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PROVO -- When it comes to JJ Di Luigi, family is everything.
Born John Paul Di Luigi III into a family with an abundance of Johns, Di Luigi’s cousins attempted to alleviate some of the confusion by calling him John John. Di Luigi’s dad, John, wasn’t as enthused about the new nickname. So the Di Luigi cousins adapted to JJ (no periods) and it has stuck ever since.
Di Luigi, the BYU senior running back with Italian heritage (see related story, "Italian Connections"), shares more than a name with his dad, who played football in high school before enlisting in the Air Force.
“He’s a sports hero to me,” Di Luigi said. “I grew up hearing stories about him from his old buddies and people that played against him.”
John Di Luigi’s football career continued after the Air Force as a coach, giving him the opportunity to coach JJ from the time he was 8 years old until he graduated high school.
“It’s always fun to have your son out there,” John Di Luigi said. “Especially when he’s the caliber of player JJ is. It’s hard if your son isn’t one of the best players if you’re a coach. But JJ made it really easy and enjoyable.”
Having his dad on the field wasn’t always as enjoyable to Di Luigi, a 5-foot-9, 185-pound speedster from Canyon Country, Calif., who said he got it harder than his teammates when it came to punishments.
“Even though I coached defense, if JJ ever did something wrong, the head coach always would look at me and have me tell him to do the running,” John Di Luigi said.
Despite the discipline, JJ Di Luigi said having his dad as a coach made him stronger and made their bond stronger as father and son.
Another key ingredient to the duo’s close connection is fishing.
“My dad comes up here every year and we’ll go around to different lakes and rivers and go fishing,” Di Luigi said. “When I was a kid, we could go up to the Sierra Nevadas.”
A 2011 Doak Walker Award preseason candidate, Di Luigi looks up to his dad’s speeds skills, but gives credit for his quick feet to his oldest cousin, Dave.
“Ever since I was in seventh grade, we started running the track and doing workouts for speed, strength and agility,” Di Luigi said. “He’s the one that has really pushed me and made me as fast of a person as I am today.”
His quickness on the field helped Di Luigi lead the team in rushing categories, touchdowns, all-purpose yards and receptions during the 2010 football campaign. His 1,422 all-purpose yards ranks 16th all-time in a season at BYU.
Di Luigi’s family support runs deeper than his dad and cousin. Although a family of mostly women, the Di Luigis’ are all about football.
“We, as a whole family — aunts, cousins, uncles — go to each others' games,” Di Luigi said. “It’s a family thing. If the women in my family could be playing tackle football, they would.”
John Di Luigi said Sheah, JJ’s oldest sister, probably knows as much about football as 80 percent of the guys out there, maybe more, despite never playing a down.
The football-loving Di Luigi family rarely misses any of JJ’s games. John Di Luigi will be cheering on his son in the stands at every game this year.
After coaching a game the night before, John Di Luigi caught the red eye at 1:40 a.m. Saturday morning in order to make it to the BYU-Ole Miss game in time to see JJ rush for a team-high 56 yards.
Last year, JJ Di Luigi had his personal cheering section at all but two games.
“I think it means a lot to JJ to know we’re there and we support him and what he’s doing and the team he plays on,” John Di Luigi said. “It’s not just JJ. When we come to a football game, we support the whole thing. We’re crazy. We’re screaming and yelling.”
One of JJ Di Luigi’s unforgettable games as a BYU football player came in the Super Dome against Tulane, where he scored the first touchdowns of his college career to help BYU to a 54-3 win. The game was one of the few the Di Luigi family missed. The first thing Di Luigi did after the game was call his family and say, “I hope you saw that.”
A highly touted running back in high school, Di Luigi helped Canyon High School to the 2006 California Division I state title. JJ was named MVP of the state championship game, where he racked up 138 yards on 21 carries to help the Cowboys upset the No. 1 team in the nation, De La Salle, 27-13.
“It was a David and Goliath story and we beat them,” Di Luigi said. “It was a great feeling and a great honor.”
Di Luigi, whose pregame ritual includes throwing up to relieve nerves, prefers being the underdog, which helps him as a BYU football player.
“I like people doubting you,” JJ said. “BYU seems to have a lot of doubt. You always go in as an underdog because you’re BYU.”
Competing in its first year as an Independent, BYU has garnered national attention and speculation as to how the football team will perform.
“Now, we’re out to show the nation, the world, that we’re BYU, a tough football school and to not take us likely,” JJ said.
When it came time to choose a college to play for, father and son partnered like usual, as John and JJ embarked on a major road trip to visit the nine schools offering Di Luigi a scholarship. At each stop, John Di Luigi gave his son a questionnaire and had him grade the school.
