New London-Spicer Wildcats have NFL connections
Former players Brandon Zylstra, Jake Essler and Jayme Moten, all members of the Wildcats' 2009 state championship team, all have ties to the pros. Zylstra's a Carolina Panthers wide receiver. Essler is a Minnesota Vikings scout. Moten is a NFL players' agent.
Players, coaches, staff, and fans of the NFL are waiting for if and when preparations can begin for the 2020 season.
Three New London-Spicer grads — Brandon Zylstra, Jake Essler and Jayme Moten — all have their place in pro football and are still in limbo due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“You don’t know when the time is going to come,” said Zylstra, who is entering his second season as a Carolina Panthers wide receiver. “Right now, I’m trying to run a lot and stay in shape.”
In May, Zylstra was back home in Spicer, working out with his brothers Shane — who is looking for a chance at pro football after wrapping up an All-American career as a wideout at Minnesota State-Mankato — and Jaden, who is preparing for his senior year at NLS.
“We’re super competitive; all of us love to work and we hold each other accountable,” Brandon said. “(Shane’s) doing everything I’m doing and we’re learning and growing together.”
Representing both Brandon and Shane is Jayme Moten, who graduated from NLS with Brandon in 2011. Moten works as an NFL agent for Priority Sports out of Chicago.
“When (Brandon) was going through the Canadian league (with the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos), I was always in his ear, holding him accountable,” Moten said. “He was OK with being the underdog. We used to have deep talks and to actually be a player of mine … I don’t have favorites but Brandon and Shane, they’re (sentimental) favorites.”
With coronavirus affecting pro days before the draft and rookie minicamps afterward, there has been plenty of confusion that Moten has tried to help navigate.
“Guys are questioning what’s going on all the time,” Moten said. “Guys are waiting to get paid and that always creates some anxiety. Practice wise, the focus is staying in shape and being physically ready when things do open up. … They need to go through physicals and figure out signing bonuses.”
After wrapping up his football career at St. John’s University, 2010 NLS grad Jake Essler worked his way onto the Minnesota Vikings as a college scout. Essler was on the road when the word came in to come back home.
“I was down in Nebraska for a pro day and then we started seeing tweets coming out about getting NFL scouts off the road,” Essler said. “I made that drive right that night from Nebraska all the way back to Minneapolis.”
On March 16, the NFL canceled all public events around the draft, eventually putting together a virtual draft April 23-25.
While the situation seemed calamitous, Essler credited Vikings general manager Rick Spielman for how he managed the chaos.
“It’s pretty crazy how smoothly it went for how different the situation was,” Essler said. “Spielman was pretty on top of everything right away and it went pretty smoothly. I think even next year we’ll have some of our draft meetings virtually. … The draft process was pretty normal for the most part. We were doing it through Microsoft team meetings.”
The players have gone virtual as well with organized team activities (OTAs) taking place over Zoom.
“The first half hour might be special teams, then nutrition talk,” Brandon Zylstra said, “or the head coach talking about the new team philosophy or coaches will introduce themselves. … Some of them, the first half will be teaching us as a team, or just the offense and defense, then it’ll split up into groups.”
Through the virtual meetings, Zylstra has gotten to learn more about Panthers’ new head coach Matt Rhule, who is a first-time NFL head coach after college head coaching stints at Baylor and Temple.
“I’m a big Coach Rhule fan,” Zylstra said. “He’s got a process-driven mindset. He’ll tell you about his thoughts and failures and wants everyone on the same page moving forward. The team is starting to buy into it. He seems like a very, very smart guy.”
On Thursday, the NFL announced that coaching staffs will be permitted to return to team facilities on Friday. Up to 100 people can work at a team facility as long as clubs have received necessary permission from state and local governments to reopen.
“This is kind of our slow time anyway. It doesn't change all that much,” Essler said. “It’ll be interesting once training camp comes back. When training camps happen, that’ll be a little more different.”
There has been no date set for when players can return to team facilities for training camp.
“There’s something new every single day,” Moten said of the ever-changing landscape due to coronavirus. “You have to wake up with a new, open mind and just complete what you can.”
For now, the NFL preseason’s schedule opens with the Hall of Fame game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday, Aug. 6 in Canton, Ohio. The first regular-season game is scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 10 with the Houston Texans at the Kansas City Chiefs.