Three surgeries haven’t stopped Brayden Cosper from hoping to join best friends in the NFL some day
While ex-BYU greats Zach Wilson and Dax Milne have moved on to professional football, childhood friend Brayden Cosper is still in Provo overcoming one ‘freakish’ injury after another
About 10 years ago, four extremely athletic youngsters in the south end of the Salt Lake Valley played together on a traveling AAU summer-circuit basketball team known as the Utah Basketball Club.
Six years after that, all four enrolled at Brigham Young University in 2018 and played football for the Cougars.
You have probably heard of three of them: quarterback Zach Wilson, receiver Dax Milne and tight end Dallin Holker. Wilson and Milne, of course, are playing for the New York Jets and Washington Commanders of the NFL, respectively, while Holker is a returned-missionary junior at BYU with 33 career catches under his belt who seems headed toward another big season in 2022.
Who’s the fourth?
That would be receiver Brayden Cosper, whose career has been derailed by freakish injuries so many times that BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick jokingly says that he keeps his distance with Cosper “because he has the worst luck of anybody I have ever met.”
The irony in all this is that the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Cosper was one the first of the friends offered a scholarship by BYU coaches, way back in June 2017. With outstanding speed, size and athleticism (he remained an excellent basketball player at Bingham High while the others started focusing on football only) Cosper was considered the one with the brightest future beyond college.
“Cosp has never had the chance to show what he can do,” Milne told the Deseret News on Monday, after having been drafted by the Washington Football Team last April. “He very easily could be where I am. He’s that good.”
Is this the year that Cosper makes up some ground on his boyhood friends to whom he remains close to this day?
Cosper said during spring drills that he “feels great” and was looking forward to finishing spring camp with a flourish. He had made several big catches in the 11-on-11 portions of practices to show that the fractured wrist that sidelined him all of last season has completely healed. He sat out his first season at BYU after suffering a torn ACL and meniscus in fall camp and most of his second year when he tore his meniscus again and needed micro-fracture surgery.
That’s three surgeries in four seasons for the former three-star recruit.
“When you get away from the game for so long you realize how much you miss it,” Cosper said. “I really, really missed it. It is just super fun to get back out here, and I feel great out here.”
Cosper, who will graduate in April with a degree in communication, says this will probably be his final season in Provo, even though he could play another one if he wanted. He’s determined to make it count, perhaps go out in a blaze of glory with his roommate, Holker.
“As of right now, with my body and all the injuries I have gone through and everything, this is probably it,” he said. “Obviously I could play one more with COVID and everything, so nothing is off the table. I could end up playing well this year, have a blast, have a good year, and decide I want to come back. You never know.”
As BYU coaches search for the third starting receiver to complement Gunner Romney and Puka Nacua and replace graduated seniors Neil Pau’u and Samson Nacua, Cosper is sort of the forgotten man. Some people have Keanu Hill, Kody Epps and former American Fork star Chase Roberts as the primary candidates to be WR3.
Receivers coach and passing game coordinator Fesi Sitake isn’t one of them — yet. Sitake says if Cosper can stay healthy, he can contribute as much as the others.
“I am really happy with how Brayden is coming along,” Sitake said. “Really, every year Brayden has proven that he is a guy who can pick up the playbook as well as anyone. He has certain parts of his game that give him an advantage over other guys in the room.”
Whatever happens, coaches, the aforementioned Milne and current teammates say Cosper’s perseverance in the face of so much adversity has been remarkable and inspiring.
“The way he has handled everything is actually very admirable, and very respectable. I have often wondered if I could even handle stuff like that, the way he has,” said Milne, who is back in Utah and training every day in preparation for his second season with the newly renamed Commanders. “He made sure to cheer on his good friends — me and Zach (Wilson) and Dallin Holker when we were having success, even though he was stuck on the sidelines. That had to be hard on him. But his attitude has always remained great. I think it is going to pay off for him this coming season.”
Sitake said the injuries haven’t slowed Cosper, or caused him to lose confidence in himself.
