‘We made it’: Here are some of the people Zach Wilson thanked for getting him to the No. 2 pick in the NFL draft
‘Zach’s Fifth Avenue,’ as internet wags starting calling him moments after the New York Jets picked him, said the club is ‘going to the Super Bowl’ to the delight of Jets nation
CLEVELAND — Before he slapped hands with overjoyed New York fans lining the runway at a makeshift stage adjacent to Lake Erie, hugged vaccinated NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and promised some of the most long-suffering patrons in the league that the Jets are “going to be a special team, baby” and “are going to the Super Bowl,” former BYU quarterback Zach Wilson shared a special moment with his parents, siblings and former coaches in the famed “green room” waiting area in Cleveland on Thursday night.
“We made it,” Wilson whispered to each as he hugged them and his girlfriend, Abbey Gile. “How amazing is this?”
For a few unforgettable minutes, the fresh-faced kid from Draper, a Salt Lake City suburb some 20 minutes away from Utah’s capital city, owned the country’s spotlight, and started to win the hearts of the denizens of its biggest city. As almost everyone expected, the Jets selected Wilson with the No. 2 pick of the 2021 NFL draft.
“I had a pretty good idea, but I wasn’t certain that I would be picked by the Jets,” Wilson said in an eight-minute news conference nearly an hour after the selection. “Just the emotions that went into it is what I will remember, and how excited I was to be in that situation and hugging both my parents and my siblings. … And then thinking forward to how we can get to the next step and how this is a steppingstone for what is to come.”
That’s right, within minutes of getting picked, the stylish quarterback with the bushy hair and otherworldly confidence, uber-prepared as usual, donned a green cap and immediately began plotting his future.
“I will be ready for New York City. I don’t think there is a better place to play. I am excited to play there, to be a part of that team, that culture, that fan base. It is going to be extraordinary.” — Former BYU QB Zach Wilson, No. 2 pick in the NFL draft by the New York Jets
“There is not another team I would rather play for besides the Jets, so I am going to give it everything I have,” he said, both on the stage and in the media center a couple long bombs away from the draft theatre.
Wilson won the post-draft news conference, deftly answering the usual questions about playing for a non-Power Five conference team in a media market — Salt Lake City-Ogden-Provo — much smaller than New York City, handling the criticism that will surely come after a bad game and not playing difficult opponents, especially in his junior season when the Cougars went 11-1 and were ranked No. 11 in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll.
“I will be ready for New York City,” he said. “I don’t think there is a better place to play. I am excited to play there, to be a part of that team, that culture, that fan base. It is going to be extraordinary.”
Confident and direct but rarely cocky or full of himself, Wilson said he fully expects to thrive in the Big Apple, even as internet wags tagged his arrival as “Zach’s Fifth Avenue,” a shoutout to the famed Manhattan street and high-end store considered one of the most expensive to live on and shop at in the world.
The kid from Draper can certainly afford it now, although friends say he will live as close to the Jets’ practice facility in New Jersey as possible because he hates to waste time traveling. Wilson said his grandparents on his mother’s side — Gary and Rose Neeleman — and parents — Mike and Lisa Wilson — instilled traits in him that will serve him well in a diverse city very unlike his hometown in Utah.
“I feel like I have the ability to relate with anyone. I feel like that is so important at this stage. These NFL guys all come from different backgrounds, and the cool part is we all come in with the same goal,” he said. “And I think that is what is special is we are all pushing for the same exact thing. I can’t wait to meet these guys.”
Moments after Wilson’s news conference wrapped up, the Jets got him some help, trading up for the No. 14 pick and getting offensive guard Alijah Vera-Tucker from USC.
BYU coach Kalani Sitake said “it was Zach’s idea” to have him, offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick, passing game coordinator Fesi Sitake, Corner Canyon High coach Eric Kjar and former BYU QB John Beck, his trainer the past few years, accompany him on the trip to Cleveland.
