A few short months ago, nobody knew whether Utah quarterback Travis Wilson would ever play football again. On Thurs. Aug. 28, a few weeks after being cleared to play, Wilson took to the field against FCS opponent Idaho State to open the season.
His wild mane again flowing under his crimson helmet in a dry summer breeze wafting in from the mountains, Wilson felt fine–to borrow a line from a 70s tune. He took in a sip of the air before him, and of the 45,000-plus fans packed into Rice-Eccles Stadium in red and white sections–representing a sort of candy cane look to the otherwise serious festivities.
The Utah Utes football team had suffered through two straight 5-7 seasons–a total of three wins in Pac-12 Conference play. It was opening night in Salt Lake City, and Wilson–whose recent decisions have already been a bit, um, immature based on an underage drinking ticket he got–stepped behind center for the first time since last winter.
It must have felt like it was Christmas in August to Wilson because he hadn’t played since Arizona State players knocked his melon nearly off of his helmet–leading in a matter of speaking to the diagnosis that he may never again strap on a helmet to play.
Rice-Eccles was the place for Wilson on Thurs. Aug. 28 though, a haven where he could be that goofy, likable 20-year old again, throwing on the run like few quarterbacks in America can–or taking off and running like a baby giraffe looking for his mother, er, the first down marker.
Wilson’s No. 7 jersey and 6-7 stature dwarfed every player on that football field–and Utah won easily in a 56-14 rout of undermanned and overwhelmed Idaho State, but there were questions to be asked of Wilson’s decision making.
When under duress, would Wilson hook slide like Brian Johnson learned to do after suffering multiple concussions and a torn ACL–or would Wilson continue to adopt his devil-may-care attitude that belied his flowing mane, his Adonis features and if so, would he still fly into harm’s way for a few extra yards?
Those questions were answered emphatically, possibly haphazardly for a guy who suffered an intracranial brain injury, with 2:59 left to play in the first quarter–punctuating a first 15 minutes in which he completed four of five passes for 88 yards as well.
Geez, it was painful to watch Wilson decide to make a break for it though. In your heart of hearts, you knew that based on how the Utes scheme their offensive plays, a broken play would result in Wilson running for his life.
When you’re young like Wilson though, you don’t think about what might happen next. When you’re a quarterback on a Division I football team that hasn’t been to a bowl game in three years and your own livelihood–quarterbacking for the U–is touch and go at best with a transfer from Oklahoma, Charles Thompson’s son no less, waiting on the sidelines if you fail, you go for it.
You take that leap, defying death, defying gravity and frankly, defying all odds. You turn the corner and you head for the pylon. And so, Wilson did–defying doctor’s orders, common sense and the Idaho State linebacker attempting to spear him with his helmet–as he leapt over the pylon for six in his brand new Under Armour jersey with mountains for its sleeves.
Wilson collapsed in a heap of red jersey, human flesh and pads into an end zone painted red–feeling as strong and happy as ever afterwards. His two-yard dive made every highlight film you can think of–not because he took the dive, but because he took the dive months after suffering a severe injury to his brain that could have killed him.
Wilson would go on to run three more times for 10 yards–in addition to his death-defying leap for a touchdown. His decisions throwing the football were more impressive than his running He completed 13 of 18 passes for 265 yards, and one TD run and pass apiece in two quarters of action.
“It was great. I feel really blessed to have the opportunity to come back and play. It is great to be back with this team and these coaches,” Wilson said post-game. “It was a great start to the season, but there are still some things we need to improve.”
Wilson’s tight spiral down his left sideline to receiver Kenneth Scott–another Ute making a comeback from a serious injury–for a 26-yard touchdown in the second quarter was just as impressive as his 2-yard dive early on. Wilson’s TD throw to Scott was so precise that the only place it could have reached was over the shoulder of Scott’s outstretched, 6-foot-3-inch, 208-pound frame.
“It’s nice to have Kenneth Scott back and to have Tim Patrick as well. There are definitely a lot of weapons that will allow us to spread the ball around,” Wilson said post-game. “We seem to be getting better and all of us are getting on the same page. It is just nice to have everyone healthy.”
Then came the second half, and on came Wilson’s competition, OU transfer Kendal Thompson. Sure, Charles’ son razzled and dazzled a bit, reminding you of the Sooner legend a bit.
Thompson even weaved through the ISU D-line, leaving several players to grab at the mountain air instead of his red jersey on a busted play for a 10-yard gain. Yet Thompson didn’t want it like Wilson wanted it.
Thompson’s numbers were decidedly average (6-10, 69 yards passing, sacked twice). To Wilson, his first game back was the difference, in his own mind perhaps, between life and death.