“Something has happened to him almost every year before the season,” Sitake said. “Only injuries have limited him. If he stays healthy, fans will be happy with the impact he makes.”
Added Roderick: “Every year Brayden is right on the cusp of where I am thinking he is going to be one of our better players, and then something bad happens. He is right there this year, again. He is playing as well as any receiver on our team. And he knows what he is doing. He is talented. He just has to stay healthy.”
A fabulous foursome of friends
The amazing confluence of college- and pro-bound athletes began when Wilson, Holker, Cosper and Milne were in the eighth grade and the fathers of Wilson and Cosper — Mike Wilson and Matt Cosper — coached a traveling basketball team called Elevation, and then UBC. As was detailed by the Deseret News before Wilson was selected No. 2 overallin the 2021 NFL draft, the former BYU quarterback’s first love was basketball.
“Mike (Wilson) and Zach have always been awesome to Brayden,” Matt Cosper said.
Little did they know back then that they would all be reunited at BYU. As has been well-documented, Zach Wilson grew up a Utah fan and “everyone knew he was a special athlete and everyone thought he would be a Ute,” Brayden Cosper said. Cosper’s dad played soccer for Weber State, while Milne’s dad (Darren) played baseball for BYU.
“It was so long ago,” Brayden Cosper said. “It was weird to see all of us play ball together, and then come here and play ball together again. I wish we could have done it together more. But yeah, just fun times with good dudes.”
Holker says he and Cosper roomed together on those trips as 12- and 13-year-olds, and even then would talk about how great it would be to make it to the big leagues.
“On those trips we had such a good time, because Brayden is just really fun to be around,” Holker said. “We still talk about those good times. Almost all of college, he has been my roommate. He is my best friend.”
Dax Milne says nobody back then predicted the little team would produce four college stars, let alone at least two professional football players. But they vowed to stay friends for life.
“I knew we were all going places, especially (Cosper),” he said. “I couldn’t have told you where, and when things were going to happen, but I knew that looking at Zach and Dallin and Brayden that we were all on a different level as far as being competitors at whatever sport it was. I just feel fortunate to have been a part of it.”
Milne said they didn’t win every game, “but there was never a point where we were just getting completely dominated. It was either, we were dominating, or we were competing.”
The band breaks up for a bit
When it came time for high school ball, Cosper and Milne went to Bingham, while Holker attended Lehi and Wilson started at Jordan, then transferred to Corner Canyon.
Matt Cosper says Brayden was an outstanding baseball player growing up, but chose to focus on basketball and football at Bingham.
“There was never a time where he was ever sitting still,” Matt said. “As a kid, he was always active, always looking for the next thing to do.”
At 6-3, Brayden Cosper helped Bingham win state football and basketball championships his junior season and the football team repeat its title his senior season. He and Holker committed to BYU after their junior seasons; as has been widely reported, Milne passed up offers from smaller schools to walk on at BYU and be reunited with his youth basketball teammates; Wilson was a last-minute BYU commit in December of 2017, flipping from Boise State.
Considered the top receiver in Utah after a junior season that saw him catch 24 passes for 428 yards and four touchdowns, Cosper had offers from Weber State, Nevada, Air Force and Navy before choosing BYU.
“I just felt like the culture here was fantastic,” he said. “I remember meeting guys like Micah Simon, Aleva Hifo and Akile Davis. It really seems like forever ago. But they were awesome guys and they welcomed me and it was so easy for everybody to get along.”
Head coach Kalani Sitake said Cosper’s versatility and prowess on the hardwoods is one of the factors that caused coaches to offer him a scholarship, and not Milne — who was more of a late-bloomer.
Cosper has been able to stay with it, despite all the injuries, “because he has got some of his best friends around that are encouraging him,” Sitake said. “He’s still really close to those guys who are not here anymore, and of course with Dallin (Holker).”
The head coach said Cosper was poised for a breakout season in 2021 before he broke his wrist in fall camp.
“It sucks, what happened to him last year, because I think he was really ready to do something special,” Sitake said. “We just got to keep him healthy. Fesi has one job, and that is to keep that guy healthy going into the fall.