Just found out that on this huge night for @zachkapono1 at the NFL Draft, in addition to having his family and BYU coaches there, he made sure to invite his former high school coach at Corner Canyon, @KjarEric. Here's a few behind the scenes shots Kjar snapped from Cleveland. pic.twitter.com/aMpRtuhcHw— James Edward (@DNewsPreps) April 30, 2021
Kalani Sitake described a scene at the hotel restaurant in downtown Cleveland Wednesday night a few hours after the entourage arrived in Ohio — a scene that brought tears to eyes as Zach Wilson personally thanked some of the many people who got him to this moment.
“I am so proud of Zach because this is his dream, and I am just really happy to be a small part of it,” Kalani Sitake said. “He belongs in this league, and obviously I am happy for him. Sad that I won’t have him another year, but really, really excited that he will have an opportunity to live out his dream and do it in the biggest media market in the world. How much fun is that?”
Because of Sitake and his More2Life Foundation, Wilson has been to Manhattan before. Sitake annually takes players to NYC to help run camps for the Harlem Jets, a youth football program in the city. Sitake chose Harlem as the location of the service work to honor the late BYU coach LaVell Edwards, who served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the area after retiring from coaching.
“I am so proud of Zach because this is his dream, and I am just really happy to be a small part of it. He belongs in this league, and obviously I am happy for him. Sad that I won’t have him another year, but really, really excited that he will have an opportunity to live out his dream and do it in the biggest media market in the world. How much fun is that?” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake
“It never occurred to me when I was there that I would be playing there,” Wilson said. “New York is a faraway place. I used to love visiting. It was such a blast. Staying right in the city, in Times Square, and I think it was a week we would spend there, working with a lot of those kids. It was a blast.
“Did I think I would be there within a year? I didn’t,” he said. “But what an amazing opportunity to be in that situation now.”
Sitake said Wilson is ready to get started on his next reclamation project, having signed with BYU in December 2017 after the Cougars went 4-9, missed a bowl game for the first time since 2004, and fired offensive coordinator Ty Detmer, one of the most popular players in program history.
But while it took him half the season to break into the starting lineup as a freshman in 2018, he is expected to jump into the fray almost immediately for the Jets, who went 2-14 in 2020 and traded away starter Sam Darnold to the Carolina Panthers after watching Wilson do his thing at BYU’s pro day on March 26.
Having talked to former Jets QBs while preparing for the draft, Wilson said he was struck by “just how amazing an opportunity and situation this is, with the new coaches they are bringing in and what (general manager) Joe Douglas is establishing and how hungry this team is to win, how great these players are. Really, they just kinda left that impression that, you know what, they are not far off. It is getting closer. I can’t wait to be a part of that.”
The NFL has a rookie wage scale, which assigns dollar amounts to draft slots, so as the No. 2 player taken Wilson can expect to sign a contract with a total value of $35.2 million, which includes a guaranteed signing bonus of $22.9 million.
Wilson has already signed endorsement deals with Nike, Chipotle, Utah-based Traeger Grills and other companies, which will thicken his wallet considerably.
What will be his first major purchase?
He told BYUtv that he is going to have a “good surprise” for his mother, which will be announced on his Instagram account soon.
For himself, the first automobile he will buy as a pro will be Tesla, but he might have to wait a bit. The model he covets doesn’t come out for a month or two. That the car drives itself is a feature he envies.
“I would love to get one of those,” he said.
As for the monikers such as “Zach’s Fifth Avenue” and “Broadway Zach,” he said he’s fine with them, then quickly added they are meaningless if he doesn’t deliver. The construction management major at BYU was already reading the room.
“I mean, it is cool, but it really doesn’t mean anything until we go in there and do something, win some games,” he said.
He joked about the oddity of seeing his father, a former University of Utah football player, wearing BYU colors for the first time a few years ago, and of seeing him don a suit and tie for Thursday’s festivities.
Then he choked up slightly when he was asked about his role models.
“There is no way I could list every person who has helped get me here,” he said. “… My dad has sacrificed so much time and money to be able to get me to different basketball camps and football camps and tons of different things. And now obviously my college coaches and my high school coaches and obviously my teammates.
“I mean, no one talks about how amazing we were as a team this last year at BYU,” he continued. “I think that is the amazing thing about football is that it is truly a team game. Every single guy on that roster had a huge role in this.”
So one special guy could make it.