Boston College star wide receiver Zay Flowers grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, as the 11th of 14 children. His mother died in 2005, leaving his father, Willie, to drive a truck for a medical device company to provide for the family.
Flowers received a football scholarship to Boston College in 2019 and earned All-ACC honors as a wide receiver with a breakout 2020 season. He enters 2022 as one of the sport's best receivers and a strong NFL draft prospect.
With that reputation has come sudden opportunity. In the days leading up to the May 1 deadline to enter the NCAA transfer portal without requiring a waiver for transfer, Flowers found himself with a decision that's indicative of college football's new reality.
He told ESPN this week that in the three or four days prior to the May 1 portal deadline, he received multiple six-figure offers via intermediaries from name, image and likeness companies to enter the portal and transfer. He said he was told NIL companies would give him $600,000 to transfer to one school and there was another deal that would give him $300,000 to go to a different school. Flowers had not entered the NCAA transfer portal, nor given any public indication he intended to.
Flowers declined to name the schools and said none of them contacted him directly, rather the "schools reached to people close to me." He told Boston College coach Jeff Hafley about the offers and ultimately decided to stay at BC.
"For a kid like me from a household of 14 with one parent, that's life-changing money," Flowers said. "I talked to Coach Hafley and we went through what was going on. I talked to my dad. My dad would love me to stay at BC, and I wanted to stay at BC. It was a decision I had to make, and the decision I made was to come back to school."
After passing NIL legislation last July 1, the NCAA finds itself in the crosshairs over its inability to legislate the interim NIL rules it has passed. The vagaries surrounding NIL -- including different rules in different states -- have become such a hot-button issue that two collegiate commissioners headed to Washington D.C. to seek legislative help on the issue.
Meanwhile, the sport still has to grapple with the age-old issue of actually enforcing whatever rules it comes up with. NIL has quickly become a way for representatives of schools to induce recruits or transfers into attending a school, which isn't technically allowed but is difficult to enforce. Situations like those presented to Flowers are against NCAA NIL rules. According to the NCAA: "NIL compensation contingent upon enrollment at a particular school (is prohibited). For example, institutions should not use NIL arrangements to improperly induce matriculation (e.g., guaranteeing a particular NIL opportunity upon enrollment)."
Flowers said no coaches reached out to him directly in the days leading up to the May 1 deadline, but players on the teams interested did through social media and texts. He compared the timing of his situation to that of Pitt star receiver Jordan Addison, who did enter the NCAA transfer portal.
"It felt like I was back being recruited," he said. "They put a lot of pressure on you, too. But there's no money on the line during the time when you are recruited (in high school). Now there's money on the line. That makes it harder."
Soon after he heard about the offers, Flowers called Hafley. After his initial surprise, Hafley said he expressed gratitude that Flowers came to him. The morning after that phone call, they discussed the situation in Hafley's office.
"It shows the power of our relationship," Hafley said. "Him coming to me meant so much to me, rather than some of these other kids going behind their coaches' back."
When asked if he reached out to the other coaches or schools, Hafley said he preferred to handle the situation directly with Flowers. He's hoping there's some modifications to the rules.
"Is this where we are in college football right now?" Hafley said. "There needs to be something done."
For Flowers, he needed to make a quick decision. Either he could help his family, which includes nearly 20 nieces and nephews, out in the short term financially. Or he could stay at BC, where he has several NIL deals, including one that provides a BMW, but not to the level of the offers from the other schools.
"I mean, we don't live in the best area," Flowers said. "(My dad) does everything he can to help make ends meet. He works a lot...I mean, like, just having that (amount of money offered), that's probably more than my dad ever made in his whole life, and I'd make in a year. It could help my dad make his burden easier on him and (my siblings and nieces and nephews), put me in a better situation to help my family."
He added: "Money like that can help you pay for a lot of stuff. Medical expenses. All types of stuff. Whoever needs help at the moment."
Flowers ultimately decided to stay at Boston College after talking it through with his father.
In a phone interview with ESPN, Willie Flowers said he stressed the importance of loyalty -- "it's my word and his word, and commitment is very important." He said Boston College believed in his son early on in the recruiting process and Zay Flowers forged relationships there with friends and teammates.
Willie Flowers appreciated his son wanting to help out the family, but he said, "the Lord gives me strength to get up" and take care of his family every day.
Recalling the conversations he had with his son, Willie Flowers said, "Originally, the first one I had with him, I could tell he got excited. It is a lot of money. He got kind of excited. Once he calmed down, I really talked to him. He knew where he wanted to be at.
"I told him, like Bill Parcells said, 'Don't chase the cheese, it's rat poison.'"
Part of the reason was rooted in football, as he didn't want to let down the teammates he'd worked with for years. He also knows that BC has an established quarterback in Phil Jurkovec and an elite offensive lineman, Christian Mahogany, who are both NFL prospects for the 2023 draft. He also mentioned his excitement playing for new offensive coordinator John McNulty.
"Coming back, I felt it was the best thing for me," Flowers said. "I'm the man here, I'm going to get the ball. As long as I do what I'm supposed to do, I'm going to have the opportunity to play at the next level, which is something I dreamed about as a kid."
In his discussions with his father, Zay Flowers said the power of a Boston College degree played a big part.
"That just shows I believe in loyalty and shows my father is thinking ahead for my future," Flowers said. "He's got my best intentions in mind. He really loves me and wants the best for me.
"The BC degree is a lot more valuable than the degree from a lot of the schools reaching out. I can make more than $600,000 with my degree and the alumni network down the road."