“But it is hard to keep a guy healthy when he just goes so hard. I get nervous every time he runs routes because he doesn’t have a neutral zone. It is all pedal to the metal for Brayden.”
A model of perseverance — without the jealousy
Growing up in South Jordan, Brayden once told his father: “Nobody can motivate me but me.”
Added Matt Cosper: “He is a kid who doesn’t really care what other people think of him. He just believes in himself like nobody I have ever been around.”
Of course, all those injuries and setbacks have been tough to watch for Casper’s parents.
“Especially because they were noncontact injuries — just freak stuff happening to him,” Matt said. “People don’t realize that mental grind that injuries take on these guys, even more than physically.”
It would seemingly be difficult to watch one’s best friends and peers find success and move on to professional football, but just the opposite is the case for Cosper.
“Brayden is so excited for the success of Zach, Dax and Dallin,” Matt said. “There is not a person he knows that he is not genuinely happy for.”
While he admits to wishing that Milne and Wilson were still at BYU, just because he likes hanging out with them so much, Cosper said there’s never been a time when he’s been envious of their success, or wondered why they’ve been relatively injury-free and he’s shouldered all the bad luck.
“I just work on my own thing, and know it takes hard work to get there, as Dax and Zach have shown,” Cosper said. “They obviously had their own paths and they deserve every bit of it. All I can do is be happy for them, for real. I love watching them get to game time on Sunday and everything. Yeah, no jealousy or any of that from me.”
Romney, the current BYU receiver who hopes to join Milne and Wilson in the pros next year, said he’s never seen Cosper lose hope or lament his many injuries.
“He has faced so much adversity in his career, with all the injuries he has had to go through — the physical pain as well as the mental toll that it has taken,” Romney said. “To see him bounce back and be playing as well as he is right now, I am super happy for him. He’s a guy that deserves it.”
Leaning on friends and pros
Cosper says he never had a serious injury in high school, so when he suffered the ACL and meniscus injury early in fall camp his first year in Provo, he didn’t think it was a huge deal at first. His second year (2019), he played against Utah, sat out against Tennessee, then played against USC and Washington before deciding his surgically repaired knee still didn’t feel right. It wasn’t. An MRI revealed another torn meniscus, and he watched the remainder of the season from the sidelines.
Looking back, he wishes he had leaned on coaches, teammates and family members a little more to get through it.
“The first two injuries, I took that attitude that I am a tough guy and I don’t need to lean on anyone, that I can get through it on my own. Not to get into too much detail, but that obviously made it worse.” — BYU receiver Brayden Cosper
“The first two injuries, I took that attitude that I am a tough guy and I don’t need to lean on anyone, that I can get through it on my own,” he said. “Not to get into too much detail, but that obviously made it worse.”
No question, he says, the 2020 season was his favorite, despite battling COVID like everyone else.
“I got to play with my boys Zach and Dax a little bit, and watch their (careers) take off, so that was fun,” he said.
He especially remembers the opener at Navy, and getting the opportunity to run out on the field with Milne and Wilson for one of the first plays of the game. The following game, against Troy, he made his first career catch and finished with two grabs for 22 yards.
He finished out the season healthy, had a good spring camp last year and entered fall camp last August with high hopes. But with a little more than a week left, he soared to catch a pass and came down on his wrist “kinda weird, and broke it. It just ended up being another freak thing.”
This time, Cosper says he turned to friends, family and even mental health professionals for help.
“I realized that (keeping quiet) wasn’t the right thing to do,” he said. “I had to kinda grow that way. So obviously the main people I have leaned on are my boys, specifically Dax and Dallin, and Zach, and then our sports psychologist — Tom (Golightly). Those guys are the main dudes that have helped me out a lot this past year with this whole thing.”
BYU coach Kalani Sitake says WR Brayden Cosper sustained a season-ending injury a few days ago and will be "basically coaching" and trying to be a leader from sidelines. Tough break for former Bingham High WR.— Jay Drew (@drewjay) August 24, 2021