Sports, Football, 2020-21 Athletes of the Year

‘Heights’ 2020-21 Breakout Male Athlete of the Year: Zay Flowers

Overtime, Boston College ball. Phil Jurkovec adjusts his armband and looks ahead to the 25-yard line at his three receivers. Closest to the right sideline is Zay Flowers, Jurkovec’s go-to receiver. Jurkovec takes the snap from under center—four steps back, two shuffles forward—and lets the ball fly.

Flowers hadn’t played in an overtime game since his junior year of high school. Against Pittsburgh, that fact didn’t matter. 

He sprints downfield with his signature speed, looks up when the grass below his feet turns maroon—signaling he’s found the endzone—and leaps over one defender with another at his back. Five seconds after the snap, the ball is in Flowers’ hands.

The scoreboard flashes 30-24, and BC has the go-ahead score it needs.

“I’m pretty good at overtime,” Flowers said in his post-game press conference. 

In BC’s overtime win against Pittsburgh, Flowers and Jurkovec may as well have been the only two Eagles on the field, as the duo accounted for all but six of BC’s points. When he entered the locker room after the game, Flowers had assembled one of the best performances of his season with 162 yards and three touchdowns, one of which won BC the game. 

Nonetheless, Flowers remained levelheaded after the game, as he did all season and has throughout his football career.

“I knew it was coming,” Flowers said in that press conference. “That’s why I made the play.”

Four days later, Flowers’ name was on the 2020 Biletnikoff Award watch list honoring the best receiver in the nation. 

His success, however, was not limited to one contest. By exceeding expectations game after game in 2020, Flowers earned The Heights’ 2020-21 Breakout Male Athlete of the Year honor.

In 11 games as a freshman in 2019, Flowers caught 22 passes, three of which were for touchdowns. He totaled 341 receiving yards and averaged 15.9 per catch. 

In March of his freshman year, Flowers and the rest of BC were sent home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, putting a halt to Flowers’ progression with the team. Instead of relaxing by the beach in his home state of Florida, Flowers spent his time training. 

“When I got sent home I literally trained every day,” Flowers said. “I trained some with [Antonio Brown] and Geno Smith, I switched up everyday what I was doing—getting stronger and faster, preparing myself for next season because I knew I wanted to have a big year.”

BC’s first game of the 2020 season against Duke set the tone for exactly that. He went for 162 yards and a touchdown, but perhaps more importantly, he cemented himself as BC’s wide receiver of the future in a game where Eagles fans excitedly saw the programs’ future quarterback and coach in action for the first time. 

In that game, Flowers lit up the field with his speed, notably hauling in a 61-yard touchdown pass after breaking out of coverage and appearing wide-open downfield. Flowers also showcased his agility, bringing defensive backs to their knees with evasive maneuvers. One of these jukes caught national attention, appearing in an ESPN ad for the College Football Playoffs.

“When I came in, he was kind of a guy that they just used in a very small role,” BC football head coach Jeff Hafley said of Flowers. “I think it just took us a couple practices to realize the talent that he had. …  When we saw what he could do we were very hopeful that he’d have a huge year. And he did.”

Throughout his 2020 season, Flowers totaled 892 yards on 56 receptions, nine of which were for touchdowns. He led BC in yards, touchdowns, and yards per game. He also finished with the Eagles’ longest catch of the year: a 77-yard touchdown against Pitt where Flowers used his speed to break away from a defender and beat him to the endzone. 

A human highlight reel, Flowers made too many astonishing catches to count. One that comes to mind is his grab against Syracuse, where he somehow managed to get his feet in before tumbling head-over-heels out of bounds and jumping up to celebrate the touchdown. 

Another notable catch came against Clemson, where Flowers leapt into the air to grab a ball over a defender, caught it against his helmet, and came down in the endzone to give the Eagles an early lead against the No. 1 team in the country at the time. 

Of course, there was also his overtime catch against Pitt. 

Looking back on his 2020 season, Flowers points to that game-winning catch as one of his best of the year. 

“Phil just put the ball in the perfect position for me to make a play,” Flowers said. “Everybody just did everything together, and we just celebrated as a team.”

Even when talking about his best catches of the year, Flowers is still quick to credit his teammates. He also raves about the coaches, mentors, and family members who helped him get to where he is today. One such mentor is his father, Willie. 

“My dad is my biggest source of motivation,” Flowers said. “He texts me every day …  little messages to say, ‘Go hard, you can be better this year.’ … And they just keep me motivated because he believes in me and I believe in myself.”

