KALAMAZOO, Mich. -- The quarterback of the undefeated team is engaged to the former cheer captain, because of course he is.
"I had to fit that stereotype, that mold that everybody puts with quarterbacks," Zach Terrell quips. "I got myself an absolute gem and I knew I had to lock it down or she would soon enough figure it out and leave me."
As if being the rare college kid with planned nuptials were not enough of a tell, Terrell is a rare breed. Yes, he has No. 17 Western Michigan at 8-0 entering Tuesday’s game at Ball State (8 ET on ESPN2 and WatchESPN). And sure, there is that remarkable fact that his one and only interception did not come until the eighth game of this season. But there is more to it than that.
Like being a member of the endangered species that is a four-year starting college quarterback.
Or positioning the Broncos of the Mid-American Conference as a serious threat to crash a New Year’s Six bowl.
Or the simple fact that after a new head coach took over some four years ago, there were legitimate concerns about whether the mild-mannered Terrell had what it took to mesh with his new boss, a kinetic 32-year-old who cut right to the chase in his first meeting with the signal-caller.
"I said, 'Listen man, I don’t think you’re for me. You don’t talk. You don’t lead. You don’t act like you want to be here.'" WMU coach P.J. Fleck recalls. "... And he looked at me like, 'Coach, you’ve got me all wrong. I’m really like that.'
"I was like, 'I haven’t seen it one bit. Maybe you showed somebody else. I haven’t seen it at all.' And [Terrell] was like, 'No, just give me some time to show you me.' And that day we started our personal relationship."
Fleck reflects on that moment from the same couch in his office where it had occurred. He says a coach-quarterback relationship is the best there is in sports, because those are the positions that will eternally receive the bulk of the credit or blame for a team’s performance. Aside from Colorado (coach Mike MacIntyre and QB Sefo Liufau), Temple (Matt Rhule and P.J. Walker) and Tennessee (Butch Jones and Josh Dobbs), few can relate to that kind of four-year marriage at the top.
After a 1-11 debut campaign for both, Fleck and Terrell were among the least popular folks in town. Now as the runaway league favorites, the coach knows there is no exaggerating how integral his quarterback has been in the Broncos’ meteoric rise.
"We are such a process-driven culture that it’s not the message of 'Row the Boat,' it’s the messengers of 'Row the Boat,'" Fleck says, referring to his program’s popular motto. "That’s why Zach is so important, because he was the first messenger. Even though it was going bad, the first messenger that gave validity from a players’ perspective of 'Row the Boat' -- once he was going, he could get everybody else going."
Fleck stops himself and laughs, saying he might get emotional talking about Terrell, which is what happens when athletic director Kathy Beauregard is asked about the quarterback’s impact.
"You really have some that you just kind of cling to out there," the 20th-year WMU AD says. "They’re all a part of the team and everyone is as important as the next, but [Terrell’s] ability to lead, for those to believe and follow is -- it just doesn’t happen."
As a 23-year-old, Terrell gets some grandpa jokes from teammates, though he mentions that punter Derrick Mitchell, a former minor league baseball player, actually has six years on him, at 29. He says he gets his athleticism from his mother, who played volleyball and basketball, and he cracks that his appreciation for his offensive linemen stems from his father, who played offensive line at NAIA Taylor University, where his parents met.
Pressed to speak on what staffers describe as a ridiculous amount of charity work, Terrell deadpans: "I love talking about it." (For the record, his endeavors include work with the Special Olympics, the school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes group and Tree of Life, a school serving low-income kids.) He is closing on an MBA after finishing his undergraduate degree in finance early, and was just named a finalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy, given annually to the nation’s top scholar-athlete.
All of this is to say nothing of his day job, in which he is second nationally with a 72.2 percent completion percentage while throwing for 20 touchdowns and that aforementioned lone interception. Terrell says he needed every last rep he got in the three seasons prior to this one to have the type of campaign he’s had so far -- he entered 2016 with 27 career interceptions.
Tuesday night’s game against Ball State is a marker of sorts for Terrell, whose Broncos followed up their tumultuous 2013 campaign by opening 2-3 and staring at a 21-point deficit in Muncie, Indiana. After engineering a 42-38 comeback win, Terrell framed a photo of him hugging Fleck, giving it to his coach with the engraving: "I want to inspire people. I want someone to look at me and say, because of you I didn’t give up." It was a program-changing victory that begat a six-game win streak, and the Broncos are 22-7 since. The image is on display in Fleck’s office.
As for the question of whether the NFL will take a flier on a 6-foot-2, 204-pound MAC quarterback who began his career by presiding over a one-win season and could end it on one of college football’s biggest stages, Terrell says the pros want to see guys who perform well in college, and that his focus remains on the day-to-day minutiae.
"He’s probably not going to be a first-rounder, because he’s not the biggest guy, but they love him, they love his intangibles," Fleck, a former Buccaneers receivers coach, says of his NFL contacts. "He’s a kid that’s going to go into a camp, and the longer Zach Terrell stays around, the more people will fall in love with him."
Regardless, Terrell already has one suitor whose heart he will have won over by training camp, as he will marry former Broncos cheerleader Maggie Craig in July.
"I’m not doing any planning. She’s doing it all. She’s a rock star," Terrell says. "She graduated early, too, so she’s done now. Now she’s a fan from the stands, which is weird for her."
If Terrell and Western Michigan get their fairytale ending, perhaps that view from the seats could become commonplace for his loved ones by next fall.