Zach Wimberly was nervous before his first college football game.
Who could blame him? His Eastern Washington Eagles were opening the 2013 season at Oregon State, and Wimberly, a redshirt freshman, was lining up at tight end – a position he hadn’t played since his senior year at Tumwater High.
Wimberly had spent his entire redshirt year as a defensive end. That’s where he was just eight days before the OSU game, when tight end Cody Humphrey went down during practice with a knee injury.
As they waited for the ambulance, then-defensive line coach Ryan Sawyer turned to Wimberly and said half-jokingly, “You just might be going over to tight end.”
It was no joke. The next day, Wimberly was with the offense. “They just gave me the basics and said I’d learn the rest later,” he recalled.
The learning curve went up steeply with the Oregon State game on the line. With 23 seconds left, the Eagles were down by three and had the ball at the OSU 2-yard line. The call? A run-pass option for quarterback Vernon Adams Jr.
One of the targets was Wimberly.
“I was shaking in my boots,” said Wimberly, who pulled to his right and threw a key block as Adams ran a bootleg for the winning score in a landmark 49-46 Eastern win.
“How cool is that?” said Wimberly, now a senior, team captain and probably the most complete football player in Cheney. After all, who else plays fullback one play, blocks the next and also catches passes?
“I don’t think anybody else can say that,” said tight ends coach John Graham. “He’s a pretty versatile kid.”
The 6-foot-2, 240-pound Wimberly also plays special teams so well that he was named the Eagles’ Special Teams Player of the Year last season.
“I just felt blessed that the coaches chose me to lead those teams,” said Wimberly, who added that the move to offense was “one of the biggest blessings I’ve had.”
The foursome at Eastern is a tight-knit group. Two weeks ago, when fourth-stringer Beau Byus caught the game-winning touchdown pass on a fake field goal to beat Northern Iowa, his mates were among the first in the end zone.
“We were just so excited, we ran up to him to celebrate,” Wimberly said. “You don’t get to hear that a lot.”
Wimberly has had his moments: 32 career catches for 363 yards and six touchdowns. But most of the work is done in the trenches, usually pass blocking so someone else can make a catch.
“When we do get a catch, it’s a cool feeling,” he said.
Those feelings seemed out of reach five years ago, as Wimberly was barely recruited despite being the MVP of his high school conference and even running out of the wildcat formation.
“That’s what caught our eyes – he ran for a lot of yards,” Graham said.
But Wimberly missed the last three games of his senior year after a leg injury. Disdaining scholarship from some Division II schools, Wimberly took up the Eastern coaches on their offer to walk on.
It didn’t hurt that he was following the path of other Tumwater stars, including Matt and Zach Johnson.
“It was a leap of faith,” said Wimberly, whose parents are currently working as missionaries in Cambodia.
“But I believed in myself. … The older guys on the team didn’t know the difference between a scholarship player and a walk-on,” Wimberly said.
The scholarship long since earned, Wimberly has a chance to look back a career that’s included three Big Sky Conference title and a win earlier this month at Washington State that served as a bookend of sorts.
In some ways, this meant more than the win at OSU. “Maybe the fact that I was a senior and had been through all this … but to beat a Pac-12 team again – that was really a special day.”
Subscribe to The Spokesman-Review's sports newsletter
Get the day's top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.