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'Heading' to the NFL

5/5/2009
J.D. Folsom practices roping on his family's ranch in Salmon, Idaho. Courtesy Folsom Family

As a young man who was brought up riding horses along the banks of the Salmon River in Idaho, J.D. Folsom could feel like a fish out of water as he tries to make the Miami Dolphins' roster.

But the NFL is somewhat of a backup plan for Folsom, who spent his youth playing football, working horses on his family's ranch and competing in rodeos.

"If nothing happened with football," the 6-foot-3, 230-pound linebacker said after Miami picked him in the seventh round (214th overall) in the 2009 NFL draft, "I was going to head off to veterinary school this fall."

(Folsom wasn't the only draftee with ties to rodeo. With the second overall pick the St. Louis Rams selected Jason Smith, who grew up team roping as well, going as far as to bring his horse, Old Gray, to school at Baylor University, where Smith was an All-American tackle.)

For Folsom, getting into vet school was tough; getting into the NFL was even tougher. He studied as hard as he played, maintaining a 3.57 GPA as a zoology major and earning Big Sky All-Conference honors in both academics and football during his two years at Weber State.

Folsom was a two-year starter for the Wildcats after a playing two years at Snow Junior College in Ephraim, Utah. According to the Weber State athletic department, Folsom had career totals of 149 total tackles, 57 unassisted, two quarterback sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble.

During high school, Folsom was a two-way standout, playing both quarterback and linebacker. His team's best showing was a third-place finish in Idaho's 3A tournament in his sophomore year, when he played for Salmon High alongside his brother, Isaac (Ike), then a senior.

But the Folsom boys were at least as formidable in the rodeo arena as on the gridiron.

"I headed in high school and my older brother heeled," said Folsom, recalling his favorite memory of team roping with his brother. "I guess we were so far ahead of everybody that, in the district championship, we switched ends and still won the rodeo."

They advanced to the Idaho State High School Rodeo Finals and qualified for the National High School Finals Rodeo.

After a year of junior college football, Ike went back to roping and working horses on the family ranch, which by then had moved across the border into Montana. For the past two years, Ike has competed in the Montana Circuit in team roping. In 2008, his horse was the No. 1 heel horse in Montana.

Despite the boys' divided loyalties between football and rodeo (opinions differ on which sport was the Folsom brothers' first love), Tracy Folsom, their mother, says both find solace in working horses.

"From the time they were little, they were riding and breaking horses," she said. "They just both had a feel for horses.

"When J.D. needs to get away and get his mind cleared, he comes up here and he just gets on a horse and rides. It's in his blood and it's something that I don't think he will ever lose."

Rodeo may be in his blood, but in football, J.D. Folsom was a late bloomer. At 25, he is some four years older than the average NFL rookie — a gap explained by his coming up the ranks through junior college and taking a two-year mission trip to Santa Cruz, Bolivia, with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints following his freshman year.

After he returned to Snow Junior College in Ephraim, Utah, Folsom spent one more semester there before transferring to Weber State in Ogden, Utah, where both his academic and football careers blossomed, leaving him with a choice to compete in the NFL or go to vet school.

"He was accepted to both Oklahoma State and Washington State," Tracy said. "He can take a year deferment if he wants to. He just said, 'You know what, I'm going to give [the NFL] a try. If it works out, great, and if it doesn't, I can always do vet school.'"

While his future in the NFL is uncertain, what is definite is that Folsom has given himself plenty of options. Folsom's family would be more than happy for him to pursue a career as a large-animal vet and move back to Montana, bringing his wife, Micah Lines — Weber State's volleyball MVP in 2007 — and baby daughter, Jonnie.

According to J.D., the area where he grew up and learned to rodeo still holds a place in his heart.

"I could see myself in Idaho or Montana," he said. "Whenever I get the chance to go home, I do a little bit of team roping with my brother.

"Ideally, one day I'd like to have a little place and have an arena so I can rope, but I guess we'll see what happens."