After the BYU football team scored a field goal to take the lead in the fourth quarter of the showdown at No 6-ranked Wisconsin on Sept. 15, the Badgers got the ball back and looked to answer.
The home team picked up a quick first down but then faced a big third-and-3 from its own 41-yard line.
Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook scanned the field from the pocket until suddenly a big Cougar defender — BYU sophomore defensive lineman Zac Dawe — was right in his face.
“You can’t explain it unless you are there,” Dawe said after practice on Tuesday. “We do several reps in practice where I try to hit similar moves. With all the work I’ve done in 1-on-1s, for one of those moves to hit was just sweet.”
It would be one of two tackles Dawe would make and one of the two sacks the Cougars would get credit for, coming at a key moment that forced a Badger punt and help BYU keep Wisconsin at bay to get the 24-21 upset.
For Dawe, however, it was so much more.
“It was a big moment in my life,” Dawe said. “I had to go through a lot to just be able to come back and play football. To be able to go and have a sack at Camp Randall was an emotional moment for me and my family. Right when I got that sack, it was kind of an out-of-body experience. I couldn’t sleep for a couple of days because it kept going through my mind.”
To truly grasp the magnitude of what that moment meant to Dawe and his family, you have to know the long, uncertain journey the Cougar sophomore has been on over the last couple of years.
After completing an impressive career at Pleasant Grove where he was a state wrestling champion in the 285-pound division, Dawe came to BYU and joined his older brother Parker Dawe.
But during his freshman year, an injury derailed his plans.
“I hurt my back in 2016 during my redshirt season,” Zac Dawe said. “It came to the fact that I needed surgery and I wasn’t in a state where I could come back and play immediately.”
After back surgery, things became very difficult for the former Viking star.
“I left the team and left school to sit out so I could focus on my life and get it in order,” he said. “Everything was kind of in chaos. I was working at NuSkin as a security officer. Most of my shifts were graveyard shifts and a ton of weekends, so it killed my social life. But the goal was for me to come back and play football.”
He threw himself into workouts, going six days a week for three or four hours a day.
There were times when he would be working out with trainer Mike Stroshine at Next Level Fitness where the pain and frustration would make him wonder if he had made the right choice, but Stroshine told him he had come too far to give up.
After missing the entire 2017 season, he finally got a chance to walk back on and rejoin the Cougars as he tested where his body was at.
“I came and joined spring ball,” Zac Dawe said. “It was a trial period to see if my back could handle it. It’s not easy being in the trenches with a bad back but I was blessed by a loving Heavenly Father to help heal my back. I was super-rusty, but the coaches were patient with me.”
After a good spring and strong offseason work, the sophomore got a clean bill of health from the doctors.
“Miracles happen every day — and they still happen,” he said. “In the summer I put on a bunch of weight to play defensive tackle. It was a grind but it was all worth it.”
Even a month later, it is clear from the emotion in his voice how much it meant to him to have reached that point after everything he’d been through.
He earned back his scholarship, earned playing time and then — last Saturday — came up big on a big stage.
“It was sweet for me and my family,” he said. “It was such an awesome experience.”
That stage had even more significance for Zac Dawe than just being a game against a highly-touted opponent with a reputations for tough, physical line play.
It was also the collegiate home of his idol.
“A big role model of mine was J.J. Watt,” Zac Dawe said. “He was a tight end at Central Michigan, dropped down and was a janitor and pizza boy, then walked on at Wisconsin. I looked at all the things that he did and now he is one of the best defensive linemen ever in the NFL. I said that if he can do it, I can do it. He had back surgery and I’ve had back surgery. That just kept going through my mind.”
Through all the rough times, he found inspiration from what Watt went through before becoming a star for the Houston Texans and one of the most impressive defensive linemen in the NFL.
“That’s why I wear No. 99,” Zac Dawe said. “There is so much more you can go and your body can give if you have the right tools and the right belief.”
While Watt is Zach’s football hero, he also credited those closer to home — his family including his older brother Parker, a former Cougar offensive lineman — for playing a crucial part in keeping him going.
“Parker is an awesome example to me,” Zac Dawe said. “He has his life straight, an awesome husband, awesome dad and awesome brother. He was calling me at times where he was struggling and we’d go do 1-on-1s. He claims I’ve never beaten him but we’d work on stuff and watch film. He said I could play at the NFL if I want to.”
No matter what happens in the future, Zac Dawe will always treasure the memories of the win at Wisconsin.
He knows, however, that there is a lot more opportunities for him in the future.
“I don’t want to say that Wisconsin was the highlight of my career,” Zac Dawe said. “It’s been the highlight so far but I think that is just the start for our team.”
He has impressed his BYU coaches and teammates with what he has been able to accomplish.
“Zac has been pleasant to have,” Cougar defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said. “I didn’t think he would be able to come back and have an impact like he is because of his back surgery and being away from football. He was a state champion wrestler and a tough kid. He’s worked himself into the rotation and done a good job.”
BYU sophomore defensive lineman Khyiris Tonga said Zac Dawe shouldn’t be underestimated.
“Zac Dawe is the man,” Tonga said. “I think he is our best defensive player. He is a super-hard worker, a low-key guy but every time he is in he goes 110 percent. I’m just grateful he is on our side of the ball. It could’ve been easy to hang it up and call it quits, but he has done what he needed to do and I’m just grateful he is here.”
Much of who Zac Dawe is now has been shaped by the paths he has traveled, both the good and the bad. He said he hasn’t talked about that journey a lot but that he hopes others can realize the value of never giving up.
“It’s something I don’t mind sharing because everyone goes through adversity in their life,” he said. “No one has a perfect scenario. Everyone has a time where they are put up against a hard spot where you can either quit or you can go. I was put in one of those situations where I didn’t understand why it was happening to me. For a little while, it was hard. Hopefully people through my story can have faith and belief that there are good things to come.”