Zylstra Among Elite Receivers in CFL

Picture courtesy of the Edmonton Eskimos
Picture courtesy of the Edmonton Eskimos

Article reprinted courtesy of Minneapolis Star and Tribune and columnist, and MLB Hall of Fame candidate, Patrick Reusse 

Terry Horan received a phone call from his wife, Michelle, in late June of 2014 that opened with this question: "Are you sitting down?"

This is usually bad news, unless someone is calling to reveal possession of a winning Powerball ticket. There was no Powerball ticket; it was bad news for Horan, the football coach of the Concordia Cobbers in Moorhead.

Michelle was working at the Moorhead Country Club. Brandon Zylstra, a Cobbers receiver of considerable importance, had a summer job there on the grounds crew.

"He was working on the side of hill with one of those hover weed wackers," Terry Horan said. "He slipped and his foot went under the weed wacker. He sliced the tendon on a big toe. The surgeon had to attach the tendon and there was also a skin graft."

Zylstra had debuted with Concordia in 2013, catching 41 passes for 774 yards (18.9 per catch) and seven touchdowns. His long was an 85-yarder.

The Cobbers were 6-2 in the MIAC, 8-2 overall and missed the NCAA Division III playoffs. They had Griffin Neal as an exceptional senior quarterback and big hopes for an MIAC title. And then Michelle called Horan and told him to sit down.

"Brandon came back early, but it took five or six weeks to be back to his normal self," Neal said. "We lost to Bethel during that time. We were 8-2, but missed the playoffs again."

Neal played a season in a German football league in 2015. Zylstra caught 43 passes for 692 yards and six touchdowns, which included an 87-yarder for the 2015 Cobbers (7-3).

Zylstra called Neal in December 2015 and said: "Let's chase this thing."

And that's what Zylstra, a 6-3, 220-pound receiver, and Neal, a 6-4, 225-pound quarterback, did for four months: They worked the unpublicized fringes of pro football, the tryout camps for the Canadian Football League in Arizona, more tryouts in Orlando and Las Vegas, pro days at non-Power Five colleges.

"We moved to Phoenix in December [2015] and lived together in my grandmother's spare bedroom," Neal said. "We set a schedule for ourselves and worked out six hours a day. To make a few dollars, we did babysitting jobs."

In April 2016, Neal was able to throw at Tulane's pro day in New Orleans and was signed by the Saints. He was the fourth quarterback, worked out with Drew Brees, and was cut at the end of rookie minicamp.

Zylstra drew interest from four CFL teams in the Arizona camps. He also went to North Dakota State's pro day and caught passes for Carson Wentz. The Edmonton Eskimos signed him to a two-year agreement.

Soon thereafter, he received an invite from the Vikings to attend a post-draft rookie camp. Zylstra was a three-sport star at New London-Spicer High School. The Vikings were his team, but he had the deal with Edmonton.

And that's worked out dandy.

Zylstra was on the practice squad for most of his rookie season. He got a chance in Week 14, and wound up catching 34 passes for 508 yards in five games.

The Eskimos are now off to a 4-0 start. Zylstra is among the CFL leaders with 29 catches out of the 34 times he was targeted by veteran Mike Reilly. It helps to go get the ball when you're a 6-11 high jumper, as was Zylstra at Concordia.

"We have an offense where receivers move all over the field," Zylstra said. "You can be wide one play, tight the next, and then in the slot. And, we have the two receivers in forward motion.

"It's a wide-open game. I love it."

Zylstra, 24, has become a young star of the Eskimos. Connor McDavid, 20, is the young star of the Oilers. Is it comparable?

That question drew the anticipated laugh, then Zylstra said:

"McDavid is The Man here. I couldn't even get a ticket for an Oilers game. I went down to look at the new arena one day, but it was locked, so I peeked in where I could."

Back in Moorhead, Horan is getting ready for a 16th season as the Cobbers coach (with Wisconsin-Whitewater on the schedule). He's reveling in Zylstra's CFL success, and sees more prominence in the future.

"I don't know when, but Brandon's going to play down here," Horan said. "He's such an athlete and such a workhorse, he's going to be in the NFL … and, I mean, catching passes on Sunday.''