While the NFL Draft played out this weekend, Justin Falcinelli was moving his life back to Middletown from Clemson University.
“I spent five years there. I am leaving friends behind,” said Falcinelli, an all-conference center for the Tigers’ national-championship football team. “It’s the same old coming-home-from-college kind of story.”
The 6-foot-4, 315-pound Falcinelli, 23, might have heard his named called during the draft had it not been for a serious ankle injury he suffered in Clemson’s 30-3 College Football Playoff semifinal victory over Notre Dame on Dec. 29 in the Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas.
“It was in the middle of the game,” he said. “Probably sometime in the second quarter. During one play, I just felt something pop. I was like, ‘That’s probably not good.’”
Falcinelli did not miss much time, however. After putting his right ankle in a soft cast, he went back in and finished the game.
“It wasn’t as much pain as you would think,” he said. “I mean, there were moments of pain, and, for the next couple of days, I could barely walk. But it was nothing I couldn’t handle.”
With the cast and plenty of athletic tape, the Clemson training staff was able to immobilize the ankle in his cleat. That allowed Falcinelli to continue to push through the injury for another week and play in the national championship game, a 44-16 victory for Clemson over Alabama on Jan. 7 that made the Tigers the first college football team in the modern era to finish 15-0.
“During the game, my adrenaline and everything is going. I wasn’t even thinking about the ankle very much,” he said. “It wasn’t an issue.”
A couple of weeks later, he underwent surgery to repair a torn tendon in the ankle and reattach some ligaments. Three months of fairly intense rehab awaited, meaning Falcinelli would miss the NFL scouting combine, Clemson’s pro day and most of the relevant events leading into the draft.
“It was disappointing to hear that I was going to miss all of that stuff,” he said. “But NFL teams aren’t really looking to draft offensive linemen with bum ankles.”
Falcinelli has done well to keep his name out there, however. On May 9, he will attend a mini-camp for the Buffalo Bills, hoping to earn a contract as an undrafted free agent.
“I believe Justin is in a win-win situation,” said Kevin Lynott, who coached Falcinelli on three state-championship teams at Middletown High School. “He has the opportunity to play NFL football if he chooses. And he also has the ability to go into a great business career, having just completed his MBA [degree] in the fall while playing for the national championship team.”
Falcinelli said he plans to follow his NFL dream first. He has been leaning on his former teammate at Middletown, Rick Leonard, for advice on navigating through the process. Leonard was drafted in the fourth round by the New Orleans Saints last summer.
If football doesn’t work out for Falcinelli, he is fine with that, too.
“I’m good,” he said. “I am ready for the workforce.”