“Overall, when you looked at everything we asked him to look at with a school, BYU graded out the highest,” John said. “There wasn’t any other school that had team unity like BYU, a coaching staff that cared like BYU, facilities like BYU, a lifestyle like BYU, standards like BYU. After we got back, JJ looked at me because he knew I was going to ask him what he wanted to do, and said, ‘Don’t even ask the question, I’m going to BYU.’”
The BYU honor code is a major reason JJ Di Luigi, a Catholic, chose to play football for BYU.
“Being Catholic, I didn’t come for the LDS background, but I definitely came for the moral background,” Di Luigi said.
Di Luigi is a shining example to the other members of the football team that aren’t members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“We have some great kids that want the standards and want to live at a high standard level, and JJ is one of those kids that wants to do it right,” said Joe DuPaix, BYU’s running back coach. “He’s a great example and a great asset. In recruiting, we have players come here all the time and wonder if they can do it here, not being of the LDS faith. They see guys like JJ and 'Juice' Quezada and it’s a really impactful situation. It’s great to have JJ’s positive example on the team.”
Although the decision to come to BYU was purely JJ Di Luigi’s, John knew there was potential for his son as part of the football program.
“BYU offense is really tailor made for JJ because he does a lot of things,” JJ's father said. “He can run with the ball. He can play inside, outside. He can play receiver. He can come out of the backfield and catch the ball. They can motion him out of the backfield and put him in a slot position and get him lined up one-on-one with a linebacker and can play out there as well and be just as effective. There are a lot of layers to JJ. It plays right into what BYU does as a team.”
Di Luigi’s versatility is something quarterback Jake Heaps said poses an imminent threat to defenses and makes him a fierce force on the field.
“The nice thing about JJ is that we can always count on him,” BYU linebacker Terrance Brown said. “Whether it’s a pass play and he’s going to come hit a linebacker that’s blitzing or if he’s running the ball, we know that he’s going to give everything.”
It’s offensive linemen like Brown that motivate and spark fire into Di Luigi on the field.
“I love being able to see in their eyes their determination and how they go out on the field,” Di Luigi said. “Then hearing them yell, ‘Let’s stick it to them!’ ‘Let’s go down the field and score!’ ‘We’re going to open up holes and score right here!’ That motivates me more than anything, just seeing their passion and drive.”
That passion doesn’t go unnoticed among his coaches, especially DuPaix.
“He really, really loves football and wants to be great at it,” DuPaix said. “I have to hold him back out of certain plays and certain reps, because if it was up to him he’d play every rep of the game: offense, defense, special teams, the whole deal. That’s the kind of competitor he is. He wants the ball; he wants to be the playmaker. It’s great to have a guy with confidence like that and knowledge to be able to do so many things on the field.”
Not only is he an example to other non-LDS players on the team, BYU head football coach Bronco Mendenhall said when looking for an example of how he wants his players to work, Di Luigi is the person he turns to.
“JJ is a fanatical worker,” Mendenhall said. “He loves football. There hasn’t been a workout or a time period where I could say he hasn’t done his best.”
Di Luigi does his best in everything he does, which contributes to his competitive attitude.
“JJ likes to compete,” John Di Luigi said. “It doesn’t matter what you’re doing. You could be playing a board game and he’s going to want to win. He doesn’t like to lose. He’s a fierce competitor, whether we’re fishing or anything.”
John Di Luigi offered a warning to any of JJ Di Luigi’s future football foes.
“If he gets mad, you’re in trouble,” John said. “He still plays hard when he’s not mad, but if he gets mad, he steps it up another notch and plays even better. That’s a rarity in a football player; most lose focus, but not JJ. ”
For Di Luigi, the No. 10 he sports on his jersey is more than a number. Di Luigi’s history with 10 started at birth, when his mom went into labor at 10 p.m. Di Luigi was born the next day, October 10th weighing exactly 10 pounds as the 10th grandchild. To add to the list, "J" is the 10th letter of the alphabet.
Outside of football, Di Luigi is a humble guy and quite the character, with the uncanny ability to make people laugh.
“If you ever get in a movie-quoting war with JJ, you will lose,” John Di Luigi said. “When it started, I did all the movie quotes and now he can out-quote me. I just look at him and go ‘Where did that come from?’ He’s seen a lot of movies I haven’t because I’m flying around to see him play.”
When Di Luigi is at home in California, he helps with football games and trains youth players, which attests to the type of person he is. When people comment about his size, he says it’s the size of the heart, not the size of the player that matters.
John Di Luigi could not be more proud of his son. While he used to enjoy fishing with friends, John would rather go with JJ any day.
When it comes to JJ Di Luigi, family is everything.