April 16, 2019

O’Leary: Wilkinson holds firsthand experience of dedication to football

Peter Power/CFL.ca

Zach Wilkinson had the date circled on his calendar from the second he’d committed to the University of Northern Colorado Bears in 2014.

The first game of their season was in Las Vegas against UNLV. The fresh faced recruit from Vancouver had trained hard all summer, but he’d gone particularly hard in practice that week.

“My freshman year I didn’t know exactly where I was going to fit into the picture,” he said.

“I figured I would red shirt and my whole goal, the first game of the season was in UNLV and I remember that I wanted to travel for that trip. That was my goal. After that if they redshirt me, then fine.”

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Wilkinson plays in a game as a member of the University of Northern Colorado Bears (Northern Colorado)

He’d gotten the OK to travel early in that week but he didn’t slow down in practice. He remembers on Wednesday, three days out from catching his flight and four days from game day, exactly what had happened.

He was blocking someone in practice when his hand jammed. He knew right away that a bone had broken.

“I knew pretty quick, like this is not…it doesn’t really feel really good,” Wilkinson said.

“But I knew there was no way I was going to miss this trip.”

So Wilkinson kept his mouth shut and kept his gloves on in practice on that Wednesday, then again in practice on Thursday and Friday, while a broken bone in his right hand turned his skin black and blue. The team noticed his hand after they’d landed in Las Vegas. The team was mad, but after the anger settled, the coaches realized they had something special.

“Obviously those things bother me because you’ve got to tell the coach, right?,” said Trevor Wikre, Wilkinson’s o-line coach. “But I love the fact that he never said anything and went and got the job done. It shows that dedication to the team and their craft and what they’re doing.”

Wilkinson may not have known it, just a few weeks into his time with the Bears program, but he’d found a common ground with his o-line coach. As a player at Div II Mesa State College in Grand Junction, Colo. Wikre suffered a severe dislocation of his pinky finger in practice. Rather than take the season-ending, six-month recovery time, Wikre opted to amputate the finger. The story made headlines across the US when it happened in 2008.

“Zach is one of those cases where he was never going to pull himself out, so I had to make sure I watched him with both eyes to make sure he wasn’t in when he shouldn’t be in,” Wikre said.

With a cast on his hand in his freshman season, Wilkinson played some blocking tight end and some offensive line, getting on the field for three games. By his second season he’d locked down the starting gig at right tackle and held onto it through his senior season this past year.

“I was so determined,” Wilkinson said of the broken bone.

“That was my goal and I’m a very goal-oriented person. It’d be one thing if I wasn’t good enough…but I did everything. I tried to do it all the right way and then an injury is going to keep me out? No way am I going to let that happen.

“I realized (through that), if I could make it through playing o-line with a broken hand I could make it through anything.”

Four years (and one medical redshirt season) later, Wilkinson has taken the same approach to extending his football career. After a strong showing at the CFL Combine presented by New Era, the six-foot-five, 285-pounder saw his stock soar in the final edition of the CFL Scouting Bureau’s rankings. When the final edition before the May 2 draft released last week, he’d jumped from No. 17 to No. 4. Wilkinson was the biggest gainer in the 20-man list.

Impressed by his showing at the combine in Toronto, teams have been busy reaching out to him over the last few weeks, trying to get a better feel for a player that it seems like everyone is considering drafting.

“That’s great news but at the end of the day none of those mean anything until a team calls you (on draft day),” Wilkinson said.

“You try not to get yourself wrapped up in those things and remain humble to the process and be thankful for everything that’s happening.”

The combine provides a quick glimpse for every GM, scout and coach in the league. Wilkinson went into that weekend in late March trying to stand out. His testing numbers were average for his position and were bolstered by a seventh-place finish in the bench press (23 reps). He made everyone take notice in the one-on-ones.

Up against Concordia defensive lineman Michael Sanelli, Wilkinson denied him, threw him to the turf and let out a loud expletive and yelled, “NOPE! Not on me!”

“It’d be one thing if I wasn’t good enough…but I did everything. I tried to do it all the right way and then an injury is going to keep me out? No way am I going to let that happen.”

Zach Wilkinson on his broken hand

Wilkinson (right) and Sanelli (left) talk after the one-on-one session at the combine in Toronto (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

If it wasn’t the only trash talking moment in the combine, it was certainly the loudest and it brought all eyes to the fired up o-lineman that was tasked with protecting only a tackling dummy.

It fired up Sanelli, too and the two had a strong second encounter before the one-on-ones wrapped up.

“I’m definitely more of a vocal player. I really appreciate the part of the game where between two whistles, two guys want to take each other’s heads off,” Wilkinson said at the combine. “But when it’s done we can shake hands and say, ‘Hey, that was a lot of fun, looking forward to seeing you again.’

“I think that’s real special. You don’t get that in a lot of other places in sports.”

In the team interviews the night before the one-on-ones, Wilkinson had promised teams that they’d hear him out on the field talking trash. One scout said at the combine that he was happy to see Wilkinson out on the field with a fire in his belly, staying true to his word.

“He was (a player) that always held himself to a higher standard,” Wikre said of Wilkinson.

“Those are things that you really look for as you recruit players. Every day as a sophomore, when he started playing he took over the right tackle position because he worked so hard to get it right. Credit to him, he worked his ass off to be in that position.”

Hard work is what Wilkinson grew up around. He reveres his mother, Melanie, who raised him on her own. He wants his post-football career to be years away still, but he wants to help kids in his situation, to try to support them in some of the ways Melanie did for him.

“She works her butt off,” he said.

“She’s been my biggest fan, biggest supporter from Day 1. I’m so lucky to have her. She’s so excited for the draft. She’s always asking me where I think I’ll go.

“It’s great for me to accomplish this and make a dream come true but it’s nice to see for her, that all of her dedication to me is paying off. She’s great.”

These next few weeks will be busy and life altering for Wilkinson. He’ll write his final exams at Northern Colorado this month, graduating with a degree in philosophy and communications and a minor in business administration. He’ll graduate on May 4, two days after the CFL draft. From there, he says he’ll be ready to go from the grad stage to his new CFL home. Those that have spent time around him know he’ll be ready for what’s next.

Wikre’s CFL connections are limited, save for having former Alouettes and BC Lions coach Kay Dalton as a mentor. He watched film of Wilkinson at the combine last month though and was impressed by the speed of the defensive linemen.

“They’ve got some cats that can scoot off of the ball,” he said.

“That’s the type of challenge that Zach loves. I know this much. He’s going to work his ass off to be in that position (to play) and get that job done.”