Try and stop J.P. Bolwahnn from living his dream
It’s early August, and even though USD’s fall football camp is just getting underway, Head Coach Ron Caragher and his staff are already able to recognize the players who have gone the extra mile during their offseason training programs.
“In order for this team to be successful, we need everyone on the field to know exactly what their assignment is,” Caragher says. “That’s Football 101, but sometimes at the beginning of camp, it can take a little while for everyone to get on the same page.”
Judging by the barks of approval from coaches and the congratulatory helmet slaps from his teammates, what’s readily apparent is that sophomore J.P. Bolwahnn has been doing his homework. Despite having never played an official down of football for the Toreros, he’s competing for playing time as both a running back and a member of the special teams, an especially impressive accomplishment considering the atypical route he took to get to Alcalá Park.
“J.P. is a really tough player, physically and mentally, and leads by example on and off the field,” Caragher says. “The other players really respect him.”
Standing 5’6” and tipping the scales somewhere in the neighborhood of 180 pounds, Bolwahnn definitely doesn’t fit the mold of the prototypical college running back. But then again, much of his amazing story skews towards the uncommon.
At 34 years old, Bolwahnn is at an age where conventional wisdom says he should be wearing a team visor and a whistle, not a helmet and pads. But the former Navy SEAL — who served his country with distinction as a member of the vaunted special operations force for 12 years — doesn’t take too kindly to being told he can’t do something.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to play college ball,” he says. “I was kind of upset that I never got a chance to try and walk on somewhere, but sometimes things just don’t happen at the time you want them to happen. But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen at some point, right?”
Back in 1995, Bolwahnn was looking to parlay his successes as a prep athlete in Albuquerque, N.M., into a college scholarship. And, like many talented high school athletes, the offers he hoped he’d receive never materialized. Forced to reconsider his options, he decided that serving his country and qualifying for GI Bill scholarship dollars would help pave the way to a college education.
All he had to do then was decide which branch of the armed forces to enlist with, and a Navy SEAL promotional video at the local recruiting office answered that question in about five seconds.
“The Marine Corps and Navy recruiting office were right next to each other, and I went into the (Marine Corps) office first,” he recalls, laughing. “They were really trying to up-sell me on joining up, but there was a cutout in the wall between the two offices, and the Navy guys were playing a video of guys jumping out of airplanes, shooting guns and getting after it. Then I found out it was the Navy SEALs, and it was on from there.”
Soon after, Bolwahnn found himself on a bus bound for Coronado, Calif., home of the Navy SEALs’ infamous Basic Underwater Demolition School (BUDS). It was there where the foundations of his rock-solid work ethic and team-oriented philosophy were forged.
“A lot of times, people don’t really understand what a team concept is, but if you’re going to join the SEALS, you learn about it from day one,” he says. “Being a SEAL really helped me understand how my specific role can have a major impact on the team, and that translates well to football, and to business.”
In fact, business opportunity in the fitness industry was one of the reasons Bolwahnn decided to leave the Navy in 2008. He also was intent on furthering the education he had put on the back burner during his military service. He couldn’t have known at the time that the pursuit of both of those interests would eventually lead him to USD.
“I settled in San Diego after leaving the Navy, and was working as a manager of a CrossFit gym downtown when I met Casey Burgener, who was a weight lifting coach for USD at the time,” he explains. “I also met (USD Athletics Head Strength and Conditioning Coach Stephane) Rochet, who asked me if I’d be interested in volunteering as a strength coach with the football team. One day they were teasing me about trying out for football, and that’s where everything started.”
What started was the pursuit of a dream that he thought had vanished some 15 years ago. Bolwahnn spent a year at San Diego Mesa College honing his academic and athletic abilities, and transferred to USD last January in time to join the football team for spring practice.
“I had all of my college eligibility left since I never went to school, so I met with Coach Caragher before transferring to Mesa College, and he told me he’d give me a shot if I went through the proper channels first.”
The rest is history — and the stuff of Oscar-winning Hollywood screenplays.
“I showed up for spring practice, worked hard and got invited to come back for fall practice,” Bolwahnn relays, unable to stifle an ear-to-ear grin. “I never thought I’d get the chance to play football and earn my college degree, but, well, here I am, living my dream.”