Football

Zach Wilson’s dad Mike Wilson has mentored hundreds of athletes

DRAPER — After he had “no relationship at all” with his father because his parents divorced when he was in the first grade and he was raised by a single mother, former University of Utah defensive lineman Mike Wilson vowed when he had children of his own he would give them the kind of childhood he never experienced growing up in Hawaii.

“I guess we just have high expectations and expect a strong work ethic. They all seem to work really hard. We push them. It doesn’t have to be sports. It could be anything. We have just told our kids that they have to do something, and whatever they do, they have to give it their best. No shortcuts.” — Mike Wilson

He also swore that he would never be a coach.

But to the benefit of hundreds of athletes around the Salt Lake Valley, including his four sons, he’s only made good on one of those promises.

When his oldest son Zach, who would go on to become BYU’s starting quarterback and the second overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft, was 5 years old, Mike’s wife Lisa signed Zach up to play flag football.

A week later, the Wilsons got an email saying Zach’s team needed a coach.

“I am like, ‘I am not coaching,’” Mike said. “I’ll do anything they want so I can be involved, but I’m not going to be the coach.”

Two weeks went by, and still nobody had signed up to coach. Another email said if nobody stepped up to coach, the boys might not be able to play.

“I told them again, ‘I don’t want to coach. I don’t want any part of that part of it,’” Mike said.

Anybody who knows the Wilson family can probably guess what happened next. Lisa signed Mike up to coach. He reluctantly accepted, and he hasn’t stopped coaching, or spending enormous amounts of time with his six children — two daughters sandwiched around four sons — ever since.

“I had no idea how much I would enjoy it, or enjoy working with my boys, or coaching other kids,” Mike said. “So I kinda blame her, because she kinda created a monster, I guess.”

Eighteen years after Mike became Zach’s flag football coach, the Wilsons have produced the following starting lineup:

• Oldest daughter Whitney, a professional dancer who began performing around the world with Odyssey Dance when she was 16.

• Oldest son Zach, who wanted to follow his father’s footsteps to Utah but was not given a chance there so he eventually signed with BYU and is now a backup quarterback for the NFL’s New York Jets.

• Middle sons Josh and Micah, who followed Zach to BYU — as linebackers. Both players recently retired from football due to lingering injuries.

• Four-star quarterback Isaac, who will be a senior at Corner Canyon High this fall and recently committed to play football for his parents’ alma mater, Utah.

• Youngest daughter Sophie, who just made Corner Canyon’s varsity cheer squad as an incoming freshman.

Sports Father of the Year?

In a lengthy interview covering all of his kids’ accomplishments, Mike comes off as proud of Sophie’s achievement as any thing her five older siblings have done, which seems to be part of the Wilsons’ secret.  

“I guess we just have high expectations and expect a strong work ethic,” Mike said. “They all seem to work really hard. We push them. It doesn’t have to be sports. It could be anything. We have just told our kids that they have to do something, and whatever they do, they have to give it their best. No shortcuts.”

If an award for being the “Father of the Year in Utah Sports” was ever created, this guy would be a multiple winner. Heck, they should name the award after him.

In a lengthy interview with the Deseret News in 2020 when he was at the height of his success at BYU, Zach Wilson said his father was “by far the greatest influence in my development as a quarterback and a person,” and that father and son spoke nightly on the telephone, sometimes for nearly an hour.

Tuesday, shortly after returning to Utah from the Jets’ offseason workouts, Zach had this description of his father:

“Extremely passionate. For me and all my siblings growing up, it was different than what my friends experienced,” Zach said. “It wasn’t always about going out there and having fun. He was so competitive, and he pushed us so hard, that sometimes it always wasn’t the funnest thing when we were younger.

“But he wanted us to be great, and he believed that we could always be better, so he could be really hard on us sometimes if we didn’t perform or do well. So he instilled a strong work ethic in us. … It was an every day thing, dad just wanting us to get better.”

After a rather spirited discussion between father and son at a seven-on-seven tournament last Friday in Layton, Isaac offered up this description of his dad:

“He is a very powerful guy. He wants what is best for you. He is critical when critical is needed, when it is that time. That is really what makes him who he is. I mean, he is a great, loving person. But when it is time to get down to work, grind it out, and really get down to the details, he can be critical with it, and get you just right.

“We have the same end goal. … He’s just a great dad overall. I mean, he is more than just that football dad that everyone sees. He and I always go fishing, too. I love him. He’s just a great dude.”

Now 23 and one of the most well-known professional athletes ever produced by the Beehive State, Zach says he can still remember those days as a youngster when it was just he and his dad, training, lifting weights, shooting baskets, throwing the football around while all his friends were inside playing video games.

“When I finally got to the age where I knew I wanted to pursue sports, and didn’t want to be a kid who just wanted to go play with friends, then I really started to appreciate how much time and effort he put into it, and how it has paid off in the end,” Zach said.

What makes Mike Wilson tick?

To understand Mike Wilson’s zealous dedication to fatherhood and his family is to understand what he had been through in the 18 years before he arrived at the University of Utah to play defensive line for head coach Ron McBride, defensive coordinator Fred Whittingham and then-Utah defensive line coach Kyle Whittingham.

