The education of Zach Wilson

For a fresh-faced kid from suburban Utah to win on the NFL’s biggest stage, he’ll need to draw on a lifetime of lessons

Zach Wilson is a long way from home. Across the practice field, 11 defenders in green helmets ache for a chance to teach the peach-fuzzed rookie from Utah a gritty New York lesson. Sweat trickles down his back. Zach fakes a handoff to his right and peeks left, looking for an open man. Even at 6’2” tall and 215 pounds, he looks small as the defense swarms around him. Lurching forward, he jerks the ball up and over a defender, holding onto it with both hands. A fumble would be disastrous, even embarrassing. Now chased from behind, he spots a receiver streaking downfield and, without hesitation, heaves the ball. 

It’s more of a flick, really; he throws it on the run, without the weight of his body or the force of fundamentals behind it. It’s even a little reckless, a throw his father might have scolded him for as a child back home in Draper, Utah. A throw that might have unnerved his coaches at Brigham Young University no matter how many times they’d seen him pull it off.

But it’s also reminiscent of a throw he made at his pro day last March: an off-platform missile that became an instant sensation and helped get him picked second overall in the 2021 NFL draft. Few men can throw the ball this far, this fast, this powerfully; hardly any can do it off their front foot. 

And it’s beautiful. Even Zach admires the ball’s path across a sky dotted with fluffy clouds.

A silence falls over the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center in Florham Park, New Jersey, among leafy suburban hills 35 miles west of Manhattan. Coaches, teammates, beat writers and fans spilling out of the bleachers pause to watch as a Saturday perfume of propane, burgers and dogs wafts across the field. They’ve waited a lifetime for a face of the franchise, a quarterback who can lead the Jets back to the Super Bowl and make them all proud. Now Zach’s boyish, straight-jawed visage welcomes them to the facility, and replicas of his No. 2 jersey are everywhere. One fan even wears a Cougar blue throwback. Their hopes rest on Zach’s square shoulders. 

Illustration by Mike McQuade

Fear lingers in the background, fed by so many prior disappointments. Is Zach built for all this pressure? Can a sheltered suburban kid survive the league’s toughest fans, thrive under the heat of the media’s brightest lights, win on the country’s biggest stage and lead one of the NFL’s most storied but hapless franchises? And not just win, but own this town?

To do so, he’ll have to marshal every resource that got him this far, from the hard-work lessons of childhood to the wise advice of those who’ve gone before — and of course that golden right arm. And he’ll have to embrace the spotlight.

Scattered oohs punctuate the moment as Elijah Moore, the speedy rookie receiver, gets 10 yards of separation from his nearest defender and the ball descends like a space capsule. It’s a sublime moment in the uneven early days of camp. Yesterday was rough; tomorrow will be just another grind. But as the ball settles into Moore’s outstretched hands, 55 yards downfield, the crowd erupts. “Zach! Zach!” They keep chanting, even when he doesn’t react, too focused to appreciate the moment.

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An hour away, Times Square still isn’t sold. You won’t find a Zach Wilson jersey at the 11-floor flagship Macy’s. There are two racks of Donovan Mitchell Utah Jazz jerseys at Grand Slam New York, but ask about Zach Wilson and the guy behind the counter steps back, raises a bushy eyebrow and asks, “Who?”

In this city of constant motion, it takes a major accomplishment to get noticed — or any kind of failure. From suited stock traders to rough-talking construction workers, from the middle-aged couple kissing on the steps at Columbus Circle to the teenagers chattering in Spanish on the uptown train to the Bronx, New Yorkers can all smell failure, and they won’t tolerate it. Zach may practice and play in the suburbs, but the city will dictate his fame and his fate. 

Enter Zach, whose cleanshaven good looks and aw-shucks demeanor could’ve won him a part in a boy band. Back home in Utah, his talent and easy confidence made him the king of Draper, a titan in Provo, a legend among his people. He mounted eye-popping statistics and revived BYU’s reputation as an offensive powerhouse. He made the Cougars his own and led the team to the cusp of a playoff spot, the first time in decades that BYU was in play for a national title, to any degree.

