ELKO – Perseverance, persistence, passion – all words from a long list of positive character traits that are possessed by Elko High School Class of 2016 graduate Benton Wickersham.
Like other EHS athletes who came before him, Wickersham joins a band of brothers who have played beyond the friendly confines of Warrior Field and continued their football careers at Boise State University – earning a walk-on roster spot and recently competing in the Boise State spring game on April 8 at Albertsons Stadium.
Wickersham’s path to BSU was an unclear, difficult road to say the least.
After his junior year at EHS, Wickersham was named the Lineman of the Year for the entire state in his first action of playing along the offensive and defensive fronts – making the transition from his safety position he played as a sophomore and remaining in the linebacking crew.
During his junior year of basketball, Wickersham underwent a very strange and scary sequence of events.
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Following the Indians’ final road trip of the year, it appeared Wickersham had torn his Achilles tendon. However, the pain began to move to other parts of his body.
He was battling a crazy form of reactive arthritis, caused by his own immune system — eventually transitioning from crutches to a wheelchair — yielding him virtually immobile and the 17-year-old kid moved like an 80-year-old man.
Wickersham’s family learned that his immune system fought off a flu bug but never shut down after ridding the illness, and his body began attacking itself.
He was forced to miss the remainder of the regular season, regional tournament and the state tournament.
Forced to suck down a concoction of 25 pills per day and take multiple shots daily, he refused to miss out on the baseball season, returning to the diamond for the Indians in the spring of 2015.
Wickersham was named a 1st-Team All-North and 2nd-Team All-State selection at catcher, serving as a major part of Elko’s run to the state tournament and I-A North runner-up finish.
He garnered interest from several Division I universities entering his senior season of football, earning a full-ride scholarship offer from the University of Hawaii.
However, in the second game of the 2015 fall season at Sparks, Wickersham took a carry off-tackle on the Indians’ second possession of the game and tore the ACL in his left knee when the defender dove for his legs.
Hawaii initially informed Wickersham it had knowledge of his injury but would still honor the offer, but when former head coach Norm Chow and his staff were released from their duties, the newly introduced staff and coach Nick Rolovich – who had been the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Nevada – informed Wickersham the scholarship offer was no longer on the table.
Thus, the search for a home on a college football program began.
Look no farther than Elko baseball coach Shane Gilligan, who has made connections at BSU through younger brother and EHS Class of 1999 graduate Tim Gilligan Jr., who – like Wickersham – walked on at Boise State and eventually became a co-captain of the team, earning a 1st-Team All-Conference selection at wide receiver and 2nd-Team All-Conference honors as a kick returner in the Western Athletic Conference during his senior season in 2003.
During Wickersham’s senior season of baseball, while recovering from his fall ACL injury, he earned 1st-Team All-State honors at first base.
The Indians won the Division I-A North regional championship, almost never receiving the chance to play in the contest, needing a three-run, walk-off homer by Wickersham in the bottom of the seventh inning against Dayton to extend Elko’s season and regional tournament.
“When Hawaii pulled the scholarship offer, it was out of my hands. There was nothing I could do. I just wanted to get healthy for baseball. During the middle of the baseball season, we made a Sunday trip up to Boise to talk to the coaches. The meeting was short, but they agreed to let me walk on and see how it went. Coach Gilligan set everything up, so that was a huge relief,” Wickersham said. “I want to thank Jeff Eckert and Full Range Physical Therapy for getting me ready to go after my injury. After my surgery, the rehab with them was great. I wouldn’t be where I am at now without all the help.”
“Through my relationships with my brother, I reached out to defensive coordinator Andy Avalos and (Director of Football Relations) Taylor Tharp. I told them they should watch Benton’s junior football highlights and pointed out a few specific plays that I thought personified his abilities and character as well,” coach Gilligan said. “After they met and agreed to let him walk on, and now that he has spot on the roster, I’m so happy for Benton. Personally, I would have liked to see him play baseball but that is where he always wanted to go and what he wanted to do – play football for Boise State. To see how much he has overcome and what he has gone through – combined with his smarts on the field and his talent – speaks volumes of his abilities as a football player and as a person.”
Avalos, entering his second season at the helm of the BSU defense, was a beast on the field for the Broncos as a player from 2001-2004.
He ranks fourth all-time in Boise State history with 365 career tackles – earning 1st-Team All-WAC honors during his junior and season seasons – and was named to the All-Blue Team last year, commemorating the 30 greatest BSU players in in the last 30 years.
Avalos has been there, done that – and he recognizes talent, character when he sees it.
“We set up Benton coming in here clear back into his senior season, even knowing about the situation with his injury we knew he was going to join the team this January and continue to get himself back to 100 percent during the fall. That was the plan all along,” Avalos said. “We watched his film and thought he was a great player, and we were excited to get him on the team. We knew he was a scholarship-type guy and had some offers before he got injured.”
Making the transition from high school to college football, Wickersham is also in the process of playing a new position – moving from outside linebacker (Sam) to middle linebacker (Mike).
“He has a Mike body type. I know he played outside linebacker in high school, but you see him play fullback and play physical and come out of his hips – he strikes people,” Avalos said. “More importantly, he comes from a great family. We have to recruit great people to this team and get guys who also do a great job academically, so when you combine those three things – for him to join our team is a no-brainer. We love Elko here. We have had good experiences with players from there, the culture produces great people. We know if we get a player from Elko who can physically compete, we’re also getting a great person who has the other things in life figured out.”
Even though the Hawaii deal fell through, Wickersham has forever wanted to be a Bronco, dating back to when he was about 7 years old.
