PROVO — When the coronavirus pandemic hit in mid-March, and almost everything was shut down, BYU guard Jesse Wade’s dad suggested an unorthodox place for his son to continue to rehab his injured knee.  

Eric Wade challenged Jesse to hike Y Mountain as a way to strengthen the knee and the adjoining muscles. At first, Jesse wasn’t interested in taking a hike. His first thought was: “No way.”

But he decided to give the trail that leads up to the famed block Y above BYU’s campus — a strenuous 2.2 miles round trip — a try. And he’s glad that he did. 

BYU basketball player Jesse Wade and his wife Jade pose for a photo at the top of Y Mountain. | Courtesy Wade family

“That hike is not easy. You’re going straight up the whole time,” Wade said. “The first few times I did it I thought, ‘My legs are going to fall off.’”

It didn’t take long for him to see the benefits of this exercise routine and he started hiking the dirt terrain and steep incline of Y Mountain six days a week. 

Wade hasn’t played much since he was named Mr. Basketball by the Deseret News in 2015 due to serving a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to France; redshirting after transferring to BYU from Gonzaga; and suffering a major injury. For him, hiking the Y during the pandemic hasn’t just been good for Wade’s knee, it’s also been good for his soul. 

There have been times in recent months that the 6-foot-1 175-pound sophomore considered ending his basketball career. Hiking the Y has been a big part of his return to basketball — one step at a time. 

“It’s probably played the biggest role in my recovery other than people that have helped with my physical therapy,” he said. “The elevation, the unevenness of the trail and all those things have helped my knee and helped my quad get back to full strength. It’s been awesome.”

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Wade has hiked the Y in the mornings, in the afternoons and in the evenings. Sometimes, he’s ascended Y Mountain more than once a day. 

“You get up there and it’s a nice view and you’re able to think about a lot of stuff. The top of the Y has been a place of a lot of thinking and just about my path, where I’ve been, what I’ve done, where I am right now and what I want to do,” Wade said. “I definitely see it as a metaphor for, to get to the top you’ve got to go through challenges and hard obstacles.

“That’s what I’m trying to is I’ve had my fair share of these obstacles and challenges that have set me back. It’s been hard but I want to get to the top. My competitiveness and desire to get to the top has really been the only thing that’s kept me going.”

No surrender

Coach Mark Pope has been tracking Wade’s progress. 

“He is not going to surrender. His whole college career, he hasn’t been able to play because of various injuries,” he said. “Jesse’s like, ‘I’m not stopping, man.’ He’s doing everything humanly possible to try to regain his health and get there. At this point, it’s a matter of his determination, desire and relentlessness and the willingness of his body to jump in.

“I suggested that he start to take a Sharpie with him up there (to Y Mountain) and every time he gets up there, he signs his name or makes a little slash, a little mark. I don’t know if he’ll get thrown in jail for that. But I’d like him to leave his mark on the ‘Y’ in that real sense. I still think this kid hopefully can make his mark on BYU basketball on the court.” 

At Davis High, Wade averaged nearly 27 points, 3.5 assists and 2.7 steals per game as a senior. He shot 45% from 3-point range and 60% on 2-point attempts. He also showed toughness, having played with a broken wrist in a 5A state semifinal game against Brighton. 

Davis’ Jesse Wade drives around Judge’s Kaden Elliss as Davis and Judge play Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013 at Davis. Davis won 78-56. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Wade signed with national power Gonzaga before departing for his mission. He returned in 2017 and played sparingly in 20 games for the Zags. 

After his freshman season, he transferred to BYU, where he was sidelined for the 2018-19 campaign due to transfer rules. 

In January that season, he went up for a fadeaway jumper and when he came down on his left leg, he felt a tremendous amount of pain. A visit to the doctor revealed that he had torn the patellar tendon, which extends from the thigh muscle and attaches the kneecap to the shin. 

Doctors tried a number of methods to help repair the knee but Wade wasn’t able to fully recover. Finally, last November, he underwent surgery. But it took a while for his knee to start feeling better. 

Meanwhile, as tough as the physical challenges he’s faced, the mental challenges were just as real.

“It got really bad. It hurts your confidence. There have been multiple times when I’ve thought it would be so much easier to step away from basketball and just call it quits,” he said. “But once I realized that that was the easiest choice, I also realized that it was probably the wrong choice. Nothing in life that is good is easy. I’ve got a lot to prove, mainly to myself. I don’t feel like I have anything to prove to anybody else except myself.

“That’s been my main motivation throughout this — to push through it. In those dark times, it was hard mentally, emotionally, physically. Those were some long days. But I kept pushing through it a step at a time, a day at a time to get to where I’m at now, I feel good.

“I want it. That’s the biggest thing,” he continued. “When you want something, it’s usually not easy. Sometimes you have to go through a lot of challenges to get to where you want to be — more than I would have liked, but it will be worth it in the end.”

