There is no quick way to get from Fayetteville, North Carolina, to Northwestern State University.
In Justice Galloway-Velazquez’ case, it is a journey that seems much longer than the 967 miles and the 14-hour-plus drive from his hometown to his new college football home.
“The last couple of years of my collegiate career, I’ve dealt with a lot of obstacles, a lot of trials and tribulations, but I pushed through those,” said Galloway-Velazquez, a senior linebacker who will make his Northwestern State debut Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in the season opener at UL Lafayette.
Even clarifying the amount with the phrase “a lot” undersells the winding roads and myriad challenges the 2019 All-American endured since he set the Campbell University single-season tackle record with 111 four years ago.
With his eyes fixed on the NFL following his breakout sophomore season, Galloway-Velazquez instead saw more doctors than offensive linemen and ballcarriers in the next two-plus seasons.
By his count, Galloway-Velazquez saw at least 30 doctors across the next two-plus years, a run that began with a shoulder injury suffered in the spring of 2020. That first setback, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, slowed his professional dreams.
Yes, Campbell played four games that fall – all against Football Bowl Subdivision teams – and, yes, Galloway-Velazquez was there for all four, watching from the press boxes at Georgia Southern, Coastal Carolina, Appalachian State and Wake Forest.
“That was difficult on him,” said second-year NSU defensive coordinator Weston Glaser, who was Galloway-Velazquez’ position coach in 2019 before assuming defensive coordinator duties at Campbell in 2020. “He lost the game, which was hard. You have injuries, and you’re not playing, and the mental aspect of that is very, very difficult. In 2020, we played four FBS teams at Campbell, and we traveled him. That’s hard. You don’t feel like you’re part of the team. They want to be on the field so bad.”
The lost 2020 season was just the start of Galloway-Velazquez’ challenging stretch.
The initial shoulder injury led to a neck issue that put Galloway-Velazquez’ career in the crosshairs because of the potential for paralysis depending upon the seriousness of contact.
A second opinion from an NFL team doctor allowed a brief moment of relief for the 6-foot-2, 260-pound All-American. However, that was short-lived as well.
Galloway-Velaaquez lost his 2021 season to an inoperable hernia that required him to do as little physical activity as possible in order for it to heal.
“I had stairs in my house, and the doctors didn’t even want me going up those,” he said.
The physical toll on his body led to mental anguish for a young man who saw his NFL dreams put on hold and had thrust his football career into question.
“There were times I was in my room just crying,” Galloway-Velazquez said. “I had to play a mental game with myself, dealing with those tough times. Having that corner you can lean on and depend on is really big. For me, it was my parents, my coaches and last but not least, my teammates.
“I didn’t know being around those guys would uplift me as much as it did. Trust me, being around your peers will help you get through those tough times.”
During his injury-driven, two-year sabbatical from football, Galloway-Velazquez rehabbed maniacally to return to the field. Once he made it back, there was something missing.
“It’s natural to lose that passion, that desire, because you don’t feel like you’re a part of it,” Glaser said. “It’s hard, coming through the things he talked about. To hear him talk about the difference between here and Campbell, and to be able to be back out here with him, we’ve been through a lot of stuff together. That’s been a big thing. That relationship’s been great.”
As Galloway-Velazquez settles back into his health and his form, he will do so in front of a set of eyes who has seen him at his peak as a player.
Galloway-Velazquez’ and Glaser’s relationship is a symbiotic one. It is one that saw the player celebrate his position coach earning a promotion, and it is one that brought a potential impact player to that coach’s next stop on his career path.
“I had my first linebackers coach at Campbell for a couple of days, and he ended up getting a new job,” Galloway-Velazquez said. “Glaser came right in, and I knew from the jump he was a great guy, a good football guy. He had his own terminology and ways of understanding. I knew from the get go he was going to be our DC.
“Once he got that job, I said, ‘I told you from the first day it was going to happen.’ Our second year together, I broke the tackle record at Campbell, was an All-America. He was a big part of that success. (After entering the transfer portal) why not meet up with my old guy? We had some tough times off the field that brought us closer together as player and coach. I love that man to death, and that’s why I’m 14 hours away from home.”
Galloway-Velazquez did not make the move from Campbell to NSU alone as his Camel teammate, safety Peyton Woulard, also will make his Demon debut Saturday.
Woulard echoed the importance of Glaser’s presence as a pivotal point in choosing to play for Northwestern State, something that stuck with the Demon defensive coordinator and assistant head coach.
“You want that relationship with all your players,” Glaser said. “Trust is how you’re successful. A lot of people in this industry have forgotten trust takes time to build. They got in (the portal) and called me right away. ‘Hey, Coach, I want to play for you.’ That means the world to me.
“I tell the guys I recruit, I have two sons, and if they’re blessed enough to play college athletics, how do I want them to be treated? That’s how I want these guys to be treated.”
Galloway-Velazquez’ belief in Glaser was evident from the beginning of their relationship, and it has been a two-way street.
Glaser said his longtime pupil looks as good as he did during his All-American season, “if not better.” The passion that drives Galloway-Velazquez has returned, and it was on display throughout the Demons’ fall camp.
No matter the stretch of 100-plus-degree days that enveloped Natchitoches, there was no stopping Galloway-Velazquez’ appreciation for the grind of camp. He even found a kindred spirit across the line of scrimmage in fellow transfer quarterback Tyler Vander Waal.
Like Galloway-Velazquez, Vander Waal saw injuries curtail multiple years of his college career and led to several sweat-drenched conversations on the Turpin Stadium turf.
“It’s crazy,” Galloway-Velazquez said. “We had these talks in the middle of running 110s. Dead tired, barely breathing and we’re having these talks. He told me, ‘I’m here now, and I need to make the most of it and be a good leader for these guys.’ I told him I expect the same from me.”