaho, Sherwin Lavaka, George Tarlas and McMillan.

Head coach Jay Hill said all the players are deserving, but none more so than Mortensen, the sixth player in WSU history to earn conference Defensive Player of the Year accolades.

Mortensen, who earned Academic All-Conference honors for the third straight year last year as an exercise and sport major, leads the league in tackles for loss with 9.5 and is 10th in the league in tackles at 8.8 per game.

“Well, Conner is a phenomenal player,” Hill said. “I am so excited for that kid and everything he has accomplished this year. He has played lights out. He has had unbelievable stats this year, led the Big Sky in tackles for loss. He is a leader.”

Hill said what he most loves about Mortensen is that he entered the program as a walk-on.

“He is a self-made, hard-working, tough guy that just plays the game the right way. Everybody knows it,” said Hill, 46, named the Region 5 Coach of the Year by the American Football Coaches Association for the second straight year.

Remarkably, Mortensen almost ended up playing for Southern Utah.

After earning all-state honors as a running back at Moapa Valley in Overton, one of those small towns on Interstate 15 between Mesquite and Las Vegas, and setting a school record for most touchdowns in a single season, his plan was to walk on at SUU after his mission.

But SUU lost head coach Ed Lamb to BYU in 2016 about the time Mortensen was returning to the United States, and he was lost in the coaching shuffle.

When he was in the D.R., a friend from high school was being recruited by Weber State, and raved about the place. Mortensen reached out to a WSU assistant, who watched some film and offered the returned missionary a chance to walk on.

He took it.

“So luckily I had the option to come up here, and it was definitely meant to be, and yeah, I came up and it has been a heckuva ride ever since,” he said. “I didn’t have any recruiting experience with Weber. I didn’t have any prior contact with them. But here I am.”

That he’s still in Ogden is also noteworthy, as previously mentioned.

“I struggled believing in myself and believing that I could get to where I am now,” he said. “Luckily I had friends and family members and coaches who gave me confidence and helped me realize that me playing, contributing at this level, was a reality.”

Saturday’s game, to be livestreamed on ESPN3 and broadcast by radio station 103.1 FM locally, marks Weber State’s fifth straight appearance in the FCS Playoffs and eighth overall. The Wildcats made it to the semifinals last season (2019), their best finish to date.