He credits his family — his wife, Jade; his parents, Eric and Amanda; his younger brother, Josh; and his three sisters for always supporting and believing in him during his challenges. His sister Olivia starred for the BYU soccer team as a freshman and is currently serving a Spanish-speaking mission in Houston. She’s scheduled to return home July 13. 

“When you’re injured, those outside voices, and doubt, tend to go to a worst-case scenario,” Wade said. “At first, it was hard to shut off that noise. My family’s always been there for me. They didn’t try to fix the situation but to listen to me and offer advice that’s been helpful to keep me moving forward.”

On Feb. 22, No. 23 BYU upset No. 2 Gonzaga in an epic moment at the Marriott Center. For Wade, it was a surreal experience to watch his current teammates beat some of his former teammates. 

“Honestly, that Gonzaga game was one of the weirdest feelings I’ve ever felt in my life. So happy for my teammates and the win. Also weirdly sad for some of my friends at Gonzaga and some of those teammates that I had,” he said. “The biggest feeling came from the fact that I wanted to be part of that, a playing part of that. Again, I was so happy for my teammates. They deserved it more than anything. But I just wanted to be a part of that. To not be was hard. I would have done anything to be out there, especially in that moment.”

Gonzaga guard Jesse Wade (10) dribbles the ball during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Portland in Spokane, Wash., Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018. | AP

A few weeks later, the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to COVID-19 and most facilities were shuttered as government officials declared stay-at-home orders. 

Reluctant hiker

Wade’s family members have been avid hikers, but not him. 

“Why would I want to go walk outside to get exercise when I’ve been in the gym all day?” he said. “The last thing I wanted to do was walk around for fun. I always had that mentality. I saw that there could be some benefits for my knee and my quad.” 

When he started hiking the Y in March, he did so amid bad weather. Most days, it was cold, windy and rainy. Because of the pandemic, he’d usually be the only one on the trail. From the top, he’d look down into the valley below, which was eerily quiet — few cars or people. 

But he wasn’t always alone. Usually his wife would accompany him. While he ran up to the Y, she would walk. After he’d get to the top, he’d go back down and walk back to the top with her. “So instead of hiking it one full time,” he said, “I kind of hike it one-and-a-half times.”

He has also been going with his younger brother, Josh, who is currently participating in the virtual Missionary Training Center. Josh received his mission call to Tahiti, speaking French, and was scheduled to depart June 13. 

Wade and his wife both speak French, having served in France, so Josh Wade has been spending a lot of time with them as he prepares for his mission. 

“He’s been doing the MTC at our place,” Wade said. “When he’s got free time, we’ll go either in the morning or the afternoon break.”

‘Still in it’

Over the past 2½ months of hiking the Y, Wade has become intimately acquainted with the trail. 

“Going up and down and the uneven gravel and stuff helps strengthen the supporting muscles. It’s been awesome,” Wade said. “The view is beautiful and the trail is amazing. You’ve got legs No. 0, No. 1, No. 2 and No. 11 that are brutal. Eleven is super long, all uphill.”

“Going up and down and the uneven gravel and stuff helps strengthen the supporting muscles. It’s been awesome. The view is beautiful and the trail is amazing. You’ve got legs No. 0, No. 1, No. 2 and No. 11 that are brutal. Eleven is super long, all uphill.” — Jesse Wade

Wade’s college career to this point has been one long, uphill journey. But his health has improved and his spirits are bright. 

“It’s been so long since I’ve really been able to be healthy and play. I want to contribute and make plays to help us win this year,” he said. “I’ve been through injuries and I’ve had a rough stretch the past few years. But I’m finally in a place where I’m healthy and feel good.”

That’s great news for the BYU basketball program, which is losing several sharpshooting guards like TJ Haws, Jake Toolson and Zac Seljaas to graduation. 

Jesse Wade is grateful that his knee is healing. 

“The hikes up to the Y, has really strengthened my knee. The hard thing about surgery isn’t what you have surgery on but the surrounding muscles and the atrophy that takes place,” he said. “My left leg was four or five pounds lighter than my right leg. I lost a bunch of muscle. To get that back to where it is now, they look pretty identical. That’s been such a huge blessing. It’s never felt better than right now.”

In addition to his many trips to the Y, Wade has been able to get into gyms around his hometown of Kaysville and around Provo. But mostly, he’s been focused on strengthening his body and getting healthy. 

The NCAA announced recently that teams can reconvene on campus June 1, and Wade has been cleared by doctors when practices resume. And he is looking forward to being able to be on the court this year. 

“All I’ve ever known is basketball. I’m a much better player now than I was in high school. To have put in so much work in and to not be able to show that and play has been really hard,” he said. “This has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’m still in it. I’m not out of anything yet. I’m still going up the hill. I’m not at the top and really, there is no top. It’s been hard but I’m so excited for this season.”