Harrison Wilfley is only 24, but that hasn’t stopped his teammates from joking that he is just like the majority of the BYU team California will face on Saturday – a 30-year old playing college football.
“Whenever I hear about it, they always bring up the Mormon thing, and they ask about how many of them are married, usually, so that’s always the common perception,” Wilfley says. “I tell them, ‘Yeah, I’m sure a lot of them are married. Usually, the ones that aren’t married are the freshmen and guys who haven’t gone on missions yet. Also, they like to joke around about how they’re all 30-year olds playing football, still, and they like to throw me in that category as a joke.”
Wilfley takes the jesting in stride. These are, after all, his teammates, young men he’s spent the past three years playing with and living with. The Sacramento native grew up a fan of the Cougars, and dreamed of one day playing for them.
“That was the only team I really followed growing up,” says Wilfley, who will now face those same Cougars on Saturday in the final game of his college career.
“I grew up a BYU fan, so it’s pretty cool,” Wilfley says. “I’m really excited.”
After playing mainly defensive end for American River College, Wilfley went on a two-year mission to Uruguay – a country smaller than the state of Utah -- starting with two months in neighboring Argentina. Then, he was off to the Uruguayan capital of Montivideo, where he stayed for eight months.
“I got to see everywhere from Montivideo – all the way in the south – all the way up to Rivera, which is on the border of Brazil. From rural to city to all kinds of suburban, there was all kinds of different spots,” says Wilfley, who made his first start for the Bears last Saturday in the Big Game. “It was quite the experience. It was nothing even close to the United States, in any way. It was probably one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done in my life. People often ask if it was a fun experience, and I would never describe it as a fun experience, but it was one of the most important experiences I’ve ever had in my entire life, and I think it will continue to be one of the most important, as I get older. I just learned so much from it, and the work I put in on my mission and everything, I used it countless numbers of times already, since I’ve been back, and it’s something that you can’t get in any other way.
The spiritually-fulfilling mission did, however, lack something: Proper weight-training. Wilfley came back to the states at 225 pounds, and still had the itch to play college football.
“It was actually easier than I thought, to be honest,” says Wilfley. “It was tough, but I came back, got back on my diet plan, and I started working out with my trainer again. I came back at 225 pounds, and my weight shot right back up. Muscle memory came back. I shot back up to 255, and I was right around there, ready to play for Cal. I would have never thought that my body could react as quick as it did, to come back, and it was as if I never left.”
When Wilfley – now up to 280 pounds -- got back into the recruiting game, he was hoping for an offer from BYU, but the Bears struck first.
“I jumped on that right away,” Wilfley says. “I didn’t talk to BYU too much after my mission. I was so ecstatic about going to Cal on a scholarship.”
So, he decided to take the path less traveled, and signed with the Bears in 2012.
“(BYU) was the only team I really followed growing up. Now I’m a diehard Golden Bear fan. My family has grown to be Cal fans, too.
“It was awesome, because I spent two years taking a break, and I learned what I really had here, in my own country, and what I was given, and privileged to have,” says Wilfley, who calls Berkeley home, now, instead of Provo, Utah. “It’s a different place, I’ll tell you. For me, I don’t prefer the city, too much, myself. It’s been a learning experience, and I wouldn’t change it for anything else. It’s really awesome. I get to try something different than what I call the cookie-cutter route, that most of the LDS guys go through, going to BYU. That's’ what everyone does. I got to try something different. I get to put that on my resumé rather than the typical route that most of the LDS guys do, when they come back from their mission.”
Wilfley came into Berkeley as a tight end, despite spending his last two seasons of football playing mostly defense. Before the 2013 season, he was converted back to a defensive tackle, but injured his shoulder and had to redshirt.
“I’d never really been too much of an offensive guy in college,” says Wilfley. “I played a lot of defense at my junior college, before, and when I was recruited here, I was recruited at tight end, but then I came back to D, and I really felt at home.”
Wilfley has played in all 10 games, shifting between defensive tackle and defensive end, and recording six tackles. Now, after Cal started out 4-1, the Bears have lost five of their last six, meaning that he’s on the doorstep of his final regular season game, with a chance to play in a bowl game, and all that stands between him and that is BYU.
“It’s tough, because at the beginning of the season, we were flying through teams, and we were playing really well, game after game, and we started to hit a downslope a little bit,” he says. “That’s what comes with playing some of the bigger rival schools that we play every year. We’re trying to change the atmosphere. Even though we’ve had some tough years in the past, we can work past it and we’re good players too, just like they are.
“It’s a surprise that we got caught up in the situation, but at the same time, we’re all really happy that we’re still working hard and we’re not getting stuck in too bad of a spot, mentally, to where we thinking that we’re just done. We’re not thinking that, at all. We’re moving forward and trying to win the next game.”
That started the moment the team got back into the locker room following a 38-17 loss in the Big Game, with head coach Sonny Dykes.
“Coach Dykes, at the end of the game, told us that, in order to go to a bowl game, we had to win the next game,” says Wilfley. “Then, he said that would be the first time he’s talked about a bowl game, and he said that would be the last time he would talk about it, as well. As far as coach Dykes goes, we don’t talk about the bowl game. Amongst ourselves and the players and everything, we’re well aware of what we have to do to reach a bowl, and we’re trying to work towards it, because we’re really excited to go, if we can go.”