One of 14 children, Flowers has plenty of brothers and sisters to help him stay motivated throughout the season. Although they were unable to watch games in person last year, they were right by Flowers’ side the whole time. 

“[Not being able to attend games] was a little difficult, but it was okay because we pray a lot and I know the Lord has his back,” Willie said. “With technology, you know, you’re not there physically, but you can see him on the phone and through video a lot and you can actually talk to him however many times a day you want to.”

Although the Flowers family could cheer him on from all the way down in Florida, there’s something special about having a live, in-person fan base, Flowers said.

“I mean seeing them in the stands, that’s just going to make me happy,” Flowers said. “They also motivate me all the time, sending me stuff like, ‘Keep going, you’re going to make it.’ … They’re just there to support me in any way that I need.”

Growing up in a family with as much a focus on sports as Flowers’ has, not to mention that he has too many siblings to count on both hands, it seems like it would be easy for his talent to get lost in the shuffle. According to Willie, however, Zay’s skill was evident from a young age. 

“I would say seven, eight years old,” Willie said. “I’ve got a lot of boys, and in looking at all of them play sports you can see a certain factor. … He had that ‘it’ factor. … He always got the job done.”

In high school, Flowers was a two-sport athlete. When it wasn’t football season, he could be found on the basketball court and even considered pursuing basketball in college. 

“Zay was actually a better basketball player,” Willie said. “Believe it or not, I thought he would choose basketball, but he said he loved football more.”

Once he made the decision to pursue football, Flowers—a three-star recruit out of University School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.—had plenty of college options to weigh.

“I wanted something new,” Flowers said. “I really liked the city, and the first thing I was thinking about was education. Education was the most important thing, then we looked at football, then we looked at somewhere I could play early, and all three of those things matched up perfectly and put me here, and it’s a great city. It’s a great school.”

At just 21 years old, Flowers has a long football career ahead of him. To prepare for next season and the road ahead, Flowers said he has been honing his route-running ability. 

“I’ve been working on that a lot—better technique, the small stuff,” Flowers said. “Not really anything crazy, just detail. I’m trying to lead the receivers, because everybody’s doing their part and everybody is doing great. We’re gonna take it to another notch, when it’s time for the season.”

Flowers also said that he has been working on his connection with Jurkovec, as 2020 was the first time the two have played together. 

“I’m trying to get [Jurkovec] to come down to Florida and show him what real football is,” Flowers said.

In a list of early 2021 Heisman Trophy odds, Flowers was ranked No. 20. As one of the most senior members of BC’s offense, Flowers will undoubtedly be expected to help lead the 2021 squad. 

“He is always a positive person,” Willie said. “He’s been like that … since seven, eight years old. He pretty much hasn’t changed. He’s a very positive, humble guy.”

Hafley had similar things to say, citing Flowers’ ability to keep practices lighthearted and stay positive.

“He just lights up a room,” Hafley said. “He’s always in a good mood, he has a ton of energy, he’s a great presence. He has this big smile that just makes you smile. He’s a serious guy when he has to be, he knows when he can have fun, he practices at an extremely high level, he’s very motivated. … He’s just got this great presence about him.”

For as competitive as he is, Hafley said Flowers knows how to keep practices lighthearted when appropriate. One way is through making bets with Hafley.

“There’s a lot of days in practice where I’ll jokingly make [Flowers] a fun, friendly bet and say, ‘You’re not going to catch five balls today.’ He’ll look at me and say, ‘I bet you I’ll catch 10,’” Hafley said. “Then him and I will just kind of go back and forth at practice, have some good fun. That’s just the type of kid he is.”

Barring a disastrous upcoming season, Flowers should have a long football career ahead of him. BC is situated to compete with some of the best teams in the country in 2021, and Flowers should be a major contributor to its success. 

Hunter Long—Flowers’ teammate and runner-up for most receiving yards throughout 2020—was recently drafted by the Miami Dolphins. With some luck, Flowers should be hearing his name called in an upcoming NFL Draft as well, and his childhood dream of playing in the NFL will be realized.

“That’s his dream, that’s what, that’s what he wants,” Willie said. “He was saying that at a young age, and he really believes in himself and I believe too. I know he can do it.”

Featured Image by Nell Redmond / AP Photo

Other Images by Jess Rivilis / Heights Senior Staff, Ikram Ali / Heights Editor, and Courtesy of Willie Flowers

May 3, 2021