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Former Southern Illinois University running back Justin Strong took in the National Football League draft last month from his hometown of Fairview Heights surrounded by family and friends. And although his name wasn’t called by the time the draft ended Saturday evening, he didn’t have to wait long to receive an invite to Indianapolis to compete in the Colts’ rookie minicamp.

“It’s a blessing to get this opportunity,” he said. “That’s all I wanted. And honestly, I would have felt the same way if I would have been drafted.”

The story of Justin Strong isn’t just about football — it’s about resilience, determination, and the reliable support of family. As a key offensive contributor for SIU’s football team, Strong’s path to the cusp of the NFL has been paved with obstacles, setbacks, and moments of triumph that define his journey.

Growing up alongside his brother Bryson, Justin’s love for football was fostered amidst the backdrop of familial adversity. The sudden loss of their father cast a shadow over their childhood, but it was the strength and guidance of their mother, Amy, that became their guiding light. Despite the challenges they faced, football remained a constant source of inspiration and motivation for Justin and Bryson, who would both end up playing for the Salukis.

From the fields of Belleville – the brothers starred at the private Catholic high school Belleville Althoff – to the gridiron of SIU, Justin’s football journey has been characterized by resilience in the face of adversity.

“If Justin gets his chance with the Colts or another team, he’ll prove his loyalty,” said Bryson, who played as a Saluki linebacker. “Football was never just a game for Justin and me; it’s about family and community. Loyalty to our programs runs deep.”

Family First

As Strong prepares to embark on his next chapter at Colts minicamp, he finds himself reflecting on the pivotal role his coaching staff headed by Nick Hill and his family – particularly his brother Bryson – have played in his football journey.

Now that their Saluki journeys are over, the brothers have been back in Fairview Heights working out together nearly every day.

It’s a full-circle moment for Justin, who cites Bryson as the main reason he joined the Saluki football program, even as he was recruited by other schools.

“He’s like my rock, offering guidance and support whenever I need it, always with my best interest at heart,” Justin said. “He wants to make me better every single day and he’s constantly giving me that big brother knowledge.”

After red-shirting in 2018, Strong played in all 12 games his freshman year splitting time between the defensive secondary and special teams. Once SIU coaches caught wind of his elusiveness as a ball carrier, Strong got his chance at running back in 2020 (COVID year) and 2021, rushing for more than 800 yards with seven total touchdowns across those seasons.

His junior year was cut short due to injury, and he was a key contributor to the 2023 playoff team’s success with seven touchdowns.

In a definitive 27-6 win over Murray State late last season, Strong ripped an 80-yard touchdown run down the left sideline on the first play from scrimmage.

As big as that run was, it doesn’t top Strong’s list of top moments as a Saluki.

“When we learned we earned a playoff bid and how excited we were as a team,” he recalled. “That’s the memory that will stick with me.”

SIU Athletic Director Tim Leonard shared in Justin’s pride, and said the entire SIU community is brimming with anticipation for the next chapters in Strong’s career.

“Justin’s journey from SIU standout to the NFL minicamp with the Colts is a testament to his determination and remarkable skill,” he said. “We’re proud to have played a part in his development, and we’re excited to see him excel at the next level.”

Draft Night

After a solid Saluki career, it was Strong’s pro day performance that turned the heads of NFL scouts.

According to NFL Agent Andre Wheeler, Strong is ranked in the top nine out of more than 1,800 running backs since 1987 with a relative athletic score (RAS) of 9.96 on a scale of 1 to 10 regarding athletic ability.

RAS measures a prospect’s athletic testing results from the combine or a pro day in relation to the prospect’s size and historical results from players at the same position.

Credit: Justin Strong’s Instagram profile.

Despite his impressive career and off-the-charts RAS score, the NFL draft came and went without Strong’s name being called.

It was a bitter pill to swallow, but he refused to let it define him. Instead, he turned his focus to the next challenge, determined to prove himself worthy of a shot at the next level.

“Honestly, it’s nothing new for him. From what happened to their dad to these newest challenges to have to prove himself for his opportunity, that’s been his whole life,” said Strong’s mother, Amy. “He’s always been able to turn tragedy into triumph.”

And triumph he has. With an invitation to the Colts minicamp set for May 10-12, Strong finds himself on the brink of realizing his NFL dreams.

It’s a moment that represents the culmination of years of hard work, sacrifice, and dedication—proof of the resilience of a young man who refused to let adversity define him.

But Strong isn’t over-hyping the moment.

“It feels like another step in the process,” he said. “I’m just moving with God and taking that next step forward. Adversity just makes me stay close to my faith. Not all things go your way, but it’s not the end. It’s about putting that next step forward and making it.”

The Miami Dolphins also reached out about their rookie minicamp opportunity but it fell on the same weekend as the Colts’, so Strong decided to keep his commitment to Indianapolis.

The interest has been welcomed by the family that has overcome many obstacles to get here.

But what if the NFL doesn’t work out?

“Honestly, I’m not a guy who does backup plans,” he said. “I put all my eggs into one basket, give it my all, and see how it shakes out.”

Joe Szynkowski is the founder and owner of The UpWrite Group, a local firm that has offered corporate communications, personal branding, public relations, and ghostwriting services since 2008. He also hosts the monthly Work Happy Happy Hour in Marion focused on helping others find career fulfillment. Visit or email for more information.