How missionary service and a legacy of faith helps an All-American punter ‘flip the field’

While serving his mission in Brazil, All-American punter DJ Arnson often enjoyed a bit of preparation-day mischief by pulling from his pack a spheroid ball made from cowhide.

His soccer-crazed Brazilian investigators and friends expected a “bola de futebol.” Instead, Elder Arnson handed them, well, a football.

“It was always a good conversation starter because hardly anyone had ever seen an [American] football,” he said, smiling. “The Brazilians would always ask, ‘Why are you kicking that oval-shaped ball when we have plenty of round balls lying around?’”

Confusion aside, one thing was clear. The American missionary could kick his unusual ball really high and really far. 

Arnson’s preternatural ability to punt a football would eventually earn him a college scholarship at Northern Arizona University and All-American honors. The redshirt senior and lifelong Latter-day Saint hopes those same skills will soon earn him a spot in the pros after he concludes his college playing career later this year with the Lumberjacks.

Just don’t tell the 6-foot-tall Arnson he’s too small to play at the sport’s next level. He’s been told that before — and he relishes proving doubters wrong.

NAU football coach Chris Ball’s name sits atop the growing list of Arnson’s believers.

“DJ is a weapon,” the coach told the Church News. “He can flip the field on you really quick.”

For a punter, “flipping the field” is a priceless skill. It happens when a punter kicks the ball with enough distance, height and accuracy to pin the opposing team’s offensive unit deep inside their own territory, far from the other team’s end zone.

A legacy of faith — and Lumberjack football

A product of “very old Latter-day Saint families,” Arnson was raised in Gilbert, Arizona. He is grateful for his gospel-centered heritage. He reveres his ancestors’ commitment to Church service and temple work. 

“Faith has always been a huge part of my life,” he said. “I had great Young Men and Scouting leaders growing up, and then a great mission president. My faith has always anchored me and has helped me get through many things in life.”

Arnson was an all-state player at Arizona’s Basha High School, but gleaned little attention from college recruiters. But after returning home from serving in the Brazil Piracicaba Mission in 2016, he realized he still carried the “gridiron” bug. He also knew he had the skills to be a college punter.

He walked-on at Flagstaff’s Northern Arizona University, where his father, Derek Arnson, had played a generation earlier. The NAU coaches were encouraging — but they made no promises of playing time or a scholarship.

“Facing that adversity was a faith tester,” admitted Arnson. “There were times when I asked myself, ‘Why am I here? What am I doing wrong? Why isn’t this coming easier?’ 

“But through fasting and prayer … I knew that this was where I was supposed to be.”

Looking back, he can spot multiple ways his full-time mission prepared him for the challenges facing an unheralded walk-on. Arnson was accustomed to doing hard things. And good fortune, he knew, always seems to favor hard workers.

“When I returned home from my mission, I was a young man, not a boy — and that gave me an edge that I needed. … My mission still anchors me to what I am today,” he said.

Arnson joined the Lumberjacks for the 2017 spring practices. By the time the fall season began he had earned the starting punting spot and, a short time later, a coveted athletic scholarship. 

“I could not have asked for a greater blessing,” he said. “It all goes back to the Lord. I listened to Him and made sure I was in the best position possible — and He did everything else.”

As a walk-on, Arnson beat the odds by simply finding his way onto the playing field and snagging a scholarship. But he surpassed all expectations by becoming one of the elite punters in the college sport’s Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). 

During his junior season, he led the Big Sky Conference with a punt average of 45.8 yards. Sixteen of his punts went for more than 50 yards. And just one of his 57 punts landed in the end zone for a touchback. His football anonymity seems a distant memory after claiming several All-American honors and being named a 2019 FCS “Punter of the Year” finalist. 

While Ball treasures his punter’s field-flipping skills, he’s also quick to note Arnson’s contributions are not reflected entirely by stats. The 24-year-old’s maturity and life experiences make him something of a coach on the field for the Lumberjack special teams and beyond.

“DJ is a great leader,” said the coach, “and his teammates respect him. He has a great feel for our team.”

Arnson calls it “a great blessing” and an honor to be a mentor to his younger teammates. “I try to teach them an old adage I learned from my grandpa: ‘A wise man learns from his mistakes. But an even wiser man learns from others’ mistakes’.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically impacted college sports in the United States. For Northern Arizona and other FCS schools, the traditional fall season was moved to the spring of 2021. The Lumberjacks played their season opener on Feb. 27, narrowly defeating Southern Utah University 34-33.

Arnson missed playing the game he loves last fall. But he’s grateful to be competing now and looks forward to returning to traditional college play in the fall. Then he will focus on the National Football League. He knows opportunities for punters are limited in the pros, but he’s determined to make a roster.

“I’ve been counted out most of my playing career because of my size, I know I don’t pass the eyeball test [for professional punters]. … But I know I can put just as good a ball on the field, if not better, as any other,” he said.

Goals beyond the gridiron

College athletes are classified as student-athletes — but for some ballplayers, the “student” part is an afterthought. Not DJ Arnson. 

A three-time Big Sky All-Academic selection, he’s already earned a bachelor’s degree in biomedical science with a minor in chemistry. Now he is pursuing a graduate degree in human relations. Medical school awaits once he punts his last football in competitive play.

Again, he credits the gospel in developing self-discipline and wise time-management.

“It goes right back to my mission days.”

Arnson is excited to be starting a new college football season. After week one, the Lumberjacks are undefeated. Optimism abounds. But the team’s star punter is also thrilled to soon be adding another title to his personal resume: husband.

He recently proposed to his girlfriend — and fellow returned missionary — Sydney Drummond. She said yes, and the two are planning a summer wedding.