At one point, JP Bolwahnn just stopped watching football. He couldn’t bear the sight of other people playing the game he loves.
Bolwahnn had the time of his life playing tailback and cornerback at Albuquerque’s Eldorado High School, but when his senior season came to an end in 1994, so did his football career.
He was fast and tough, but at 5-foot-4 and 140 pounds, nobody believed his success under the Friday night lights could translate into Saturday stardom.
While friends and teammates were getting offers to play in college, Bolwahnn was a player without a team and a young man without a purpose.
So, seeking a challenge, he joined the Navy and signed up for the SEALs, where his heart and desire would count for more than his height and weight. He survived the odds and rigorous training to become, at age 19, one of only 16 of a group of 160 to earn his trident.
For 13 years he served around the globe as a member of the Navy’s elite special force, seeing action during the early stages of the war in Iraq and later working four years as a SEAL instructor in Coronado.
Along the way, he stopped thinking about football. It was just a chapter of his life that couldn’t be re-opened and a dream he had long ago buried—or so he thought.
After leaving the Navy in 2008, Bolwahnn discovered he still had NCAA eligibility because of his military service. And Bolwahnn—who’d grown two inches and put on more than 40 pounds of muscle since high school—had kept himself in terrific shape while training, working as a fitness instructor and playing rugby.
Suddenly, he had a second chance to play college football.
Now, he’s a 34-year-old junior and business major at the University of San Diego, a backup running back and member of the special teams.
He’s not only watching football again, he’s savoring everything about it. And as his story spreads, he’s inspiring others.
“Now that I have this opportunity again, there’s nothing that’s going to take it away from me,” Bolwahnn says. “I will hold on and do whatever I’ve got to do to play.”
Younger Than His Years
Today, JP (John-Paul) Bolwahnn strolls around the USD campus looking like any other student.
Though he’s almost twice the age of freshmen (who were in diapers when he was slashing through defenses as a high school senior), he appears younger, just a guy with a soul patch and tattoos wearing a T-shirt and shorts with a backpack slung over his shoulder.
As an athlete, too, Bolwahnn is more on top of the hill than over it.
Stephane Rochet, USD’s head strength and conditioning coach, says Bolwahnn’s weight-room numbers are excellent and his 4.55 time in the 40-yard dash is among the best on the team.
“I know my strength and speed are better than when I was in high school,” says Bolwahnn. “They’re better than at any point in my life. I feel like I’m 25, 26 years old.”
Speed, just as it was in high school, is his biggest asset.
Bill Gentry, his coach back then, remembers Bolwahnn as quick, fast and tough.
“He was very small,” says Gentry, 85, who retired in 1995 and still lives in Albuquerque. “In height and weight both he was little, but he had real good speed and he had a sense of how to cut and where the opening was best, a daylight-type runner.”
As Gentry recalls, not much was expected of Bolwahnn his senior year. But when the starting tailback went down, Bolwahnn stepped up, playing a big role for a playoff team. Bolwahnn recalls rushing for more than 200 yards and three TDs in the '94 homecoming game.
Gentry says he was “a good young man” and “a joy to coach.” Bolwahnn credits Gentry with helping to mold his future.
“Football was the most discipline I had prior to going in the service,” he says. “[Gentry] was like a no-nonsense kind of guy. Back then, they could grab you by the facemask. … He let you know when you messed up, let you know when you were right.”
Adds Bolwahnn: “If I was ever a coach, I would model myself after him.”
Recently, Bolwahnn spent several days with a film crew from ESPN for a piece to be aired close to Veteran’s Day. His story has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers and he’s been on Jim Rome’s national radio show.
Bolwahnn—who on Saturday carried the ball 11 times for 74 yards as USD (5-1) beat Valparaiso 55-14—has been inundated with emails, tweets (@JPBolwahnn) and Facebook messages from people wishing him luck, thanking him for his service and telling him he’s an inspiration.
At USD, almost everyone seems to be pulling for him.
Says Rochet: “There’s no jealousy. There’s no ‘Why are they interviewing him?’ He’s put his time in. He’s earned this with 13 years as a Navy SEAL serving our country. It’s hard not to be real happy for him.”
Adds John McGough, a senior wide receiver: “He’s just so humble. Everybody respects him so much for what he’s done and how hard he works.”
As Bolwahnn sees it, his years as a SEAL prepared him for this next step, a return to school and football. He had “crappy grades” in high school, he says, but now gets A’s.
“I made the best decision of my life without realizing it when I signed up to be a SEAL,” he says. “All that discipline and motivation and mental toughness that I learned.”
Among his teammates, his age is rarely discussed.
“Sometimes I forget how old I am and I think they forget, too,” he says.
“We all know he’s older,” says McGough, “but he plays like a young kid.”
He’s gone from being the youngest on his SEAL team to the oldest on his football team.
“What matters is if you get the job done,” says Bolwahnn, who lives in Pacific Beach.
He admits, though, that he’s blessed to be so fit—and still fast—in his mid-30s.
“I look at other people who are my age,” he says, laughing, “and I’m like, ‘Dang, man, you need to work out or something.’ ”
For Bolwahnn, his return to football has come to mean much more than he ever thought it would.
On the day before the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, USD was getting ready to host Western New Mexico when head coach Ron Caragher asked Bolwahnn to speak to the team.
For Bolwahnn, the anniversary is personal and emotional. Many of the SEALs he served with or trained have been killed in the line of duty. This summer, .
After that crash, he began to doubt what he’s doing. Going to school and playing football while others are fighting and dying seemed selfish.
But the message he’s gotten from former SEAL teammates is supportive and simple: Go for it.
So he has. And when he got up to speak to his teammates before that Sept. 10 game, he tried to convey what it’s all meant to him.
“When I first started playing football it was for me, to quiet some demons in my head, ‘What if I could have, should have,’ all that stuff,” he remembers saying.
“When I first started this journey, it was for me, kind of selfish reasons. But as more people have found out about it, so many people have told me it’s inspiring and motivating. I told them it’s not about me anymore, it’s not even about us, it’s like it’s bigger than us. There are people overseas following us. So we need to make sure we step it up and not let anybody down.”
Bolwahnn’s hope that night was to be able to score a touchdown and honor his fallen and still-serving friends with a simple end-zone celebration: a salute of the American flag.
It didn’t happen, though USD coaches tried to help. Six straight times late in a one-sided game, Bolwahnn got the ball. Six rushes, 15 yards and a first down, but no touchdown.
Earlier, though, he set one up playing special teams.
As gunner on the punt team, Bolwahnn streaked down the field and crashed into the returner just as the ball settled into his hands. The ball went flying, USD recovered and scored.
“Oh, man it was, it was awesome,” he says, when asked if the crunching hit and forced fumble made his comeback worthwhile. “It felt, really, really good and it was definitely worth it to be out there under the stadium lights.”
McGough says the atmosphere in the stadium “was electric” when Bolwahnn made the play.
The plan to honor his friends will have its day. He has the rest of this season, plus next season, too. The salute is good to go.
Just like JP Bolwahnn.