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Former SEAL has end-zone mission

University of San Diego running back JP Bolwahnn says he'll salute U.S. flag as soon as he crosses goal line for his first touchdown, a gesture honoring fallen comrades and SEALs still fighting.

September 08, 2011|By Ben Bolch
  • University of San Diego running back JP Bolwahnn, no. 28, cheers from the sidelines during a game against Azusa Pacific University on September 3.
University of San Diego running back JP Bolwahnn, no. 28, cheers from the… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from San Diego — Like any good military man, JP Bolwahnn has it all mapped out.

Shortly after he crosses the goal line for the first time, the ball cradled in his arm, the University of San Diego running back will turn toward the American flag and salute.

The gesture will be for Petty Officer Danny Dietz, killed six years ago in a firefight with Taliban guerrillas. It will be for Lt. Cmdr. Jonas Kelsall and Chief Petty Officer Robert James Reeves, who died last month when their helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan. And it will be for all the other Navy SEALs still fighting abroad.

Bolwahnn was once a member of the special operations force, attaining the rank of Special Operator 1st Class. Over a military career that spanned 13 years, his missions took him to the Mediterranean in peacetime and the Persian Gulf during the war in Iraq.

Now he is a 34-year-old college sophomore who is never more than 100 yards from his intended destination. He's back in the game he's long loved, chasing the dream he had half his life ago as an undersized and overlooked high school back with no scholarship offers.

A touchdown in his debut with the Toreros against Western New Mexico on Saturday — the eve of the 10-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — would be an especially meaningful tribute for a player who has already dedicated the season to his buddies who perished in combat.

"I remember their names, I remember seeing their faces," Bolwahnn said of Kelsall and Reeves, whom he trained during a four-year stint as a SEALs instructor. He was even closer to Dietz, shepherding the fresh-faced recruit through his early days in Bolwahnn's unit.

Bolwahnn nearly became a casualty himself eight years ago. In the initial phase of the United States' invasion of Iraq, he hunkered down in a building that shook violently as missiles exploded nearby. He could only hope his comrades remembered his location.

These days, Bolwahnn does most of the frightening. He jokingly warned his roommate in fall camp not to close his eyes at night lest he wake up with Bolwahnn hovering over him.

When his coaches asked him to address the offense in a preseason meeting, Bolwahnn turned a trailer into a panic room filled with Xs and uh-ohs. Demonstrating a technique the SEALs use to storm a house, Bolwahnn got in the face of receiver Sam Hoekstra and started yelling.

"Get the [expletive] down!" Bolwahnn barked.

Hoekstra froze, unsure of the proper reaction.

"It was the most intense thing I've ever seen," Hoekstra said. "I was like wow, I'm happy this guy is on my side."

Said San Diego Coach Ron Caragher: "I was tingling."

A few of Bolwahnn's teammates are brave enough to tease him. Tight end Patrick Doyle calls him grandpa, a not-so-subtle nod to the fact that Bolwahnn is nearly twice the age of some Toreros and older than six of his 10 coaches.

"At first, honestly, I was a little worried about it," said Andrew Rolin, the running backs coach who is only 24. "But it's not like I need to discipline him. He's respectful."

Bolwahnn said he views himself as an older brother to his teammates, but he has some catching up to do on the field. He is 17 years removed from his final season at Albuquerque's Eldorado High, where he was a 5-foot-4, 140-pound dynamo known for his speed and toughness.

While teammates received scholarship offers, Bolwahnn pondered a future without football. He wanted to go to college but couldn't afford it. He visited a Navy recruiter's office, where a video showing SEALs jumping out of airplanes and performing underwater dives captivated the impressionable teenager.

Bolwahnn made a six-year commitment and reported to boot camp shortly after graduation. Of an entering class of 160, Bolwahnn was one of only 16 who became SEALs, receiving his trident — the symbol of the elite force — in November 1997.

His bedroom inside the Pacific Beach home he shares with a roommate is stocked with the trappings of two tours abroad: pure silk rugs from Kuwait, a picture of him in Rome and other exotic mementos. He participated in training exercises with operatives of various countries and helped remove mines from a channel in southern Iraq to clear the way for humanitarian aid.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Bolwahnn watched the first missiles launch from a warship in the Persian Gulf. Then he went below deck and saw them hit their targets on CNN.

"I was like, 'OK, here we go,' " said Bolwahnn, who flew into Iraq the following day on a security mission.

Bolwahnn spent most of the next four years training SEALs in Coronado. By 2008, he was ready for a change.

He left the military to pursue becoming a strength and conditioning coach and started an Olympic weightlifting program. He worked out with renowned lifting coach Mike Burgener, whose son Casey introduced him to Stephane Rochet, the strength and conditioning coach for San Diego's athletic programs.

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