OGDEN — The most fateful decision Stefan Cantwell ever made as a quarterback was the one that was out of his control.
Better to be lucky than good, as they say.
You see, before he was a walk-on at Weber State, Cantwell thought about quitting football altogether. It was after his sophomore season at Snow College in 2015 that Cantwell — a former Old Spice Player of the Year winner at Bingham High School and pilot of the Badgers’ then-No. 2 ranking in the NJCAA — found himself in the position of being a special talent bereft of options.
“Me and my wife, while we were engaged, we didn’t really know where we were going to go because nothing was really happening with football,” Cantwell recalls.
Fresh off an 11-game season in which he threw for 22 touchdowns and 2,708 yards en route to a Salt City Bowl title, the junior college standout received little interest at the higher levels of college football. With little to choose from in the way of immediate opportunity, it became apparent to Cantwell that if he were to continue playing football, he would likely do so in the capacity of a walk-on.
And so, in December 2015, a crossroads confronted Cantwell and his newly wedded wife, Elizabeth. The choice? Football or nursing school.
“She wanted to go to nursing school, so she was actually thinking of either going back down to Dixie or going to BYU and just kind of wherever over the state,” Cantwell said, thinking back.
It wasn’t until late in the process that his wife finally zeroed in on Weber State’s nursing school — one of the most well-respected in the state — as her desired destination. While football loomed as a possibility for Cantwell, he saw it only as a theoretical proposition at the time.
In truth, it wasn’t until a chance encounter with Weber State offensive coordinator Fesi Sitake unfolded that allowed for the union of the couple’s dual pursuits.
It was during that impromptu meeting that Sitake, who was visiting on a recruiting trip for some of Cantwell’s Snow teammates, inquired about the quarterback’s availability before extending him an invitation to walk on for the Wildcats, to which Cantwell gladly accepted.
In this way, Weber State chose him more than he chose Weber State.
“When I went to down to Snow to recruit some other guys, I ran into him and talked to the coaches about him,” Sitake said. “I found out that they were potentially coming up here, and so far as a preferred walk-on, he was a no-brainer.”
As first impressions go, Cantwell left a lasting mark on the coaching staff from the moment he stepped on campus. Everyone from the head coach to lower-level assistants remarked about his work ethic and polish, which, naturally, formed an obvious question among those working within the program: How, exactly, did this kid slip through the cracks?
According to Sitake, his outward appearance was unbecoming of a collegiate quarterback.
“You’ve got to keep in mind that when we got him he was about 240 to 245 (pounds),” Sitake explained. “Honestly it was just the eye test he didn’t pass — he looked like a fullback or linebacker. He probably wasn’t eye candy for a lot of people, and at that quarterback position, a lot of times you have to either be eye candy physically or just by the way you look or by how fast you are or you’ve got a rifle of an arm. And so a lot of people passed up on that, and my initial thoughts were, ‘Holy cow, this guy slipped under the radar.’”
Once in the program, it didn’t take long for the staff to realize they had discovered a diamond in the rough. While Cantwell initially walked on at Weber State in the spring of 2016, he was eventually offered a scholarship by head coach Jay Hill in the summer of the same year after impressing the offensive coaches during spring camp.
Ultimately, it was that scholarship offer that retained Cantwell’s lifelong commitment to football.
“Being a walk-on is kind of hard because you don’t get money, and so it’s kind of hard to play football and work at the same time,” Cantwell admitted. “That whole spring I was telling my wife that ‘if it doesn’t work out and I don’t get a scholarship, it’s going to be hard for me to stay’ — just because of the money aspect of it. It was one of those things I was questioning at the time.
“But after the summer, I just honestly thought, ‘How could I even think about quitting?’ This team made me love to play football again.”
Traditionally known as one of the state’s backwater football programs, Cantwell has helped breathe life into Weber State this season.
Through five games, the South Jordan native has thrown nine touchdowns to just a single interception while rushing for four more scores and 194 yards. On top of that, he ranks second among Big Sky quarterbacks in pass efficiency in addition to posting a 62.3 percent completion percentage, good enough for fourth in the conference to this point.
Perhaps most impressive, though, is the degree to which Cantwell has accepted the offensive workload.
Consider: in engineering a near-upset over FBS-level California, Cantwell threw for a season-high 431 yards and toted the ball 20 times for 60 yards while accounting for both of his team’s touchdowns that day.
Additionally, Cantwell has often been the team’s decided leader in rushing attempts as he’s carried the ball at least 14 times in three of the five games this season.
While the sheer volume of rushing attempts is cause for concern to most observers, the coaching staff credits his weight-lifting habits and unique size for the position as the reasons for his preternatural toughness and durability.
“The number one thing is how he works in the weight room,” Sitake said. “I think he’s the strongest top-to-bottom in that whole, what we call ‘giant group’ — with the running backs, linebackers. I mean, pound-for-pound he might be one of the strongest guys.
“The way he works, he lifts so heavy for that very reason. He wants to be able to try and run people over and take hits.”
The Wildcats stand at 4-1 overall with an unbeaten record in conference heading into Saturday’s critical matchup against in-state and Big Sky rival Southern Utah.
That the Wildcats have transformed into a winning outfit under Cantwell comes as no surprise to those who have watched him closely over the years. In describing his quarterback, Hill simply referred to him as a winner — a nod to his two state titles in high school (one in football and one in baseball) and lone loss in his record as a starter at Snow College.
When asked if anything has surprised him about Cantwell’s success this season, Hill responded, “Quite frankly, nothing has really surprised me with him because I really felt like when he got in the game he was going to play great. I love his toughness, I love his preparation, so nothing’s really surprised me.
“His biggest asset is that he does everything right. He plays good on game day because he does everything right during the week. And he’s tougher than nails.”
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