(Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)
This story was originally printed in the BYU-Georgia Tech football Gameday program, Oct. 12, 2013
On game day he usually arrives earlier than most of his teammates. After catching some balls and feeling the grass, he rehearses every play in his mind while standing in the showers. Mental preparation is especially crucial, since he’s roughly the size of Rudy.
At 5-foot-8, 175 pounds, JD Falslev is the epitome of the classic underdog, the walk-on. But his size is irrelevant to his impact on the field.
“He may not be the biggest guy,” receivers coach Guy Holliday said. “He may not be the fastest guy, but he has a lot of things that you can’t coach that make him a good football player.”
Falslev’s work ethic and passion for the game has led him from walk-on to starter to scholarship player to impact player to team captain.
Coming into the 2013 season, he is one of the top return men in BYU history. He is No. 8 in career punt return yards (603), No. 8 in career punt returns (63) and No. 6 in career punt return yard average (9.57). In addition to his duties as a returner, in 2012 he was second in total receptions on the team with 37.
“My first impression of JD was he was rolling around on a cart, he just had surgery, and he was a little chubby at the time,” Holliday said with a laugh, “But I could tell one thing about him, he was a competitor.”
Being a competitor is just who JD is.
“It didn’t matter if it was football, basketball, baseball, golf, tiddlywinks, or who can mow the lawn better,” JD’s father Dave Falslev, said, “He’s just always had a fire.”
But even for competitors the road to walking on is a challenging one.
“There were many nights that I don’t want to admit, that I called my dad and said, ‘Hey I’m done,’” JD said. “The one thing he kept asking me was, ‘Do you love to play football? Well, you’re in the right place. It’s going to be hard, but at the same time, if you love what you’re doing it’s okay.’”
Being a walk-on poses unique financial obstacles besides the obvious challenge of winning a roster spot and an eventual scholarship offer. Tuition, textbooks and living expenses are covered by scholarships, but as a walk-on the player is responsible for these costs. With football related activities and schoolwork ranking high on the priority list, there isn’t much time for a part-time job.
“It got hard having to call and say, ‘Hey I need money or my rent check is coming up.’”
As a walk-on, there is no better place to be. The BYU football program has a unique walk-on system. Dave Falslev recalled learning about the football culture at a recruiting meeting.
The recruits and families were gathered in a room with the coaches and the leadership council, consisting of about seven or eight players.
“The coaches left the room, and we were allowed to ask any question of the players,” Dave said. “I asked about how walk-ons are treated. Five of those players raised their hands and said, ‘We are walk-ons.’”
Falslev was accurate in his assumption that BYU was the place to come if he wanted to walk on and be successful. Coach Bronco Mendenhall is a walk-on himself and values the path those players take to succeed. Since the start of his freshman year in 2010, Falslev has played in all 39 games.
“When Coach Mendenhall awarded me with that scholarship, it was like I was on top of the world,” Falslev said. “I knew that if I was going to walk on anywhere and have a chance that this is the place to be. Coming here I always had that goal in mind: I wanted a scholarship, but even more I wanted to play. I knew if my ultimate goal was to get on the field and get on the field consistently, then the scholarship thing would take care of itself.”
JD’s challenges have not been limited to football. This summer JD lost two people close to him.
“This offseason I lost my grandpa that I was really close with,” Falslev said. “Growing up I couldn’t picture myself without him. Two weeks later I lost one of my dad’s very best close friends, Gordon Churchill. He was almost like a godfather to me.”
Falslev’s name lends credence to the way he has handled his situation. The letters “JD” were not arbitrary initials. JD stands for Joshua David. David comes from his father and Joshua from the biblical prophet. The name Joshua is fitting, seeing as Joshua from the Bible was a committed leader and the highest type of the devout warrior.
Falslev credits his dad for helping him keep devoted to his goals.
“Growing up there was never the question you think you can or you think you can’t. You just have to do it. Questioning just wasn’t in the books.”
When Falslev began playing football in the seventh grade, he had to drop weight. In little league football, he was on the border for the weight limit of his age group. If you were over the weight limit, then you had to wear a big ‘X’ on your helmet that signified you could only play the line and you couldn’t carry the ball.
Dave Falslev recalled another challenge for JD as a junior in high school.
“One time in particular he was a little frustrated that the coaches had another player who was a senior playing in front of him. I told him, ‘Make it impossible for them not to play you.’”
JD eventually worked his way into being the starter in that position. It was his father’s philosophy that set the tone for his career.
“I never expect you to be the best,” Dave Falslev would say, “but the one thing you do have in your control is to never let anybody outwork you.”
The Smithfield native used these experiences to set the stage for his playing career. During his time at Sky View High School his versatility showed as he played running back and became an all-state return specialist.
With only a few scholarship offers, he decided to come to BYU to walk-on with the hopes of becoming a scholarship player. This meant that Falslev would compete not only for time on the field, but also for a scholarship. NCAA Division I football programs are allowed 85 scholarships each year. Seeing as the coach only has a few scholarships to hand out every season, the likelihood of a walk-on receiving one is low.
Just like any other player, Falslev had to prove himself to his coaches. In 2010, playing his first season as a redshirt freshman, JD seized a key opportunity in the Air Force game.
“We had struggled,” he said. “We ended up losing the game. One of the coaches threw me in on punt return as a returner. I told him that I would never let the ball hit the ground. If I could get to it, I’m going to catch it. I was nervous. I don’t get nervous for games. I never get nervous.”
JD prides himself on being mentally prepared, but even he was nervous. He hadn’t caught any punts in warm-ups before the game.