But when the Jets picked him second overall in the 2021 NFL draft — where he looked famously uncomfortable as his fellow prospects mugged and flashed hand gestures for the TV cameras — they set him on a new and onerous path.

Whatever he did at BYU means nothing here, despite the school’s erstwhile reputation as a quarterback factory. Jim McMahon won a Super Bowl with the Chicago Bears in 1986, but most of the Cougar greats faltered in the NFL. After winning a Heisman Trophy, Ty Detmer spent 14 years in the league as a career backup. John Beck was drafted in the second round but got dumped by a new coach after just two seasons. Robbie Bosco, who led BYU to a national championship in 1984, was felled by a shoulder injury he suffered in college. Even Steve Young had to survive a hellish, injury-ridden tenure on a woeful Tampa Bay squad, sacked 68 times in two years, before he eventually won three Super Bowls and two MVP awards in San Francisco. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2005.

Bosco admits, “There’s a lot of luck with these kinds of dreams.”

Any young quarterback must walk a delicate line to make it in the NFL, perfecting their craft and winning over a locker room of grown men while navigating a parade of off-field obstacles and distractions. But few teams have had such poor fortunes at the position as the Jets in the past decade. Time and again, the team has ushered in a new era with an overhyped draft pick who leaves by the back door a few years later, their talent undermined by toxic expectations, poor coaching, their own egos or an utter lack of talent on the roster. Earlier this year, they traded Sam Darnold, the third overall pick in 2018, to make room for Zach.

FLORHAM PARK, NEW JERSEY - JUNE 15: Zach Wilson #2 of the New York Jets runs drills during New York Jets Mandatory Minicamp on June 15, 2021 at Atlantic Health Jets Training Center in Florham Park, New Jersey. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images) | Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Still, there are reasons to believe Zach could be different. He has one of the strongest arms in the NFL, complemented by a natural athleticism that fuels his improvisational, backyard-football playing style. BYU fans might see echoes of Young’s pinballing, gun-slinging ways, but league experts also compare him to Patrick Mahomes, voted the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 2018. Both are accurate passers who can also make the spectacular throws, on the run or off-balance, that can eke out a win.

Zach is a known student of the game, a film study maven who has lived and breathed the sport from childhood, taught by his father to work hard and train conscientiously. And at BYU, he gained access to one of the best living libraries of quarterback greats to lean on for advice. 

He’ll need all that and a few lucky breaks.

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Even the biggest moments start small. A Saturday morning game ball, a boy’s first spiral. But in Zach’s childhood they didn’t happen by accident. Under his father’s watchful eye, he started playing organized football when he was seven years old.

“Even then he pushed me,” Zach told the Deseret News. “But not in a bad way.”

Imagine a fall afternoon in the Salt Lake Valley, sometime in the late-aughts. The air is crisp and a leaf blower hums in the distance. In a typical suburban neighborhood along the Wasatch Front, big stucco houses face a quiet street lined with minivans and Ford pickups. On a backyard lawn, a skinny little boy steps into a throw, zipping the football past his ear and flicking it to his father, a giant by comparison at 6’3”. If the scene seems idyllic, you haven’t been counting the reps. Palming the ball, Mike Wilson lobs it back to his son, nudging young Zach to watch his form. 

“My childhood,” Zach says, “was different than my friends’.” 

Mike knew better than most dads what it takes to compete on the highest level. He was an all-state defensive tackle back home in Hawaii and brought his own dreams to the University of Utah in 1992. But he played only sporadically for the Utes — who competed in three bowl games and shared a Western Athletic Conference title over the next four years — even after bulking up to 295 pounds. Four years later, Zach was born, and Mike joined the ranks of former college athletes who groom their children to exceed their own success. 

