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Little big man just like Dad

Second-generation Thunderbird is chip off the old block

SUU's Justin Walterscheid has a strong football pedigree. His father, Leonard, was a two-time All-American for the T-Birds.
SUU's Justin Walterscheid has a strong football pedigree. His father, Leonard, was a two-time All-American for the T-Birds.
Greg Stauffer

CEDAR CITY — When Justin Walterscheid sees the picture of his father, Leonard, and his retired football jersey hanging in the concourse of Southern Utah University's basketball arena, he sees himself.

"He looks no different than me," said Justin, a 5-foot-10, 170-pound senior. "He's a little guy, too. I know there are things I can accomplish from seeing him."

Justin hopes by the time his football career is complete he'll have numbers similar to his father's, or even better. At the same time, however, he knows he's going to need to create his own breaks just like his father did to get where he wants to be.

"He had big achievements and obviously those are some of my dreams and goals," Justin said. "It's given me something to shoot for."

Leonard, who graduated from Grand County High School (Moab) in 1972, was a two-time All-American for the Thunderbirds in 1975 and 1976 and is still the only T-Bird to ever play in the NFL. He signed as an undrafted free agent with the Chicago Bears in 1976 and ended up playing eight seasons — 6 1/2 with the Bears and 1 1/2 years with the Buffalo Bills before injuries led to retirement. He returned kicks and played defensive back for both teams.

Justin has vague memories of going to games in Buffalo to watch his dad, but has since watched film of the Bears.

"I didn't really understand the magnitude of it until I was growing up," Justin said. "I watched him on tape. I really loved watching Walter (Payton). That's really why I was watching them."

Leonard's name is found throughout the SUU record books. He is the all-time leader in career kickoff return average (28.2), second in punt return average (12.9), and third in punt return yards (506) and kickoff-return yards (986).

Justin is currently fourth in career punt return average (11.4) and fifth in punt return yards (372).

With four games left, Justin has an outside chance of putting his name above his dad's.

"I hope he does break (the records)," Leonard said.

Justin's college football career has gone like many of his kick returns: long, serpentine and full of improv.

Walterscheid, a prep All-American from Grand Junction, Colo., has endured a transfer, two coaching changes and a broken arm.

After Justin's second season at the University of Utah, coach Ron McBride was fired, and Justin didn't feel like he fit in with the new staff.

In his two seasons at the U., he had a total of 17 punt returns for 131 yards and six catches for 78 yards.

He considered transferring to Arizona State, but the idea of playing two seasons for Gary Andersen, a former coach at the U. who had accepted the head job at SUU, won out.

Last year, Justin placed himself on the path of breaking his father's records with 291 punt return yards and 413 kickoff return yards.

"I feel I have shoes to fill but the expectations are not because of him," Justin said. "I have dreams and goals that I have for myself. He's told me a million times he'd be happy if I was playing golf or the piano or doing anything like that."

Change hit Justin again as Andersen returned to Utah and assistant coach Wes Meier was promoted to the head job. He was playing for his third head coach in four years.

Early in the second game of the season at Sacramento State, Justin went up for a pass and got his forearm caught between his helmet and the defender's helmet, breaking his arm. He missed the next three games, essentially putting his father's records out of reach.

"It's been very frustrating. I had so many goals for the season," Justin said.

But he's adjusted.

"Some of the goals like yards in a season will be diminished, but my average can be good and I can still make big plays," he said.

He returned for his first game since the break last week in SUU's 19-15 victory over then-No. 25 UC Davis. In the game, he had three punt returns for 43 yards and six catches for 67 yards.

So far this year, he has seven punt returns for 69 yards and 12 kickoff returns for 236 yards.

"It was disappointing for him to break his arm in his senior year," Leonard said. "He still has several games to go and we're hoping he'll find that success he's wanted before it's all over."

The T-Birds (3-4, 1-2) host Montana Western on Saturday at 6 p.m. at the Eccles Coliseum.