Mike was born in Washington while his father was serving in the military, but the family returned to their native Hawaii when he was a toddler and he grew up on Oahu under difficult and challenging circumstances.

“My father just wasn’t a big part of my life. We never saw him, really. Didn’t have much contact with him throughout my life. It was just me and my sister and my mom,” Mike said. “When I got married, I just wanted to be a better father than what I had.”

Because his single mother was always working to support her family, Mike was largely responsible for the upbringing of his sisters, and one died of a brain tumor when she was 9, he told the Deseret News in 2019.

At Utah, he was a member of the 1994 team that went 10-2 and finished No. 10 in the final AP national poll. He was sidelined in 1995 by a knee injury, and would eventually have seven knee surgeries to repair the damage. He never got a senior season, never came close to getting drafted — like Zach did.

Mike earned a degree in sociology from the U. and was going to return to his beloved Hawaii until he met and married the former Lisa Neeleman, whose deep family ties to Utah have been well-documented. 

As a tribute to his first adopted home state, Mike and Lisa have given all six of their children Hawaiian middle names. Zach’s is Kapono, which means “righteous,” while Isaac’s is Kawika, which means “beloved.” Mike has a Hawaiian middle name, too.

“It’s Kalani,” he said, chuckling because that’s the shortened name of BYU’s head coach, Kelaokalani Sitake.

When it was time to choose a profession, Mike had a decision to make: take a job offer from the fire department — which would take him away from his family quite often — or buy his own business, in this case the Neelemans’ gas station/convenience store, which was up for sale. He and Lisa bought the store in part so he could have more scheduling freedom, and the gamble paid off.

Since then, he’s acquired more Chevron gas stations and is a successful businessman and entrepreneur. Consequently, he has more time to spend being a father.

“It has been good. I am able to create my own schedule, so if I need to work late at night because I took some time off during the day, I am able to do that,” he said. “It has been a blessing to have a flexible schedule because it takes a lot of time when you are trying to coach all these kids, and trying to go to all their games, and trying to work them out. It has been crazy.”

And he always, always takes time to talk to his kids, Zach said.

“If I go a day or two without calling him, he is like, ‘I haven’t talked to you in forever, what is going on?’ He is one of those guys. He expects that phone call every day for at least an hour and we share pretty much everything that goes on.”

A father figure to many — on both sides of Utah-BYU rivalry

Mike Wilson has not only coached his own sons through the years, he’s coached hundreds of other youngsters, primarily in football and basketball. At last count, more than 45 boys he has coached through the years have gone on to receive Division I offers in football, basketball or baseball, guys such as former BYU football players Dax Milne, Dallin Holker and Brayden Cosper, current Utes linebacker Lander Barton, former Utes basketball player Jaxon Brenchley and former Arizona star and Golden State Warriors’ draft pick Nico Mannion, to name just a few.

“Everybody loves him because they know he has their best interest at heart,” Isaac said. “He does have a soft side, probably 90-10, tough guy to soft guy (ratio), that sounds about right.”

Zach concurred with his brother: “He always shoots it straight. If we are ever making excuses, he never allows it. … He is definitely just very hard-headed. But he pushed us so dang hard that I didn’t realize back then that that is what helped me to grow and get better so quickly.”

One of Mike’s techniques for improving was to put Zach and some of his siblings into leagues with older kids, kids sometimes two or three grades ahead of his kids.

“I was always playing up,” Zach said. “I never played with my age group in football or basketball, so it was challenging. I didn’t think I was very good. So when I finally got to high school and had to play against kids my own grade, it got easy.”

As Corner Canyon’s highly successful head football coach, Eric Kjar has coached all four of Wilson’s sons on the gridiron and has seen firsthand how dedicated Mike is to his kids and their teammates.

“He does a really good job of pushing them to be their best. If they have goals, he will do whatever he can to help get them there, whether it is training or motivation or putting enough pressure on them to where they are working to succeed,” Kjar said. “He just loves them up, too. He is really good to all the kids.”

Mike Wilson has done it all for free, never receiving as much as a dime for his efforts.

Well, sort of. 

A few months ago, Zach bought a new GMC Sierra pickup truck for his father, “all souped up and everything,” Mike said, with a mixture of excitement, humility and gratitude. “Not for Father’s Day, but just because he wanted to get me something to say thank you, I guess.”

Is the big rig red or blue?

“Black,” Mike says succinctly. “We still fly both flags, you know.”

That would be the flags of BYU and Utah, for those unaware of the Wilson family’s growing and important contributions to Utah-BYU rivalry lore.

Isaac Wilson made his own decision

So let’s get to that now; Isaac Wilson has decided against following his three brothers to BYU and is headed to Utah, his father’s alma mater. Did Mike play a role in that decision?

“Yeah, of course I was involved,” Mike said. “I tried to give him every opportunity to make his own decision. We spent time everywhere. We went to Arizona, Arizona State, Rutgers, Oklahoma, Alabama — went to their (A) camp — LSU, Miami, UCLA. We have been to so many places, seen camps and visited campuses.