Maybe things really do happen for a reason.
“I went up to Boise to watch Pete and Jeff (Cavender) when I was in first grade. I think it was the 2004 home opener against Idaho,” Wickersham said. “Oh yea, I knew then that I wanted to play football for Boise State.”
Another person who is fully aware of Wickersham’s talents, drive and ability to overcome obstacles is Elko football coach Luke Sellers but even he is amazed at how far Wickersham has come, in what seems like an eternity, but has actually been a little more than a year and a half since the knee injury and barely more than two years since the auto-immune issue.
“I’m just glad Benton is getting to do what he has always wanted to do. Seeing him in a wheelchair during his junior year of basketball and then having the knee injury to start his senior year of football, to where he is now, just shows how determined he is and how talented he is,” Sellers said. “He’s a student of the game, incredibly smart and extremely good. There is a reason we put him on varsity as a sophomore. He makes everyone around him better and he even did that after the injury from the sideline. He always did whatever we asked of him and he’s a great leader.”
Wickersham played the bulk of the plays in the Boise State spring game on the Broncos’ second-string defense, calling the plays from the middle linebacker position against the No. 1 offense – a duty which carries a lot of responsibility.
When asked to assess his performance in the game and how it felt to be back in action on the gridiron – he simply replied “not terrible.”
He is always looking for improvement and constantly thinking about ways to get better and what it will take to do so.
“I felt pretty good for not playing a game in almost two years. It was pretty overwhelming at first, especially when I saw my family there. I know it has been as long of a wait for them to watch me play as it has been for me trying to get back on the field,” Wickersham said. “For the most part, I thought I did a good job of getting myself in the right positions to make plays. Now, I have to do a better job of executing and finishing those plays. I have decent size but I have to get quicker and faster. I would say I’m a little bit slower than most people up here, but if you can think fast – you can shave some time.”
Pete Cavender, who played for Boise State along with twin brother Jeff from 2003-2007, just finished up his eighth season of color commentating for the Broncos.
Jeff Cavender earned 2nd-Team All-WAC selections during his junior and season years, setting a school record in the process. He started at every position along the offensive front, starting in an unprecedented 51 straight games for the Broncos.
The Cavenders were part of the 2006 Boise State team that won the Fiesta Bowl, defeating collegiate powerhouse Oklahoma – which included all-world running back Adrian Peterson. The 43-42 overtime win was not only huge for the Broncos, it was completed by a statue-of-liberty play on a gusty call to go for two, rather than play for the tie and another overtime session.
Unfortunately, Pete Cavender suffered a season-ending injury in preseason workouts that year, rupturing his Achilles tendon.
He likes what he has saw from his bird’s-eye view of Albertson’s Stadium while watching Wickersham in the spring game and what he has heard about the young man, thinking he is a perfect fit for BSU – its style, program and brotherly community.
“I think the defense had the upper hand in the spring game, which is generally the case, especially since the offense had some players sitting out. A few guys ahead of Benton have had injuries in the beginning of the year, so he benefited from that and he has taken advantage of the chance,” Pete Cavender said. “He is a great kid, works hard, keeps his head down and his mouth shut. I know the coaches love those things about him – his work ethic. He truly has that Boise State mentality – got overlooked after the injury, fell through the cracks and made it – that blue-collar, chip-on-his shoulder mindset. He has always wanted to come here. I remember Jeff and me giving him some old, sweaty wristbands from when we played when he was little. I think his mom said he still has them. It was his goal to get here, and he is living out his dream. He probably won’t start next season, but he is in a great spot to earn a scholarship. That’s a great thing about Boise State, the coaches will award guys who never stop working and give guys who got passed up chances to succeed.”
Wickersham is not just a name on the BSU roster – his name is also on the back of a significant number – sporting 25 on his jersey, the number donned by former Broncos linebacker great Korey Hall.
Hall played for BSU from 2004-2006 and was selected in the 2006 NFL Draft by the Green Bay Packers, playing fullback for the team from 2007-2010 and going to the New Orleans Saints for one season (2011) before retiring.
“We had our football social (annual reunion before BSU’s spring game) last week, and I was talking to the coaches about Benton. It’s high praise and way too early to say, but coach Avalos and strength and conditioning coach Jeff Pitman told me they are excited about him and see a lot of Korey in Benton already, so that’s exciting to hear,” Jeff Cavender said. “He’s a great kid and a humble person, Boise feeds off kids like him. I noticed that is something similar between Elko and Boise State, it’s a tight-knit brotherhood, everyone is on the same page and has the same goal, there weren’t really any cliques between certain squads – everyone was together. We may not have been the most talented, but we’re going to outwork you. That still rings true today at Boise State.”
Gilligan Jr. knows exactly how far he came by good, old-fashioned effort and try – entering the college football scene at 5-feet-9-inches and less than 180 pounds.
“I was undersized; nobody was coming at me to play wide receiver. They see how small you are and think that you can’t play, then it was my job to go out there and prove I had what it took,” Gilligan Jr. said. “I’m sure Benton felt kind of the same way, not by being small, but by losing his offer after the injury. When the schools stopped coming after him, he had to go with the blue-collar approach and chip on his shoulder. He had to prove himself through his ability to work and his performance, and it’s cool to see him get that chance. That’s all you can ask for is an opportunity, and now that he has that – I think he will take full advantage and do great things at Boise State.”
While he is only entering his redshirt freshman season at the school of his dreams, doing what he loves, Wickersham has a long way to go in becoming a scholarship player or an all-time great for the Broncos, but in the past, he has always seemed to be like cream – always finding a way to rise to the top.