Zach’s upbringing was built around athletics, his exercise regimented, his participation in sports designed to challenge him and hone his skills. He played against older kids in both basketball and football — and often tore them up. At his peak, that translated to seven or eight games a week.

“Every weekend was crazy,” Zach says. “It was hard on a kid to be playing that much. I wanted to be a kid.” 

Like any modern teenager, he wanted to go to the movies with his friends or just hang out. But first, he had to train, lifting weights or going to the gym.

“Dad pushed me to work hard,” Zach says. “If I didn’t want to, he made me.”

At the same time, Zach wanted to win, no matter the circumstances. His father, an entrepreneur who owns a number of gas stations and convenience stores in the Salt Lake City area, just showed him how to do it. 

Mike hardly knew his own father. His parents divorced when he was small. His father was an alcoholic, and his mother struggled to pay the bills on her own. At 17, Mike couldn’t even afford a driver’s license. He refused to pass those shortcomings on to his children. So for all the times his own father wasn’t there, he would be there for his kids and teach them what he had to learn on his own. 

“I learned everything from him,” Zach says.

By the time he became a star at Corner Canyon High School, Zach had made Mike’s work ethic his own. All those long hours had formed his body, shaping a natural throwing motion that impressed his head coach and — soon — college recruiters. But after his junior season, he set out to build muscle on his 180-pound frame. His father fed him mounds of white rice and protein shakes, while Zach did bulking reps in the gym. By summer, he was up to 205 pounds, and he could bench press over 300. 

“He’s a driven kid,” says Corner Canyon head coach Eric Kjar. “When he has his eyes on something, he gets it done.” 

That fall, Zach showed the fruits of his labor on the artificial turf of Charger Stadium — tucked into a classic suburban campus with red brick buildings and a bell tower, nestled among white steeples in the Wasatch foothills. Playing against Timpview High, he lowered his shoulder on a designed run and knocked a defender right out of the game. Kjar was furious, chiding his star for not protecting himself.  

“That felt good,” Zach told him, with an impish grin.   

Zach can be a little obsessive, which means his college roommates know where to find him.

Past the pingpong table in the dining room, down the hall of the upscale town house in the Provo hills, owned by Zach’s dad, BYU wide receiver Gunner Romney finds his quarterback seated on a perfectly made bed, above a freshly vacuumed carpet, staring at a screen. The room is always immaculate, and as usual Zach is watching game tape. Today, the subject is Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers. 

“Zach studies more film than anybody I’ve ever met in my entire life,” Romney says. 

He’s been this way since he sauntered onto campus in January 2018, skipping his last semester of high school to join the Cougars for spring practice.

“He carried himself with this swagger that probably rubbed people the wrong way,” says Fesi Sitake, the assistant coach who recruited Zach with the promise he could play in front of his hometown fans as soon as he earned it.

So Zach came in ready to compete.

“He knew the offense better than anyone else on the team,” says Aaron Roderick, then BYU’s quarterbacks coach. 

Around that time, a relative referred Zach to John Beck. The BYU alum and NFL retiree has become one of the nation’s top private coaches for quarterbacks, with clients like Matt Ryan and Drew Brees. Even in their first conversation, as he and Zach talked through defensive coverages, Beck could see how much time his younger counterpart spent practicing, studying and thinking about football. “You can always tell,” he says. 

After Zach lost the starting job to Tanner Mangum, a senior, he kept studying film, averaging four or five hours per day. So he was ready to step in as Mangum struggled midway through the season.

Zach came on in relief and led the Cougars to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, where he played like a master. That afternoon he completed all 18 of his passes for 317 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions — an unusual feat for anybody, much less a true freshman.

BYU quarterback Zach Wilson moves under pressure from the Western Michigan Broncos defense during the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl at Albertsons Stadium in Boise on Friday, Dec. 21, 2018. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Head coach Kalani Sitake credits Zach’s study habits. “His work ethic is unique,” he says. “A lot of people work hard. But I don’t know how many people really think about football like Zach does.” 