“And it was good for Isaac to see, and as these offers started coming in, he was able to make his own decision and I just kinda guided him,” Mike continued. “I wanted it to be his decision. I didn’t want to make the decision for him. I wanted him to feel comfortable with his choice. And it is always hard, because with everything he does, he is compared to Zach.”

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New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson watches as his brother, Corner Canyon quarterback Isaac Wilson, plays in a 6A football semifinal against Farmington at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Even though he sent his three oldest sons to BYU (after Utah never offered Zach a scholarship), Mike has always maintained a good relationship with Utes coach Kyle Whittingham and some of his former teammates who are now on Utah’s staff: cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah, defensive line coach Lewis Powell and defensive tackles coach Luther Elliss.

“It’s just tough,” Mike said, summing up the recruiting process. “Isaac is just a little kid who is trying to live up to his brother. It is unnecessary pressure. So what I did was I gave him the opportunity to visit a lot of schools and talk to a lot of people, and then he pretty much made his own decision at the end.”

How have BYU coaches received the news of Isaac’s decision?

“It was good. It’s been fine,” Mike said. “I think a lot of people were shocked that Isaac picked Utah, but he just felt it was the right fit for him at this time.”

Managing the ‘circus’ of the elite sports circuit

Zach Wilson wasn’t always destined to be a starting quarterback in the NFL. Growing up, he gravitated more toward basketball, with his father coaching him on Junior Jazz and all-star traveling teams from second grade all the way through eighth grade.

Mike also coached his other three sons, and has coached various age-group teams to multiple overall state championships in youth basketball.

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The Wilson tribe, from left to right: Micah, Isaac, Zach, Sophie, Mike, Lisa, Josh and Whitney.

“I think I won four or five (state championships) with Zach, because Zach was so good as a basketball player when he was younger,” Mike said. “They were all on super competitive teams, all did travel basketball, all competed at a high level. Basketball was like our second love, behind football. Actually, we probably spent more time in basketball than we did football, for all the boys.”

During basketball season, the boys would average three to five games a week, each. 

Mike recalls one Saturday years ago when the Wilson boys had 12 basketball games, keeping mom and dad busy driving around the valley from 8 a.m. until 9 p.m. Zach figures he played in 120 to 130 youth basketball games a year between second and eighth grade.

“It was kind of a circus, with us traveling all over the place, managing schedules, relying on friends and family to help us get the boys where they needed to be,” Mike said.

When they weren’t at games, they were practicing with their teams or individually.

“I would take them to the gym at least three times a week where we would shoot and dribble and do other drills, just trying to get better,” Mike said.

As was noted in an in-depth profile of Zach Wilson before the 2021 NFL draft, the Wilsons always had a football with them in vehicles, and oftentimes the boys would accompany their mother to a grocery store, then play catch in the parking lot with their father while Lisa shopped inside.

“We used every minute we could just to keep throwing, keep working on it,” Mike said. “The boys loved it, so we kept at it.”

When fall rolled around, it was all football, all the time. Mike Wilson coached his sons in the Ute Conference league, and won a bunch of state championships there, too. 

He’s often asked why Josh and Micah didn’t become quarterbacks, like Zach and Isaac. The short answer is that Josh was a bigger kid when he was younger, so he played some offensive line, some running back, before gravitating to linebacker.

Micah didn’t play little league football until he was in the seventh grade, and liked catching the football more than throwing it, so he was a receiver at first and then moved over to the defensive side and became a linebacker, like Josh.

“One of my favorite memories was going out in the mornings and doing some footwork drills and then at the end of it, dad would let us all do one-on-ones, and he would play quarterback and throw to us,” Isaac said. “We would just play in the back yard, all five of us. That was a fun time.”

Zach said a lot of people don’t understand that his father did all that coaching voluntarily, with no compensation, and would often pay out of his own pocket so less fortunate kids could participate as well.

“He literally just loves it. He does it because he is passionate about it,” Zach said. “He will go help coach just to help coach. He doesn’t really care about doing anything else. He just does it to be around it.”

Some fatherly advice — on fathering

Mike Wilson doesn’t claim to be the perfect father, and acknowledges that because he didn’t have an involved father growing up, he was “just flying by the seat of my pants, trying to figure things out.” For instance, when it became apparent that Zach was going to be a quarterback — “Nobody else on the (second grade) team could throw,” he said — they spent a lot of time watching YouTube videos and the like.

He made some mistakes along the way, he says, as all dads do. Perhaps the biggest one is that he tended to take it a little too seriously, at times, and didn’t stop and smell the roses enough.

“I would just say, ‘enjoy it, it goes by a lot faster than people realize,’” he said when asked what advice he would give other young mothers and fathers with sons and daughters in sports. “Just realize that it doesn’t last forever.

“I would just say work hard, have fun, make memories,” he continued. “Use it so when you look back years later, it is something you can reflect back on and be happy about. I guess that would be my advice.”

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Five of the six Wilson kids pose for a picture during their youth. From left to right: Isaac, Micah, Whitney, Zach and Josh. Not pictured is the Wilsons’ youngest child Sophie.

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