How does an Arizona Lutheran Academy graduate earn the title “ultimate teammate” at a nationally-recognized university?
You’ve got to hear Justin’s story.
Justin Salzwedel, the second of three brothers, graduated from Arizona Lutheran Academy in 2006. A gifted athlete and a solid student—Justin had a big dream. He wanted to play NCAA Division I college basketball.
But how to get noticed?
Justin enrolled at Phoenix College, a local junior college with a strong basketball program. His goal? Make the team and get noticed by a larger, Division I program. Justin earned a spot on the Phoenix College roster, but not an athletic scholarship.
Justin recalls ups and downs in playing time that first season. But he outworked and outhustled his teammates and came to be known as the team’s “secret weapon.” Phoenix College won its conference and made regionals.
That’s when disaster struck.
Justin tore an ankle ligament in practice—just before regionals. Determined to finish the season, Justin went through rigorous and painful rehabilitation. Phoenix College won regionals and went on to nationals. Justin even got playing time in the national tournament.
Following the season, Justin underwent surgery for the complete ligament tear. Hard work in the off-season was blessed—Justin earned a full-ride athletic scholarship. That year, Phoenix College made it back to regionals but lost its last game in overtime. Justin remembers that game because it was his best. He made an astounding six three-point shots.
Good grades earned Justin his associate’s degree. But what next? That question was answered by an assistant coach at Phoenix College who had a friend on the coaching staff at Boise State University.
With no guarantees, Justin took the enormous step of faith in packing his bags and attempting to be a “walk-on” for the Boise State Broncos basketball program.
Justin arrived in Boise on the first day of school but had to work through a last minute appeal process in order to have an adequate credit load. Due to credit transfer complications, he even had to repeat twelve credits. No matter. Justin was determined.
Patience and perseverance paid off. Justin made the team as a “red shirt.” That meant he would practice as a part of the team, but would not be eligible to compete in games. Justin impressed his coach and soon earned the reputation as hardest worker on the team. (Justin shyly quipped that his coach would sometimes take varsity teammates to task by asking them why they don’t hustle as hard as Justin.)
It was a tough year. Justin earned solid grades, but he was admittedly homesick. His daily routine, however, kept him busy and distracted. School. Practice. Eat. Study. Go to the gym and shoot more hoops. Repeat.
Justin stayed in Boise over the summer and lived in a friend’s basement. The next season, Justin got his big opportunity. When Justin’s best friend sprained his ankle, Justin became the first substitute off the bench. Justin recalls big games against Louisiana Tech and New Mexico State. He had a career night against Cal State Bakersfield hitting four three-point shots in a row. Better yet, half-way through the year, Justin was put on full athletic scholarship.
Disaster struck again, however. At the close of the season, the entire Boise State coaching staff was fired.
With an uncertain future and Justin’s final year of eligibility hanging in the balance, Justin determined to work harder than ever. The new coach—a former assistant from Gonzaga University—was tough to please. Justin was allowed to stay on the team but was not offered an athletic scholarship.
Even though Justin was scripted to play a supporting role, he inspired his teammates in the offseason who nicknamed him “All Day.” (Just get Justin the ball and he’ll make the shot from anywhere—all day.)
But again, disaster.
During his first official practice for the new season, Justin sprained his MCL—one of his knee ligaments. As a result, Justin was unable to practice for three weeks—a setback meant he didn’t have the opportunity to prove himself to his new coaches. Yet again, Justin’s hard work and reputation as inspirational team leader was blessed.
Justin didn’t travel for the first road game of the season, which so upset the senior captain and other teammates that they each went to the head coach and insisted that Justin travel with the team. Justin traveled from then on.
As an aside, traveling during the season was grueling. Justin described a typical week with Thursday and Saturday games on the road. Fly. Land. Practice. Eat. Watch game film. Sleep. Eat. Practice. Game. Bus. Hotel by 1 AM. Sleep. Eat. Practice. Play. Bus. Fly home. Justin remembers one time, traveling to Nevada, when the pass was closed due to snow. The team sat on the bus for ten hours. They arrived at their hotel by 2 AM and played a game the next day.
Senior Night was a highlight for Justin. Boise State had seven seniors on the roster. Six on scholarship—and Justin. Each scholarship senior approached his head coach and insisted that he would give up his place so that Justin could start.
That’s when Justin was featured in an article published by the Idaho Statesman. The flattering article spoke of Salzwedel’s selfless hard work and called him an “ultimate teammate.” (You can find the Idaho Statesman article here.)
Justin had a great game on senior night and made two three point shots.
