Two days later, Melodie Sturdivant was just starting to get her voice back. Screaming from a seat high above the Rose Bowl field, she had provided a joyous soundtrack to her son’s UCLA debut, vocal chords straining with every breathtaking catch.
“I think I lost my voice,” she recalled Monday evening after returning to her suburban Dallas home, “on the play where he scored the touchdown.”
J.Michael Sturdivant’s breakaway 62-yard score early in the fourth quarter of the Bruins’ season opener against Coastal Carolina provided some breathing room while leaving everyone in his family breathless.
In a nod to the meaning of the moment, the wide receiver who rarely removes his mouthpiece unleashed what he described as “a lot of bleeps” while prancing around the back of the end zone.
“There was nobody around me,” J.Michael said, “but I’m glad I wasn’t mic’d up for any of that.”
At a position where the stars are known as much for running their mouths as their routes, Sturdivant is a quiet outlier. He wants to be given the ball, but doesn’t much care and usually doesn’t respond if defensive backs give him a hard time with chatter.
“Football is a very humbling game,” he said, “so if you run around being all boasting and cocky, then you’re going to get humbled. And you don’t do any of this on your own, so to act like you’re the individual who did it all by yourself is just crazy. So I’m just really thankful for everything that happens in the game and I’m thankful for everyone who helps me make it happen.”
Given the rare blend of skills and size that the 6-foot-3, 205-pound transfer from California has brought to Westwood, maybe it’s the Bruins who should be giving thanks.
What Sturdivant’s mother saw Saturday night reminded her of the other family members clustered around her in the stands. The long, slender legs gliding across the field. The sure hands that snagged everything thrown his way. That speed.
Oh, that dazzling speed.
“I would say it comes from me,” Melodie said with a laugh. “My husband would probably say from both of us, but J. would say from me.”
Added Michael, the father for whom his son was named: “I wasn’t exactly slow.”
Nobody in the family carried that designation. Michael was a wide receiver at Virginia Tech who went to training camp with the Seattle Seahawks. Older sister Camille is a gifted dancer and rookie Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. Younger sister Crystal is a high school sprinter. Melodie is in Bradley University’s Athletics Hall of Fame after becoming the Missouri Valley Conference’s 400-meter champion in 1991.
“I think I was just lucky and got a nice little mix,” J.Michael said of his athletic gifts.
Good luck to any of Sturdivant’s family members trying to beat him in a backyard race. In blur of blue and gold Saturday, he sprinted past helpless defensive backs and into the nation’s consciousness. The redshirt sophomore’s five catches for a career-high 136 yards in a nationally televised game illustrated how he could be showcased this season beyond the two giant cardboard cutouts of his head that his family brought to the game.
“Somehow they got through TSA and made it on the plane,” Sturdivant said, “so it was cool.”
His birth certificate says Michael Anthony Sturdivant Jr.
It’s a mistake.
Mom and dad thought they had all this straight before the baby arrived. Wanting his son to carry his name but not the burden of his athletic success, Michael told Melodie that he wanted to call the kid J.Michael. She thought he meant it as a nickname.
So when the time came to fill out the paperwork for the birth certificate, Michael having stepped out of the room, Melodie wrote “Michael Anthony Sturdivant Jr.” The same process repeated with the birth announcement sent to friends and family.
When those announcements arrived, Michael took one look and told his wife the name was wrong. She said he was mistaken. The back and forth continued.
“He said, ‘Yes, his name is supposed to be J.Michael Sturdivant,’ ” Melodie said, “and I said, ‘No, that’s just what we’re supposed to call him,’ so it was 100% my fault.”
Teachers still get the name wrong during the first week of classes, inducing an eye roll during roll call. Once corrected, they’re just like everybody else, calling him J.Michael, J.Mike or J.
Fortunately, a Sturdivant by any other name is just as fast. As a high schooler, J.Michael ran a 10.39 in the 100-meter dash. He harbored doubts about his potential, however, even with a lineage that also included Floyd Little, the great uncle who had been inducted into both the college and pro football halls of fame after starring at halfback with Syracuse and the Denver Broncos.
That meant the parents who had taught Sturdivant that being humble was the best way to make connections and maximize opportunities also occasionally had to prop up their son’s confidence.
Before a Syracuse-Virginia Tech game matching the alma maters of his great uncle and father, Sturdivant gawked at the size of the players, the eighth-grader never thinking he could measure up.
“There was one dude,” remembered Sturdivant, who wasn’t even 5-10 at the time, “he looked like a mannequin, he was so huge. He had to be 6-4, 6-5 and he was jacked and I was like, there’s no way I’m going to be playing college football with guys like that.”
Michael told his son he just had to believe, pointing to various players and telling him that he would be bigger and faster than each one.
“It’s going to happen,” Michael said.
By his junior year of high school, Sturdivant having sprouted well past 6 feet, it was starting to feel as if that prophecy might come true.
UCLA was among Sturdivant‘s top four choices coming out of Marcus High in Flower Mound, Texas, but he never visited campus because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cal earned his commitment because he had been to Berkeley and liked the school’s strong academics and history of producing top wide receivers. It appeared Sturdivant might join that list after recovering from a wrist injury that limited him to four games his first season.
In 2022, he led the nation’s freshmen with 65 catches for 755 yards, burning the Bruins with a 46-yard touchdown in what would become his final game with the Golden Bears.
Turnover at quarterback and offensive coordinator made him reassess his future.
“We had to sit down and make a decision,” Michael said. “Do you go by blind faith or do you find something solid that you feel like you’re going to be comfortable with?”
About five minutes after he entered the transfer portal, Sturdivant answered his phone. It was UCLA coach Chip Kelly. An official visit was planned and a school that had been high on his list a few years earlier became the new destination.
“I feel like this is a great spot for me to excel,” Sturdivant said, “and show the world the type of player I can be.”
In spring practice, Sturdivant’s speed and strong hands weren’t the only things that impressed, the receiver winning over coaches and teammates with what Kelly described as a “NFL professional mentality” in which he’s constantly asking questions in a bid for improvement.
Just not very loudly.
“When you meet J.Mike,” wide receiver Ryan Cragun said, “you wouldn’t think, ‘Oh, this guy’s one of the top receivers in the Pac-12.’”
As his father predicted, he already is bigger and faster than many top college players. Among the five leading receivers in UCLA history, only J.J. Stokes, at 6-4, was taller.
It took just one game as a Bruin for Sturdivant to show he could be as clutch as they come. All five of his catches during the team’s 27-13 victory resulted in first downs, including three that converted third downs.
Cornerbacks who can’t keep up might want to remember to keep their lips on lockdown. The only instance in which Sturdivant will talk back is if he’s repeatedly burning the same mouthy defender.
“If I’m talking smack,” he said, “it’s going to be with straight facts, it’s not going to be with something that I have nothing to stand on.”
As his hoarse mother knows, he usually does.