SIOUX CITY | It’s rare enough to earn a spot on any National Football League roster.
For an athlete with Iowa roots, most of those jobs have gone to king-sized offensive or defensive linemen.
So, it was that much more unusual for Bishop Heelan alumnus Brandon Wegher to make it to the NFL last fall as a running back.
That wasn’t the half of it, actually, since Wegher wound up in the employ of the Carolina Panthers, one of only six teams to win 15 or more regular season games in the 38 seasons since the advent of a 16-game schedule.
The owner of single-season rushing records for Iowa high school football and the NAIA college ranks, Wegher has a big summer ahead of him. And, that’s definitely not just about his quest to see more playing time for the team that was 17-1 before losing Super Bowl 50 to the Denver Broncos on Feb. 7 in Santa Clara, California.
On July 22nd at Dakota Dunes Country Club, Brandon will be married to his longtime partner, Megan Glisar, the mother of the couple’s son, Brody, and a gifted athlete in her own right. Megan was Iowa girls track’s first four-time state high jump champ, she won a national title at Morningside and was then a two-time NCAA Division I All-American at the University of South Dakota.
Two weekends prior to the wedding, on Saturday, July 9, the 2016 Brandon Wegher Football Camp will be held at Olsen Stadium, where Morningside College coaches and players will contribute their assistance. And, Wegher will be donating all proceeds to Morningside.
The camp is open to boys and girls ages 6 through 14 and will run from 9 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. with a lunch to follow.
Check-in is from 8 to 9 o’clock and the cost is $55 for those who pre-register online (enter-sports.com/brandonwegher/index.html) or $65 for those who don’t. That includes a signed photo of Brandon, a camp t-shirt and the lunch.
“It’s a great life, I’ve been blessed beyond belief,’’ said Wegher, whose rocky road to the NFL has received considerable publicity on a national level. “Now, with this camp, I may be able to start giving back to the Siouxland area.
“This is something I’ve wanted to set up so I can do it annually,’’ he said. “I just really want to start it out awesome and come back every summer and get involved with the kids -- teach ‘em a little bit about football and give them some encouragement along with motivation.’’
As so many are aware, it was a long and winding road in between Wegher’s 3,238 yards for Heelan’s 14-0 Class 3A state championship team from 2008 and the 2,610 yards he piled up for Morningside in 2014 -- the single-season standards for Iowa preps and the NAIA.
The odds of extricating himself from the troubles he found were probably not all that promising. Nonetheless, like the other courageous individuals who’ve managed to survive similar journeys, he’s succeeded quite impressively.
Indeed, the seemingly obligatory mention of Brandon’s personal travails has probably run its course, bringing us to the far happier task of a glimpse at the future.
Five days after that wedding next month, on July 27, Wegher reports to preseason training camp with a team that should be obsessed with taking that one last step to pro football Valhalla.
“The attitude of the team at this point last year was, ‘Hey, let’s get to the Super Bowl,’ ‘’ said Wegher, one of seven players on the 53-man roster who were not in uniform as they watched the big game in Levi’s Stadium. “The Super Bowl was the goal. We’re all on board. We all believed it. With all the experience we have on this team and the guys coming back, you can just tell there’s a hunger in the lockerroom for more success.’’
Wegher returned home after the Super Bowl for a few months with Megan and Brody while also working out with Jevon Bowman, head strength coach at USD. And, Megan, I should note, has recently completed the first of four years’ study necessary for a doctorate in audiology.
“It was nice to be back for a couple months, taking my son to school and helping Megan out whichever way I could,’’ Brandon said.
He returned to Charlotte for more training and then three weeks of organized team activities (OTA’s) that concluded last Thursday. Today, the team starts a mini-camp.
“This offseason was great for me,’’ said Wegher. “I became a different player, I guess. Completely different from last year. Just my confidence level and my skill level is going through the roof right now. I’m not where I want to be. I can always make room for improvements, but I like where I’m at heading into the season.’’
As an undrafted free agent last summer, the challenge was particularly daunting on a team with a proven corps of running backs to go with the ever-mobile quarterback, Cam Newton. Many felt the Panthers would stick with a pat hand, but Wegher actually squeezed out one of the incumbents and earned a three-year contract in the $1.5-million range.
Pro Bowlers Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert both return in the backfield picture along with Fozzy Whittaker and Cameron Artis-Payne. As the fifth man in that pecking order, Wegher didn’t suit up until injuries got him on the field for the regular season finale. Now, he hopes to do more.
“Right now, the biggest change I notice is just myself mentally -- my confidence level, my ability to understand the playbook better,’’ he said. “Those two things right there have put my game on a whole new level.’’
The Panthers were 14-0 last season before being tripped up 20-13 by the Atlanta Falcons on Dec. 27, just two weeks after Carolina thrashed the Falcons 38-0.
That made Coach Ron Rivera’s team the latest challenger to the 1972 Miami Dolphins’ remarkable 17-0 season, which is still the only perfect record, believe it or not, in the 96-year history of the NFL.
The 2007 New England Patriots were 18-0 before losing to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII and the only other undefeated championship teams, all of them between the league’s inaugural 1920 campaign and 1929, had at least one tie on their record.
Aside from the clean slate New England took into postseason play in 2007, Carolina was just the fifth team to put up a 15-1 regular season mark since the 16-game schedule was introduced in 1978. The 49ers did it in 1984 and the Bears followed in 1985, both winding up as 18-1 Super Bowl champs.
Since then, the 2004 Steelers and the 2007 Packers also took 15-1 records into the playoffs, neither of them reaching the Super Bowl.