One night after a game, Beck sends Zach a text with some generic congratulations for a job well done. Zach answers right away. “Have you watched the game yet?” he asks. “I’m watching it now,” Beck answers. “Me too,” Zach writes. It’s well past midnight, but there he is, studying his own tape.

For Beck, that devotion is heartening. “It’s the common thread that is found in almost all the guys that are successful,” he says. “Outside of his physical ability, those were the types of things that made me say, ‘I believe in this kid.’” 

Sometimes, it’s not enough. Because sometimes, it’s out of your control. 

It doesn’t feel that way when Zach drops back into his own end zone with 35 seconds on the game clock. The ball is in his hands, his team’s fate on his back. He is 92 yards from a touchdown, six points that will give BYU the narrowest lead and the win. He is the perfect player to save the Cougars’ perfect season, keeping them undefeated for the first time since 1984. And he knows it. Stepping up, he launches a familiar heave down the right sideline, where Romney jumps up between two defenders to haul it in.

The Cougars are still alive. Barely.

The 2020 season wasn’t even supposed to happen once the pandemic hit. But some innovative scheduling made BYU the only team on the field west of the Rocky Mountains, at least for a few weeks.

After losing his sophomore season to a nagging shoulder injury, Zach won the starting job in training camp and set out to court the hype. Borrowing from Jim McMahon, he wore a headband on game day, reading, “Any team, time, place.” 

Nobody expected greatness from these Cougars. But sometimes, a team comes together. Zach’s play elevated the offense, and they feasted on a schedule put together with duct tape and baling wire. They won the opener against Navy. They beat Troy. And Louisiana Tech. And they kept winning, their first nine games.

So it made sense to accept the challenge when undefeated Coastal Carolina came calling, looking to fill a last-minute hole on the schedule after an opponent was ruled out over COVID-19 protocols. In December, on just a few days’ notice, the Cougars traveled across the country to play the Chanticleers in the biggest game in recent BYU history. ESPN’s “College Gameday” even came to chronicle the battle of Cinderella squads. It was Zach’s biggest chance yet to shine in front of a national audience. 

Now all he has to do is get 58 more yards in 24 seconds, with no timeouts. He moves in the pocket, he scrambles, he zips quick passes, efficiently moving the ball down to the 18-yard line and stopping the clock at three seconds. With his legacy on the line, he steps back for one last play. His blockers hold up. Dax Milne comes open over the middle. He darts it. Milne catches the pass a mere two yards from the goal line, at full sprint. He’s about to score.

Until he’s not. A defender wraps Milne’s waist and throws him backward. Just like that, it’s over. The game, the magic. All of it.

Later, reporters wait to get Zach’s reaction at the postgame press conference. He isn’t made available, and he’s silent about the game on social media.

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Zach gnaws on blue chewing gum. His thick brown hair is still walled up in front, without a bead of sweat to weigh it down. TV cameras broadcast his calm across the nation as he trots around BYU’s indoor practice facility in a long-sleeved blue T-shirt, gray leggings and white cleats, looking like a racehorse ready to rumble. 

A horde of scouts, coaches and executives from all but one NFL team have descended on Provo to see him throw and assess his value in the upcoming draft, with millions of dollars and a future at stake. But if Zach is nervous, he doesn’t show it.  

On BYUtv, the announcer makes a prediction: No BYU pro day will ever be this big again. “This is the top of the mountain,” he says.

For prospective NFL players, pro day is their chance to show off. They choose which events will highlight their strengths, and a great performance can launch them up draft boards. Zach is already a projected top-three pick, and he can erase any doubts with a strong showing. But he can also generate unwanted questions if he comes up short, though that seems unlikely. Just look around.  

After three decades of mediocrity, BYU is back at the center of the football universe, at least for these few hours. Mark Pope, the men’s basketball coach, chats with Kalani Sitake near the 50-yard line. Vai Sikahema, the former Cougar and two-time Pro Bowler in the NFL, chats with Zach under the aggressive hum of fluorescent lights. Anyone with a stake in BYU wants to be here. 

