Aaron Zwahlen: Inside Modesto’s First Family of Football
The first thing you notice about Aaron Zwahlen is his size.
Aaron stands 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds in flip-flops, a skinny, very tall kid with closely cropped blond curls and the tight frame of someone set to become a very large man indeed. His hands, when he shakes, are strong and large, rough from a dizzying number of hours in practice with the pigskin. The second thing you notice—maybe as soon as he opens his mouth to introduce himself and his mother Sue in his shockingly deep voice—is that those strong shoulders support what is—under the circumstances—a surprisingly level head.
Aaron is a down to earth teenager whose growing fame around town and across the country has come from doing what comes natural to him—namely, playing football very, very well—and who hasn’t let college recruiters spotlights distract him from his studies, his family or his life.
This fall, Aaron Zwahlen is a Senior at Downey, and the young quarterback is already in the process of leading Downey High’s football team to one of their best seasons ever—including a spectacular recent upset of the area’s juggernaut team, Central Catholic High School. Which is what you’d expect from one of the most promising up-and-comers in the sports world, who this year debuted at #153 on ESPN’s vaunted list of 300 top high school recruits. Scouts reckoned that Aaron is potentially an elite passer down the road with the measurables, arm strength and accuracy to blossom into a major starter in the future.
As a Junior last year, in his second season of Varsity play, Aaron passed for nearly 3,000 yards and threw 29 touchdowns, stats that have caught the eyes of scouts for major colleges all across the country. When the scouts come calling, they find that Aaron is incredibly fast, accurate with the ball and has the clockwork mechanics of pro players with ten more years of experience and training than him.
The University of Hawaii was the first to make an offer. When Zwahlen asked to watch a practice during a spring break trip to the island last year, Coach Norm Chow—who had coached Aaron’s father Lynn to success at BYU—said he’d rather Aaron was playing there, adding that a full scholarship would be waiting for him if he wanted it. Soon after, Aaron fielded interest from BYU, Duke University, Northwestern and a score of others, before making a verbal commitment to Chow’s Hawaii team.
With bonafides like his, Aaron seems like an obvious choice as a college draft pick. But Zwahlen’s commitment to his two-year Mission—the Zwahlens are devoted Mormons—put a crimp in the well-laid plans of many college scouts. The Mission would push Aaron’s graduation date back to 2018 and take him out of the game and away from practice for at least two full seasons.
Before he accepted Hawaii’s offer, Aaron says that his commitment to his Mission led some other major programs to hesitate or even pass on him as a prospect, including Texas Tech and Duke. Even though the Mission might provide him some advantages as a player, including a couple of years to build maturity and grow into his adult body.
“I totally understand where they’re coming from,” says Aaron. “They put a lot of money into players, and there are a lot of variables that can happen [during a two year absence]. I just try to remember that a lot of kids would have died just to have a chance to talk to these coaches.”
Aaron says he tries not to take the scouting and recruitment process too hard. “It kind of hurts [when schools say no], but it’s not the end of the world. Anyway, getting a scholarship doesn’t really prove who you are, it’s what you do with that scholarship. You can go in and be a third string or fourth string and practice every day, but getting the chance to start is one of my huge goals.”
The Family Connection
Aaron is the youngest son of a family of dyed in the wool Modestans with major sports cred. The Zwahlen family has some strong connections to the Modesto area and, until Aaron started playing for Downey, enjoyed many years on the starting roster at Davis High. Sue, Aaron’s mother, is an ER nurse and serves on the school board, while Dad Lynn, a local dentist, has coached high school football (including Aaron’s team at Downey) for 30 seasons.
Together, Sue and Lynn have raised six close-knit children in the area—five boys and a girl—and have remained steadfastly committed to balancing out active support of their childrens’ pursuits with essential wisdom about balancing sport with the demands of faith and life.
Each of the Zwahlen siblings has been athletically gifted—a trait they inherit from Lynn, who was named an All-American athlete for football during his own time at Davis High—but even with the crush of sports responsibilities and aspirations, they have remained committed to their studies, kept up with church responsibilities and made their post-athletics lives a priority. But over the past few years, the whole family is throwing their support behind Aaron.
“My parents have helped me out so much with football and all the sports I’ve played,” says Aaron, adding that he owes his level headedness to the influence of his family.
“The family is really supportive,” says Sue. “Aaron’s siblings are committed to his success, and they’re very excited to come to the games when they can. Of course we make sure we get a lot of [non-football] family time, too!”
Sue says that one of the things that keeps her encouraging Aaron is the many relationships the family has forged over the years. “What brought us together is the fact that he can throw a football. That’s great, but it’s the relationships we have with all the coaches and with the parents and students that last. I would love to see this same overwhelming support for our youth throughout Modesto.”
“I challenge everyone in Modesto to come out to any high school football game and experience all the good things that are happening!”
For Aaron, as for the other Zwahlen siblings, seriously pursuing athletics has meant a major time commitment. A peek at Sue’s planner reveals a tidy, tinily-written hash of appointments penciled in seven days a week, every day of every month through to the end of the year.
When we meet at a little after 10 a.m. during the off season, Aaron has already been through an early morning seminary class and an intense two-hour football practice and still managed to make it early for our interview. A typical day would be even more grueling, adding on longer practices and more responsibilities. And that’s just during the summer. During his last year in high school, Zwahlen has also piled core classes including AP Economics, 4th Year Spanish and Graphic Design onto his considerable sports practice load.
Asked what he does for fun during his off hours, Aaron quips, “I sleep, sometimes.”
“I don’t know what I’ll do with myself when all of this calms down,” jokes Sue, motioning at the packed schedule book. She adds that the time commitments that her childrens’ athletic pursuits added to her own schedule—from daily 5 a.m. wakeups to a steady stream of practices, games and tournaments—were just part of being a parent. “It’s just day to day life, nothing exceptional.” Indeed, what seems exceptional here is how, well, normal Aaron and the rest of the Zwahlen family seem to be.
Despite the intense pressures on their lives—and the very real possibility that Aaron could be drafted to the NFL in the next six years—the family remains remarkably cool about their daily responsibilities, and about the future.
“It’s been my goal for as long as I can remember to play football at a high level,” said Aaron. “But if that doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. It’s not all I am.”
What a possible future might look like without football, Aaron doesn’t hazard a guess. For now, his practices keep him busy and his family keeps him humble while he looks forward to the next play.