Editor’s note: This story originally published on Aug. 1, 2022.
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — For three days in mid-July, New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson and seven teammates congregated for an informal passing camp, but this wasn’t your typical pitch-and-catch, hang-with-your-buddies kind of deal. Oh, no, this was something out of the old TV show “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”
They were guests at Gozzer Ranch in Harrison, Idaho, a private club spread across 700 acres near Lake Coeur d’Alene, not far from the Canadian border. Tight end C.J. Uzomah knew it was different when they pulled up to the on-site restaurant and spotted hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, former Saints coach Sean Payton and singer Justin Bieber.
“All of a sudden, we sit down and Bieber walks by and we’re like, ‘Oh my God, that’s Justin Bieber. Are you kidding me right now? What is this place?'” Uzomah said, still incredulous. “We’re looking at Zach and Zach said, ‘I told you this place was great.'”
It took some prodding to get the gang together — the hard-to-reach locale caused some hesitation — but they went home with fond memories of the mini-summer camp. They didn’t sleep under the stars, but they got a chance to hang out among them.
They also ate like kings and played golf, basketball and pickleball. They hit the lake for jet-skiing and wakesurfing. They also made a new friend — local resident Gretzky — who invited the players to his home, where they enjoyed his waterslide.
And, yes, they had a campfire — well, not an actual fire, but a gas-lit fire table. They made s’mores, performed card tricks, told stories, shared their football journeys and got to know each other in a way that never would have been possible without their trip to Big Sky country.
The players paid their own way to Idaho, but Wilson picked up the tab for the lodging. It was the ultimate chemistry class, one that transcended football, golf and the other activities.
“It was just about us hanging out,” wide receiver Elijah Moore said. “Us, the tight ends, the other quarterbacks, it was just a great time. We’d never had those moments where everybody put down their phone and just really, really talked. It was something great.”
The objective, of course, was to forge bonds that will translate to success on the football field. The Jets have a lot of new, young players on offense and they’re growing up together. Zach Wilson, Moore and running back Michael Carter are second-year players. Garrett Wilson and running back Breece Hall are rookies. Uzomah and fellow tight end Tyler Conklin are seasoned vets, but they’re new to the team.
Put another way: Four of the team’s top six receivers and backs have a year or less experience. There’s plenty of potential — Big Sky’s the limit — but they’re greener than the fairways at the Gozzer Ranch course.
“It is a young group, but at the same time what’s going to be fun is watching this group jell together and create its own identity,” coach Robert Saleh said. “Obviously, we have some good players and they’re all going to grow together.”
Recognizing the importance of chemistry, Wilson organized the trip. He did something similar last summer in South Florida, but there were distractions. This time, he wanted an isolated getaway. This was so out of the way that some players, after looking it up on a map, had the same reaction: That’s almost Canada!
“It was a good bonding moment for all of us to sit by the fire at night and talk,” Zach Wilson said. “It was a really cool trip. We definitely had a blast together.”
Moore said it took 7½ hours to get there, but he’s glad he made the trip. He was blown away by the postcard scenery. He played golf for the first time and had a blast, cracking, “Anything I do, I feel like I’m going to kill it.” Smith, who impressed teammates with his sweet swing, loved golf so much that he went out and bought a set of clubs.
Berrios was the star of wakesurfing, Garrett Wilson was responsible for the s’mores and everybody had fun at Gretzky’s house. The hockey legend has a giant waterslide on his property, and he and his wife taught the players the best sliding techniques. Naturally, it turned competitive. Uzomah said he defeated Wesco in the battle of the tight ends.
Gretzky showed up in a golf cart one day at the football field to watch the Jets run their plays. He didn’t give any motivational speeches, but his mere presence was inspiring. Uzomah was awestruck when he looked over and saw The Great One observing from the sideline.
“I get chills just thinking about it,” Uzomah said. “He’s the GOAT, right? Him sitting in his golf cart and watching us throw, I was like, ‘If 6-year-old me could see me now, he’d be freaking out.’ That in itself was amazing.”
Zach Wilson said he has the same marketing rep as Gretzky, which created the connection. The Bieber sighting was a surprise. Gozzer Ranch is known as a playground for the rich and famous (look, the Kardashians!), which added to the atmosphere. Not intimidated by Bieber, Moore tried to persuade the superstar singer to join them for a workout.
The players spent about two hours a day on the field, walking through pass routes, talking about offensive concepts and pitching/catching. This wasn’t some makeshift field; it was perfectly lined and manicured. They attracted a small group of kids, so the players stuck around to play ball with their new fans.
It was a relaxed vibe, which suited Flacco, 37, eight years older than the next-oldest in the group (Uzomah). He saw it as an important bonding experience because he wanted the players to see him as one of them, not some graybeard who won a Super Bowl a long time ago.
“It was especially cool for me because I’m so much older than those guys,” he said. “They probably see me in a certain light because of that. To hang out and just be one of the guys and show them, ‘I’m not your dad,’ it was cool for me. It’s always good to give people a different perspective on who you are and what type of teammate you are.”
The star of the trip was Zach Wilson, who, according to teammates, demonstrated his leadership the entire time. Flacco noticed how Wilson took charge, how he organized the activities and tried to make sure everyone enjoyed themselves. He took the role of host seriously.
“You could tell it was important to him,” Flacco said. “I think that’s a big step for a young quarterback. It’s another step in becoming a leader because guys are looking at you in that kind of light.”
Will the Idaho escape help them win more games? Will it turn the Jets into a playoff team after 11 seasons of frustration? The players kept it in the proper perspective, calling it an awesome trip that will strengthen bonds and create more accountability in the locker room. That can’t be understated, especially for a youthful team in its formative stage.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Uzomah said. “And, hopefully, we can do it again.”