Quarterback Zach Wilson throws during BYU pro day in Provo.
Quarterback Zach Wilson throws during BYU pro day in Provo on Friday, March 26, 2021. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Zach and Beck have choreographed every attempt, starting with something simple: a 10-yard out route. Zach pops the ball right into his receiver’s hands. Easy. On social media, as the throws grow increasingly difficult, would-be experts dissect every attempt, every interaction, looking for validation of their opinions, positive or negative. But don’t you dare bring up the past, as the NFL Network announcers do. “How could you take the guy in the top five when he couldn’t even beat Coastal Carolina?”  

The announcer trails off as Zach — as if in direct response — fakes a handoff to his right and scrambles to his left. His receiver fakes left to the outside, then slants right across the middle of the field toward the end zone. Even if this is all a sort of illusion, a manufactured reality with nobody playing defense, the pressure is real, and Zach needs to nail this throw. Falling back toward his left, he flings the ball to his right, some 60 yards downfield.

“Oh my goodness,” the announcer says. “That is just a silly throw.” Within minutes, a clip of the pass goes viral.

Chris Simms, a former NFL quarterback and current draft analyst for NBC Sports, has trumpeted Zach longer than anyone.

“I’m blown away by Zach Wilson,” he said on his podcast back in March. “This is an Aaron Rodgers, a Patrick Mahomes, Brett Favre-ish type guy.” 

If it were up to Simms, he would’ve made Zach the top pick in the draft. He can throw a football in a way that few other living humans can — even humans who dedicate their lives to throwing footballs. 

After his fourth practice in New Jersey, Zach approaches the press conference lectern in sneakers, a white tee and a gray Jets ball cap. He leans with his left elbow on the dais, his frost-blue eyes panning across the assembled reporters. He answers questions about his first day in pads; about his offensive line; about sharing a birthday with Tom Brady, who played his first NFL season, Zach points out, when Zach was a year old.

For now, it’s friendly banter. Even for jaded reporters, it’s nice to have something hopeful to write about for a change. Especially now that Zach looks comfortable. 

That wasn’t the case on draft night, when he couldn’t seem to figure out his place in the moment. Watching from couches across America, viewers doubted he could make it in New York.

“NY is gonna chew this kid up and spit him out,” one wrote on Twitter. “When (you’re) trying really hard to fit in and (it’s) just not working,” another tweeted, borrowing the language of a meme. “Not sure how he’s going to lead a bunch of teammates who aren’t the BYU-type in the biggest (media) market in the world under a new head coach,” somebody added.

New York, itself, has been an adjustment. “There are some aggressive drivers here,” Zach said during a conference call in May. “Getting used to that, getting cut off everywhere you go. But really, I feel like I’m at home.” Where that is, exactly, remains confidential, but for now, Zach is safe and isolated in small-town New Jersey. 

“One thing I love about being out here is the distance away from the city,” he says after a recent practice. “We’re all here to focus on ball.” 

The implicit jab at New York doesn’t go unnoticed, but for now, Zach gets a pass. After all, he’s new here. And he’s got that arm. But eventually, there will be no hiding. If football players are modern gladiators, New York is Rome. 

It sure isn’t Provo. 

Keen as he is on that familiar quiet lifestyle, Zach says it’s cool to be just close enough to explore the bright lights. And he’s made the rounds. Video from a New York Islanders hockey game shows him shouting “woo” at the ice alongside some of his offensive linemen, while one of them chugs a cold beverage and smashes the can against his own head. An Instagram post shows Zach enjoying a Knicks playoff game at Madison Square Garden.

For now, he can take this approach, stick his toes in the water without immersing himself. It’s the honeymoon period, after all, and the people want to see their great new hope. But will he still go to those games after he throws three picks and loses to the Miami Dolphins?  

