University of Washington

Clover Park, Puget Sound graduate AJ Middleton making return to Washington as strength coach for BYU

Without access to the facilities at Joint Base Lewis McChord, AJ Middleton doesn’t know if he ever would’ve started lifting weights.

But because he grew up on the Air Force base, he could spend unlimited time in the gym. When he first began lifting with his friends as a sophomore in high school, Middleton just wanted to get stronger. There was no way to know how those days would shape the rest of his life.

“Now, it’s who I am,” Middleton said. “It’s all weights. It’s basically all I do.”

Back then, Middleton’s only goal was to be as big as the body builders, WWF wrestlers and football players he watched on television. He knew their strength was mostly developed by training in the weight room, so that’s where he spent his time.

Now, Middleton, who was born and raised in the Tacoma area, is an assistant strength and conditioning coach for BYU football. The Cougars will take on Washington on Saturday at 5:30 p.m.

Middleton played football and wrestled at Clover Park High School before moving on the University of Puget Sound, where he played football and ran track. In 2009, he graduated from Puget Sound with a degree in biology. While at Puget Sound, Middlton also met his wife, Jessica Scarsella. The two got married in May.

A few years after graduation, Middleton was working at a bank, trying to move up the ladder. But his career wasn’t as fulfilling as he wanted it to be. He felt like something was missing, and he couldn’t stop thinking about an adage he knew: Find a career where you never have to work a day in your life.

It wasn’t until he sat down with his college football coach at a Starbucks on a cloudy January day that Middleton decided to change the direction of his life.

“He said, ‘AJ, what are you doing with your life?’ Middleton said, “and I was like, ‘I don’t know.’ And he goes, ‘Here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to take the GRE. You’re going to go back to school.’”

Two weeks later, as Middleton was studying for the GRE at 2 a.m., he stumbled upon a graduate assistant strength and conditioning job at the University of Redlands, where the head strength coach at Puget Sound played and later coached.

Middleton went to talk to him about the position and, eventually, Middleton earned and completed it. He graduated with his master’s degree in 2015, also interning at the University of Southern California and the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

In strength training, Middleton finally found a job that didn’t feel like work.

“It’s a bunch of running around, encouraging kids,” he said. “This generation, they bring a lot energy.”

“It’s a crazy thing to see somebody that’s so natural in their job,” Scarsella said. “He absolutely loves every minute of what he’s doing. It empowers kids. Is really fun for me to see kids that have him as a coach. Their faces light up.”

Even while he was working in banking, Middleton was doing some personal training on the side. Banking, Scarsella said, was always just a job. It wasn’t Middleton’s future.

“He was just kind of biding his time,” she said. “I always knew he was going to be doing something bigger and making a bigger impact. I think that’s kind of the cool thing about what he’s doing now. A lot of these kids aren’t going to play in the NFL or do anything but weight lifting is going to be a forever thing.”

Middleton met Nu’u Tafisi, BYU’s current head trainer, while they were both at USC. Middleton stayed in contact, and that eventually led to him accepting a job with the Cougars. Middleton had never been to Utah and he wasn’t a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but he still accepted.

Despite being an outsider to the state and the faith, Middleton quickly found a way to connect.

“If you’re lifting weights and running and doing a bunch of tough tests to grow, that’s a common denominator,” he said “Nobody wants to play football to get smaller. … That’s not why you throw those weights around.”

Scarsella isn’t surprised he’s been able to fit in so well. Middleton, she said, has always had the ability to connect with broad groups of people.

Because of the demands of his job, Middleton only makes it to Tacoma a few times a year. But every time he comes back, it still feels like home. He always remembers how to navigate the city’s back roads and he makes sure to visit his favorite restaurants. On one trip back, he went straight from the airport to Frisko Freeze.

But Saturday marks his first trip home for a BYU game.

“I’m pumped,” he said. “It’s crazy to think I’m going back in this aspect.”