“The punter kicked a low, line drive, and I ran probably 15 to 20 yards straight at everyone who was running at me,” Falslev continued. “I did not care if someone hit me. All I was worried about was catching that ball. I ended up diving forward and catching it.”
The coach that put him in was impressed enough that his trust in Falslev began to rise. He began to see more playing time and ended that first season with 15 punt returns and eight kickoff returns.
“Glad it went that way or else I might never have seen the field,” Falslev chuckled, commenting on his first punt return.
Falslev takes each challenge in stride.
“He doesn’t know his limitations,” Holliday said. “When you don’t believe you have limitations, that’s one of the greatest attributes you can have. He works hard to overcome a lot of things. You can’t ever sit down and tell JD that he can’t do something. So his determination and sheer will overcomes any limitations that he may have. And he’s a student of the game. You gotta love that. You gotta love that.”
It’s these kinds of attributes that have allowed the BYU return man to flourish, even after experiencing a setback.
In the 2011 game against Utah, BYU was losing in front of the home crowd at LaVell Edwards Stadium. BYU had a tough first half and the third quarter was not much better. With 9:11 left in the quarter, Utah kicked off with Falslev back to return. The kick came in and as Falslev attempted to catch it, the ball deflected off his facemask resulting in a fumble that Utah recovered on the BYU 3-yard line. Utah capitalized a couple plays later bringing the score 30 to 10 in favor of the Utes.
“I could have let all those things build up, affect me and drive me right into the ground,” Falslev said about his challenges. “It takes a special group of guys to rally around each other and lift each other up and say, ‘You know what, that’s not who we are. Let’s get through this. Let’s see a brighter day.’”
Keeping focused helped Falslev get past his struggles.
Later on in the 2011 season, BYU was playing against TCU in Cowboys Stadium. With 2:20 left in the third quarter and BYU down, Falslev fielded a punt at the BYU 33 yard line and returned the ball 67 yards for the touchdown.
That play came at a tender time for the Falslev family. Dave was diagnosed with prostate cancer and the surgery was scheduled for the Monday after the TCU game. This happened to be the only game the Falslevs traveled to for the season. For Dave, the best part of that play was the gesture that JD gave in his moment of celebration.
“He knew where we were all sitting,” Dave said. “He turned and pointed right at us. It was good.”
JD honors those people who have made an impact in his life by remembering them, learning from them and seizing opportunities.
He especially honors those who have passed on. His work ethic comes from his grandfather who ran a farm in the mornings and evenings and worked for Logan City in the daytime. He remembers his dad’s friend, Gordon Churchill, by talking about him. Before each game, he writes the numbers of his high school teammates on his arm that have passed away. And he honors the chance that his BYU coaches gave him by coming to play his best.
Measuring Up: BYU Punt Returners
Punt returning is one of the most difficult jobs in football. It’s one chance to swing some momentum in your team’s favor. A fumble can set up the opponent for the easy score, but a long return can take pressure off the offense.
From the time the ball is punted to the time the receiver fields it, the player has roughly four seconds. The sun or the wind may even influence the returner’s vision of the ball’s location. Let’s not forget that 11 of the opponents are on a dead sprint down the field, and their main objective is to converge on you. Their hope is to force some momentum their way by making you fumble. This is all while you’re trying to catch the ball.
As a punt returner, this year senior JD Falslev looks to give the BYU offense more momentum with some solid punt returns. He ranks in BYU’s top 10 all-time for punt returns (63), punt return yards (603) and average punt return yards (9.57).
Success as a return man, historically, has not been tied to size as a football player. Regardless of Falslev measuring up at 5-foot-8 and weighing in at roughly 185 pounds, he compares quite fairly to his predecessors—in stats and stature.
Here are some of the top all-time BYU punt returners:
Vai Sikahema (1980-81, 84-85), at 5-foot-8 and 191 pounds, may have been the best returner in BYU history. He is most remembered for the 1980 Holiday Bowl. In the second quarter, with the Cougars losing to the Pony Express from Southern Methodist, Sikahema received the punt and ran it back 83 yards for the touchdown. BYU would go on to win 46-45. He is No. 8 in average punt return yards with 8.58 and No. 1 in punt returns and punt return yards with 153 and 1,312 yards, respectively. He went on to play in the NFL and is remembered by Philadelphia Eagles fans for boxing the goalpost after returning a punt for a touchdown against the New York Giants.
Golden Richards (1970-71), at 6-foot-1 and 178 pounds, was one of the top returners in BYU history. He is No. 7 in career punt return yards with 628 and No. 2 in average punt return yards with 17.44. He holds the record for most punt return touchdowns in a season with four and in a game with two against North Texas in 1971. Richards went on to play in two Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys. He caught a touchdown in Super Bowl XII against the Denver Broncos.
Mike Rigell (1998, 00-01), 5-foot-7 and 184 pounds, ranks 10th in career punt return yards with 484 and sixth in total punt returns with 65. He played on the 2001 BYU team that won 12 straight games and won the Mountain West Conference outright. He was part of the BYU offense that led the nation in scoring with 46.77 points per game and in total offense with 542.85 yards per game.
James Dye (1995-96), 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds, is tied with Golden Richards for having the most career punt return touchdowns with four. He is No. 5 in career punt return yards with 790 and No. 1 in average punt return yards with 19.75. He also helped the Cougars to one of the best seasons in school history in 1996 with a 14-1 record and a victory in the Cotton Bowl against Kansas State after going undefeated in the WAC. Dye was second in the nation in average punt return yards while contributing to BYU’s No. 5 final ranking in both polls.