One can imagine a world where everything goes right. Where a few years from now Zach pulls up on Broadway in a chauffeured car and emerges to the sights and sounds of a Manhattan night.

In the country’s unofficial cultural and financial capital, arguably the nexus of the world, he blends into the unceasing honking and the passersby flowing like rivers over the sidewalks, savoring the aroma of street-side falafel or roasted nuts. Until someone recognizes him, and the crowd mobs him asking for photos and autographs, because New York loves a winner. He looks up at the Jolly Green Giant ads in Times Square smiling down on him.  

And he can’t help but smile back. 

That will all change quickly if he can’t deliver. The scrutiny will be ruthless. It won’t matter why, whether the Jets fail to build around him or his backyard style gets him injured beyond repair. If he can’t win, this city will tear him apart.  

Not that his home crowd will care.

Back in Utah County, a white Amazon bag crinkles onto the porch in Spanish Fork just before noon. Despite the triple-digit heat of a high-desert summer, seven-year-old Cooper Russell charges from the comfort of his air-conditioned home. He’s been waiting for this package for a long time.  

His wait, in the overarching sense, started in the 1940s, when his great-grandparents met at BYU. Later, they became student body president and vice president, they established the Cougarettes dance team, and before long, started a family. Three generations and 80 years later, that family still proudly supports its school.  

His wait, in the more personal sense, started at a BYU men’s basketball game in 2019, where he happened to meet a young football player just off his triumphant freshman season. “I met the quarterback. His name is Zach,” he told his mom, Heather, when he came home. “He fist-bumped me and made me feel like I was so cool.” He was Zach’s biggest fan for the next two years.  

And his wait, in the most literal sense, began on the opening night of the 2021 NFL draft. He’d tried to convince his parents to let him stay home from school that day for fear of missing Zach’s selection. “Buddy, it’s not until later tonight,” Heather told him. “I promise you’re not gonna miss anything.” When the moment finally arrived, and the Jets took Zach second overall, Cooper knew he only wanted one thing for his approaching birthday.  

Cooper’s feelings are perhaps the purest distillation of something many BYU fans share. And there are indeed many. “Our fan base isn’t just Utah or the surrounding states — our fan base is around the world,” Bosco says.

And considering what Zach gave those fans, they adore him. Just look at some snapshots from his final game as a Cougar, the Boca Raton Bowl.  

In one, Zach holds a purple iPhone, flanked by fans, smiling for a selfie on a balmy winter night in South Florida. Both fans wear masks, but one has gray hair and another is clearly a child.   

In another, Zach holds a Sharpie in hand and grabs at a pair of gloves from a fan, but his eyes gaze past the blond kid, up into the stands and on to the totality of the moment, at the people who have stayed to meet him, and his expression says, I am lucky.  

One more. Now, look into their eyes. A whole row of fans, leaning against the edge of the metal bleachers, creasing their blue sweaters and jerseys, craning their necks to get a good look at their hero. It’s a climax of correctness; of what it looks like when things go right; a portrait of “making it.” 

Whatever New York may think, the Cougar faithful will be watching. 

Just ask Steve Young. He grew up as the only Latter-day Saint in a high school of 3,000. When he saw one of his own doing anything well, he noticed. 

“There’s a sense of community, and that’s very positive,” he says. “But I could see where if you don’t have the right way to see it, or a healthy way to see it, it could become something not so positive.” 

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Zach has said he doesn’t want to be the face of anything; he just wants to play ball. But for fans like Cooper, that is enough.  

Sporting a heavy gel comb-over and flashing a gap-toothed smile, the boy shreds the packaging. Soon, Heather, at work, receives a snapshot blurred by excitement. Cooper might as well be holding up Superman’s cape, but it’s a green No. 2 New York Jets jersey, “Wilson” stitched across the back.

“Well,” Cooper says, “I guess I’m a Jets fan now.” 

This story appears in the September issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.

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