Provo • Of the 18 or so seniors who will be honored after BYU's last home football game of the 2011 season Saturday against New Mexico State at LaVell Edwards Stadium running back JJ Di Luigi stands out as one of the more notable survivors.
There were several times during Di Luigi's career that he didn't think he was going to make it to the end and neither did coaches. But the 5-foot-9, 185-pounder from Canyon Country, Calif., persevered on the field and off, and will leave as one of the top 20 running backs in school history, based on his all-purpose yardage and career rushing yardage totals.
"JJ is a great success story," coach Bronco Mendenhall said Monday.
A devout Catholic from an Italian-American family, Di Luigi has emerged as BYU's poster boy, of sorts, for non-LDS player to thrive at the Mormon Church-owned school. He leads the team's bible study group while working toward a degree in leisure services management, which he will attain in December.
Di Luigi was chosen by BYU to represent the team and the school when ESPNU's All-Access crew visited Provo a few weeks ago.
"JJ has, to his credit, been solid in terms of meeting program goals, expectations," Mendenhall said. "He is looking to contribute in as many ways as possible. He catches the ball well out of the backfield, he runs with it well, and he's just become a program player. I give him a lot of credit for hanging in [there], and his resiliency in this environment, and at this place, which he as grown to love. That's what he has told me."
Di Luigi's college career started off on the wrong foot literally. After an all-American high school career in California, he broke his foot while stepping on a newspaper and was forced to redshirt his first year, 2007, in Provo.
And he struggled the first two years off the field as well while acclimating to BYU's uniqueness. There were times when he thought about transferring.
"JJ was with a group of younger players his age that was struggling here at the beginning," Mendenhall said. "Probably JJ's sophomore year, or redshirt freshman year … he made a clear choice that he had had enough of that. There were others that continued down that path that didn't remain with us."
Heading into Saturday's game, Di Luigi is 11th on BYU's career rushing yardage list with 1,670 yards and 17th on the school's all-purpose yardage list. He needs just 46 yards to move into 16th place.
Fellow seniors such as Marco Thorson and McKay Jacobson said Di Luigi has emerged as a team leader, despite not being a captain or the typical returned missionary.
"He knows how to win, and he knows what it takes to win. In offseason workouts, he was the one that was a motivator. And through fall camp, he was a motivator. When guys were tired through fall camp, he kept running the ball hard and his actions just kind of pick you up," Thorson said. "For me, I look at him as someone who leads by example and works hard. That is what he is to me."
Di Luigi said it will be a "bittersweet" moment Saturday night when he receives his senior blanket, knowing that he completed the journey, but also knowing he will never play in front of 64,000 fans at LaVell Edwards Stadium again.
"I've been lucky to have had this experience," he said.
Di Luigi's place in BYU history
Career all-purpose yards
1 • Curtis Brown (2002-06) 4,996
16 • Hema Heimuli (1992-95)
17 • JJ Di Luigi (2008-2011)
Career rushing yards
1 • Harvey Unga (2006-09) 3,455
10 • Brian McKenzie (1996-97) 1,954
11 • Di Luigi (2008-11) 1,670
Career receiving yards
1 • Austin Collie (2004, 2007-08) 3,255
63 • Bill Davis (1978-80) 938
64 • Di Luigi (2008-11) 936
WR McKay Jacobson
RB JJ Di Luigi
WR Matt Marshall
RB Bryan Kariya
OL Terence Brown
OL Marco Thorson
OL Matt Reynolds
WR Spencer Hafoka
TE Matt Edwards
S Travis Uale
CB Corby Eason
LB Aveni Leung-Wai
DL Matt Putnam
LB Jordan Pendleton
LB Jameson Frazier
LB Jadon Wagner
DL Hebron Fangupo
DL Simote Vea
New Mexico State at BYU
P Saturday, 8:15 p.m.
TV • ESPNU