LAYTON -- Chad Willson is banking on the third time being a charm.
The former Layton High standout and Standard-Examiner All-Area Football MVP has earned his way into his third title game and is determined to walk off the field with a different result than his prior two attempts.
Willson, 21, now a 221-pound senior outside linebacker at North Dakota State University in Fargo, will lead the second seeded Bison into the FCS championship game against top-ranked Sam Houston State on Jan. 7 at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas.
Previously, as a high school senior, he recorded north of 100 tackles and rushed for 555 yards as his Lancers made their way into the 2007 state 5-A championship game before dropping a 19-7 decision to Alta.
Then, as a freshman at Snow College, the No. 1-ranked Badgers suffered a heartwrenching 37-30 double overtime loss to Butler Community College in the Top of the Mountains Bowl which cost them the National Junior College Athletic Association championship.
Even with the undefeated Sam Houston State Bearkats (14-0) standing in his way, it's tough to bet against a guy that keeps overcoming long odds.
After a stellar prep career, as a 5-foot-11, sub 200-pound middle linebacker, colleges weren't knocking down his door with scholarship offers. While his grit and dedication were unquestioned attributes, his lack of size steered the in-state universities and others away. Snow was the only school to offer to pay for his schooling.
"I talked to BYU and Utah and they offered preferred walk-on status, but that didn't really mean anything," Willson said. "They told me I was too small. Snow was the only place that offered me a scholarship. I figured I should go there because they wanted me there."
After the disappointing loss to Butler, the Badgers bounced back and Willson earned defensive MVP honors as a sophomore in the 2009 Top of the Mountains Bowl which Snow won to finish with a No. 5 national ranking.
However, as Willson looked to continue his collegiate career, once again recruiters kept questioning his stature.
"I finally came to the conclusion that I was never going to be considered tall enough," Willson said. "But how is an extra two inches going to make me a better football player? I just did what I could with what God gave me and made the best of it. I just try to play with all the heart I can. I put everything I can into it."
Once again, as fortune would have it, Willson's decision was essentially made for him as North Dakota State was the only school to offer him a scholarship.
He burst onto the scene during his first game in a Bison uniform with 12 tackles in a 6-3 road victory over Kansas of the Big 12 Conference.
The Bison advanced to the FCS playoffs a year ago and beat Robert Morris and Montana State before dropping a 38-31 overtime decision to eventual national champion Eastern Washington.
However, during the 2011 campaign, with the exception of a 27-24 late season slip-up against Youngstown State, NDSU has been perfect, compiling a 13-1 record, including a 37-24 victory over the Big Ten's Minnesota. NDSU staged convincing playoff wins over James Madison, Lehigh and Georgia Southern to reach the title game.
The Bison boast the best FCS scoring defense, allowing only 13.2 points per game with Willson leading the team with 88 tackles. He also has 2¬½ sacks, an interception and a pair of fumble recoveries.
While the Bearkats figure to have a home field advantage, there should be plenty of Bison faithful in attendance. According to Willson, 20,000 fans were vying for the school's allotment of 4,000 tickets.
"We have awesome support up there and the people from that area are very kind and nice," Willson said. "The only thing I really miss is the mountains. There is not really even a hill around there. I had an old man tell me that Fargo is the only place that you can watch your dog run away for three days."
Perhaps it's an old joke around those parts, but with the obstacles that he has already overcome, don't be surprised if Willson and his Bison teammates run away from Texas back home to the flat plains of North Dakota hoisting the FCS national championship trophy.