The Broncos regular season concluded with a heartbreaking loss at the Western Athletic Conference championship game. That was followed by the College Basketball Invitational postseason tournament. Justin went one-for-one in his final collegiate game, making an NBA-range three point shot on the University of Oregon basketball court. Swish.
Justin’s hard work in the classroom paid off, as well. He graduated Cum Laude with a 3.7 grade point average and a degree in Finance. After graduation, in a tough job market, Justin landed a job as an “operations accountant” with Caesar’s Palace. That means he does audits with Caesar’s-owned properties around the country. Justin feels he’s in an environment where he can be an example and share his faith.
Justin’s long-term goals are to help people personally by being a financial analyst or advisor. One thing is for sure, however. God and faith are the most important. Justin believes it is all in God’s hands. He recalls his college experience as a roller coaster ride. But Justin insists he wouldn’t trade it for anything.
He insists, humbly, that God gave him his strengths and abilities for a reason.
Even today, Justin treasures the Bible he’s owned since 7th and 8th grade at Emmanuel Lutheran School in Tempe. Justin will open the well-worn Bible, read, and even share stories with his girlfriend.
Justin credits the time he spent at Arizona Lutheran Academy as a critical foundation that prepared him for life. He insists, for example, that Mrs. Tierney (“Mrs. T” to Justin) pushed him hard—but really prepared him for college writing.
Mr. Meyer, his ALA basketball coach, Mr. Burmeister, Pastor Bode, ALA families and friends—they all played a critical role in growing spiritually and preparing for the future. Justin speaks fondly of the relationships he developed at ALA as ones that will last the rest of his life.
Justin also speaks affectionately of his mom, Sabrina, a constant source of love and support—and whose commitment made his Christian education at ALA possible.
It is deeply gratifying to hear about the influence that teachers, students, and families at Arizona Lutheran Academy had on Justin, the way his faith and his attitude were shaped and molded, and the way God is now using Justin to be an influence on others.
Of course, Justin is only one of over 1,000 graduates who were shaped and molded by their relationships and experiences at ALA. Every one of them has a special story of how God has worked in their lives, how they were blessed by the Christ-focused education they received at ALA, and how peace through forgiveness in Jesus has transformed their future.
All of which is why ALA has a big dream, too.
ALA’s leaders have their vision set on the long-term health of our high school ministry. That means getting our financial house in order and building our enrollment.
That’s where you come in. I’m asking you to take a “step of faith” with me—much like Justin’s.
ALA’s new campaign—Steps of Faith—Securing Our Future, will have an immediate and transformational impact on serving students today—students like Justin.
Your gift to Steps of Faith will:
1. Eliminate the need to finance our $1.6 million debt. Over the past three years, everyone has come to understand the benefit of eliminating debt. This will take immediate stress off of our annual operating budget and allow us to use gifts where they matter most—to directly serve students. Once debt is eliminated, “freed up” funds can also be used for critical areas such as tuition assistance and educational improvements!
2. Provide financial resources for growing our enrollment such as recruitment of new students and kicking off an exciting new International Student Program.
3. Build a reserve fund so that taking on new debt will no longer be necessary.
Once Steps of Faith—Securing our Future is complete, ALA will be debt free, healthier, and ready for new storms and opportunities God might bring in the future!
Our overall Steps of Faith goal is a big one—two million dollars. How do we do it? Asking God’s blessing, of course. And then…much like eating an elephant, we take one bite at a time.
The first bite—the one I want you to be a part of today—is a matching gift.
Long time ALA friends have committed $250,000 as a matching gift. Your gift will be matched dollar-for-dollar until that $250,000 goal is achieved. Once met, that means $500,000 will have been received for Steps of Faith—one quarter of the way to our goal!
Will you please follow the lead of this generous donor and make a gift of $365 toward the Steps of Faith campaign? That’s just a dollar a day!
In thanks for your $365 gift, I want to invite you to be my personal guest for a special reception prior to the ALA Christmas concert on Friday, December 16.
Your gift will put you in a very special group of ALA donors—without our donors, ALA could not adequately serve our students. The future of students like Justin is hanging in the balance. There’s such a sense of urgency to move forward and there’s no time to waste.
Thank you for keeping our ALA students and our ministry in your prayers—and for making support for our remarkable school a top priority. God is blessing your investment many times over in the lives of students like Justin.
Thanking God for your generous heart,
John A. Sebald
P.S. Please help us reach the $250,000 match by Christmas. Wouldn’t that be an amazing gift to celebrate? Please give today. [Choose "Building Fund (Steps of Faith)" from the drop down list.]