From walk-on to walking tall, overcoming adversity helped Payton Wilgar become a BYU leader
Thinking his college playing days were over after his freshman season, talented linebacker was offered a lifeline in the form of a scholarship
BYU sophomore linebacker Payton Wilgar says he is living a Cinderella story and he’s having a ball where not even the stroke of midnight can get in his way.
Wilgar has traveled a road of family heartbreak and despair to a life under the lights at LaVell Edwards Stadium and under the watchful eyes of NFL scouts.
“BYU was my dream school. My dad (Dana) played here,” Wilgar said. “All I wanted to do was play football at BYU.”
Wilgar was a star at Dixie High, but without the financial means to attend football camps, he remained in stealth-mode, off the radar of every college coach in the country. When graduation came there were no scholarship offers.
“I didn’t get a lot of exposure coming out of high school,” he said. “I just played football and hoped for an opportunity. Luckily, BYU gave that to me as a preferred walk-on.”
Wilgar appeared in three games during his redshirt season in 2018, but when it ended, he feared his playing days at BYU were done too.
“There was no chance to stay,” he said. “There was no money and no place to live. I knew coming in that I would either get a scholarship or my football dreams were over and they didn’t have one for me.”
So, without telling defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki, he packed up his things, and his dreams, and went home to St. George.
Two weeks later, his phone rang. It was Tuiaki.
“We knew he had some things going on in his life and being a walk-on was going to be difficult. The staff all felt like he was a guy worth keeping around and putting him on scholarship was the only way to bring him back.” — BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki
Tossed a lifeline
“We knew he had some things going on in his life and being a walk-on was going to be difficult,” said Tuiaki. “The staff all felt like he was a guy worth keeping around and putting him on scholarship was the only way to bring him back.”
During that phone conversation, Tuiaki extended a full scholarship to Wilgar and instantly, the dream was on.
“I told him I didn’t have enough money to stay and he said, ‘We have a scholarship for you if you want to come back.” Wilgar recounted. “Of course, I was going to accept that. It changed my life. I can’t even describe it.”
Wilgar is working to make the most of his opportunity. As a freshman, in 2019, he finished tied for second nationally among linebackers with three interceptions. In 2020, he logged 57 tackles and spearheaded a defense that finished among the top 10 in scoring and total defense.
Through three games in 2021, Wilgar has 11 solo tackles, including four for loss of yards. The defense has forced seven turnovers and is allowing just 16.7 points a game. With the loss of sophomore linebacker Keenan Pili to a torn ACL last week against Arizona State, Wilgar’s leadership role is expanding.
“He is going to play multiple positions and will need to be all over the place,” said linebackers coach Kevin Clune. “(Payton) needs to run the show and he’s very capable. He has a knack for understanding football.”
Much of the energy that fuels his engine comes from family.
Wilgar married his junior high school sweetheart Krissy in 2019, proposing while sitting on top of a water tower behind her home in Diamond Valley, where they had spent a lot of time growing up together.
Two months after their marriage, the young couple addressed a family crisis and served as substitute parents to Wilgar’s 3-year-old nephew and 1-year-old niece for six months, as was documented this week on BYUtv’s “Deep Blue” series.
“His older brothers’ kids were taken by the state,” said Krissy, who stepped away from work to care for them. “We didn’t want them with any other family. At one point they were in a random person’s home and I would FaceTime them and it was just heartbreaking.”
The newlyweds decided to become rescue workers and took the kids into their Provo apartment, which they shared with one of Payton’s teammates.
“That first night, we finally got them to bed after they cried for hours,” Wilgar told “Deep Blue.” “We put them in our room, and because we were so petrified to wake them up again, we both slept in the front room together and we just sat there and cried wondering what we have gotten ourselves in to? It was an experience I’m so grateful for, but it was so hard.”
Wilgar’s family has been tormented by drug addiction for years. They are survivors, with good days and bad, but they credit the 6-foot-3, 235-pound sophomore linebacker as the rock that they have held on to.
The young children were reunited with their parents when conditions improved.
Rising to the occasion
“I don’t think he realizes the powerful son, brother and friend that he is,” said Misti Wilgar, Payton’s mother. “He’s always been hard on himself, but he’s definitely been a light. I think the future is very bright for Payton.”
“Payton has taken every trial and the adversity that has been placed before him and used it to his benefit to stay focused and stay dedicated to his dream,” said RJ Wilgar, another of Payton’s brothers. The emotional “Deep Blue” report will be shown again Saturday night during “Countdown to Kickoff” at 7 p.m. on BYUtv.
“It adds to the character they have and what they bring in,” Tuiaki said of student-athletes working through significant life challenges off the field, like Wilgar. “They get it. You are not dealing with a kid that you are trying to convince how to be a man. They come into their own because of what life throws at them.”
As with his family life, Wilgar’s football journey has been challenging too, just as it was for teammate Tyler Allgeier. Conditions for walk-ons, prior to the new NIL program, which provides financial relief at BYU, often led to tough decisions, including giving up football all together.
Allgeier was out of money and preparing to leave school after the 2019 season when he was saved by a scholarship. The running back — turned linebacker — turned back to running back — is BYU’s leading rusher. He also delivered the play of the weekend in college football with his forced fumble in the third quarter against Arizona State. Allgeier is a source of inspiration for Wilgar.
“His story is amazing,” he said. “Having an awesome season last year and seeing him build on that and to see him run and get a lot of hype for himself, it’s very inspiring.”
Along with Allgeier, Wilgar is no longer flying stealth. He is on everybody’s radar. He’s mentioned as a viable candidate for college football’s top defensive awards and is a regular attraction for NFL scouts at practices and games.
“Off the field, you are not going to have any issues with him. He’s gonna be able to pick up the nuances of defenses faster than other players. He knows what he’s looking for. He knows what’s coming next. I think an NFL team could find a hidden gem.” — BYU linebackers coach Kevin Clune
“Off the field, you are not going to have any issues with him,” Clune said about what he tells those inquiring about Wilgar’s future. “He’s gonna be able to pick up the nuances of defenses faster than other players. He knows what he’s looking for. He knows what’s coming next. I think an NFL team could find a hidden gem.”
Wilgar is also getting advice from one of the most heralded linebackers in BYU history, Rob Morris, who made good on his nickname “Freight Train” by becoming a first-round pick in 2000 by the Indianapolis Colts.
“He tells me to play fast and physical. He played like a freight train, fast and physical on every play,” he said. “Give it your all every play.”
Wilgar doesn’t have a nickname and he doesn’t really want one. However, he has no problem with South Florida knowing who he is, where he is and what he can do when the Cougars and Bulls meet Saturday night in Provo.
He is also on track, should he stay through his senior year, to lead the BYU defense into the Big 12 in 2023.
“The journey I’ve gone through is indescribable,” Wilgar said. “I always tell everyone it’s a Cinderella story. I never thought I would be in this position, even to be at a Division I school, and now, where I’m at today, I can’t even tell you. It’s unreal.”
Wilgar is an A-student in the school of hard knocks, but on the football field he’s having a ball, and with these late ESPN kickoffs, sometimes he even gets to play past midnight — and that’s where this linebacker leaves Cinderella in his dust.
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “After Further Review,” co-host for “Countdown to Kickoff” and the “Postgame Show” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv.