The worst of it for Travis Wilson wasn’t the day he was hit hard enough that his brain ricocheted off the inside of his skull, bruising it and causing him to be concussed, to suffer headaches, leading doctors to test his gray matter to measure the effects and the extent of the damage. It wasn’t a week or so later, when those doctors first informed him that a scan had shown a possible abnormality. And it wasn’t after physicians shot dye into his brain, a procedure that definitively revealed in 3-D an enlarged artery up top that might slam the brakes on the pursuit of his dream of playing college and pro football.
He endured all that, waiting and waiting and waiting, fighting off frustration, chasing away doubts, keeping alive some bit of hope for playing the game again that had come to define him. The concussion symptoms occurred in November, after the Utes played Arizona State. But the quarterback had to sit tight until late February, when another scan would be taken, to determine the path he would have to follow, according to doctor’s orders.
The question hung over him like a thick cumulus cloud: Could he play or couldn’t he?
“I definitely had a few nights when I was shocked to think about my football career being over,” Wilson says. “But I tried to stay positive. I believe everything happens for a reason. I thought something good would come of it. And I felt like I’d grown through the process, that I’d gotten stronger as a person.”
But, then, the night before that three-month pit stop arrived, and it was a killer.
“I played both scenarios in my mind,” he says. “If I could come back and play, I’d do everything I could to be the best player I could be. If not, there’d be a different plan for me. I had to face both sides of that.”
For the better part of a decade, Wilson had faced only one side — a favorable side that indicated he had a stellar quarterbacking career ahead of him. He was smart and strong and through high school had grown to 6-foot-7 and, in college, built his body up to 240 pounds. He showed promise his freshman season at Utah, and through the early weeks of his sophomore year, despite some turnovers and learning moments, it looked like the Utes had finally solved their puzzle behind center. Next thing, the wheels started spinning off.
Wilson injured his throwing hand, and, as he puts it, “couldn’t hold the football.” He couldn’t throw it, either, instead heaving it around the field like a sandbag. Wilson adds: “I didn’t have full strength in my hand, my throwing hand. That didn’t help me at all.”
Then, in the Arizona State game, he got rocked, body and mind.
And stayed rocked until Feb. 24, when he had that follow-up scan, and then met, alongside his parents, with his doctor to hear the test results and the medical determination.
Good news. The doctor saw no adverse change with the artery and concluded that Wilson could play football again, though further monitoring would be done.
“He cleared me for practice,” Wilson says. “It was like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. All the stress left. It had been so hard waiting and waiting, never sure.”
The Utes weren’t sure, either.
With Wilson in limbo, they went out and brought in not just new quarterbacks, but a new offensive coordinator. All told, they now have eight — or is it 18? — QBs in their junk drawer. Where that leaves Wilson is anybody’s guess. Nobody knows with any exactness. Not Wilson, not the shadow of the quarterback he was — is? — supposed to be.
“I feel ready,” he says. “The last two weeks I’ve been fully back with the team. I lost 10 pounds. Once I start working out more, I’ll have no problem gaining weight back.”
What Wilson really has to gain back is the confidence to stand in the pocket and deliver the football where it needs to go. He also has to show coaches that he can play, with no lingering effects, and be durable enough to give the Utes the thing they’ve lacked at quarterback for a fistful of years: consistency.
Nobody speaks openly about it, but in the back of their minds, coaches have to wonder what kind of hits Wilson can absorb and keep on playing. His condition sat him down at the end of a miserable season last year, leaving business to a backup. What unpredictability will it add to a position that can ill afford such a detriment in a coming season that has Kyle Whittingham up against a wall?
Jordan Wynn. Travis Wilson. Travis Wilson. Jordan Wynn.
Five words: china in a bull shop.
No one wants that.
Wilson believes he’ll be OK.
“I’ve had this for a while,” he says. “I don’t think it will affect the way I play football. I can’t be worried or timid. I just have to go out and play. I’m blessed and grateful for a second opportunity to play again. … I’ll be ready for next season. I’ll be better. I’ll keep progressing. It will be an exciting year.”
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.