The Rise Of J.J. Calip: How The Worthington Kilbourne RB Overcame All Odds To Become A D1 Football Recruit
Worthington Kilbourne running back J.J. Calip is Cleveland-made, but he wouldn’t be where he is today on and off the field if he didn’t leave northeast Ohio for good in 2018.
The star junior tailback started his high school athletic career at Saint Ignatius. He wasn’t there for very long. In June of 2018, his older brother, Bahati Juma, was killed in a shooting outside of his family’s apartment complex in Cleveland.
That was when Calip realized he had to leave that area in search of a better life. With the violence going on around him, he knew that he couldn’t become the person and the athlete he wanted to be in that untenable environment, so he did something about it.
He decided to move to Worthington to live with his grandmother. The move was bittersweet for him because he loved his time at St. Ignatius, but he knew that the move was the only way forward — and he was right.
Even though he spent less than a year as a member of the Wildcats, he said the coaches there helped give him the foundation for the success that he is having now. The experience he gained at the private Jesuit school would later prove to be invaluable.
The speedster was thrilled to receive his first Division I offer from Western Michigan University on Feb. 14. The next day, coaches from the University of Akron and Central Michigan University called him and gave him his second and third offers. He picked up his fourth D1 offer this morning from Youngstown State University. Business is starting to boom. It’s only up from here.
“I had a warm feeling after getting the first offer because I’ve been waiting for that for a long time,” Calip said. “It just shows the progress I’ve made in three years.”
The decision to move is now paying dividends. The fruits of his labor are showing. His quality of life has improved dramatically and he is flourishing as a result of the change of scenery.
His current coach at Worthington Kilbourne, Mike Edwards, said Calip was extremely raw when he came into the program, but that he always had the potential. It was Edwards’ first year coaching the Wolves when Calip moved down to Worthington and joined the team.
“He definitely had a high ceiling,” Edwards said. “He’s developed now. He is our hardest worker and probably our best player. His body of work and all the extra training he does is a big factor of why we have seen so much growth in talent from his freshman year.”
Calip used to train at D1, an elite fitness training facility that athletes from all sports use to better their skills. He’s currently training with former Ohio State cornerback Doran Grant and Derick Alexander of H.O.P.E Fitness. He runs track in the offseasons to stay in shape, starring in the 60-meter dash and other events.
The 5-foot-11, 185-pounder had a breakout junior season, but it wasn’t all smiles like it has been recently. It took him three or four weeks to settle in. He had to get the timing of the game down and once he did, he really started to take off.
The turning point of the season came after Calip had a disappointing performance in a week two 21-10 loss to crosstown rival Thomas Worthington, at least for his lofty standards.
Edwards came up to him after the game and made sure to let him hear it.
He recalls challenging him by saying, “I believe in you, but I’m waiting for the day that you are a running back that can carry the ball 25 or more times for us on any given Friday.”
Things clicked after the talk, it really resonated with Calip and gave him a newfound respect for his coach. Both of them cited it as a season-altering conversation.
He went on to earn first team all-district and third-team all-state honors after rushing for 1,209 yards and 15 touchdowns. In total, he tallied 1,759 all-purpose yards and had just under 500 kick return yards.
Calip’s measurables are catching the attention of many colleges around the midwest. His 40-yard dash has been clocked at a stunning 4.45 seconds. He can run inside and outside the tackles. He has wiggle and is a solid pass-catcher out of the backfield.
“Once I get to the second level, it’s the J.J. show,” Calip said.
His goal was to be an every down back and he achieved that this season. By the end of the year, he was getting 25-30 carries a game. Edwards said he has tasked him with taking on more of a leadership role, which has suited him well so far.
Calip’s improvements in the weight room in just the last two months have been astonishing. His max squat increased from 405 to 440 pounds, his max bench from 230 to 240 lbs., and his hang clean from 180 to 230 lbs.
On Feb. 16, 247sports.com bumped him up to three-star status and gave him an 83 player rating. He is now ranked as the 50th-best player in Ohio and the 60th-best running back in the country.
His top three schools at the moment are Pittsburgh, Central Michigan and Iowa, but that is subject to change as his recruitment is starting to blow up.
Other schools that he is interested in include Kent State, Marshall, Ohio State, Coastal Carolina and Cincinnati. He is talking to nearly every Mid-American Conference (MAC) school. He has visits with Toledo and Western Michigan coming up. Currently, he does not have a decision timeline and will likely commit to a school midway through his senior year.
The Wolves had a bit of a rebuilding year in 2021, as they finished 4-7 last season with a 17-0 first round loss to North Canton Hoover. Calip mentioned that the coaches are in the midst of installing a new culture. He also said he expects the team to be much better next year with the amount of production they have returning on both sides of the ball.
He has a bright future, something he might not have been able to say had he not escaped the city of Cleveland. He credits his teachers and coaches at Worthington Kilbourne for helping to keep his life on track. As his recruitment continues to rise, he will make sure to put in the work necessary to succeed.
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