JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- It wasn't how the young man and those closest to him imagined his life would unfold.
At 17, nothing -- even dreams of playing college football for Florida State University -- seemed out of reach for J.T. Townsend, a standout for Episcopal High School. "Big time players make big time plays in big time games," says his former coach Dareyl Brown. "That was J.T."
Then, on an overcast October night under the lights in 2004, in the blink of an eye, everything changed.
Townsend took the field at strong safety against Bishop Kenny and lined up for a defensive blitz dialed up by his coaches. After the snap, Townsend raced toward the ball, beating out a teammate to make the tackle. But there was no celebration as Townsend lay motionless on the turf after the whistle blew. Just silence.
"I guess the way I can best express it, that it was very obvious that something was wrong, is J.T. was always getting up and responding to his plays," recalls Don Wolfson, a friend and parent at Episcopal. "This time he didn't."
Townsend's family and others streamed onto the field. Dr. Mary Soha, a pediatrician, was one of the first to his side.
"He looked right up at me and mouthed the words, 'I can't breathe, I can't breathe,' twice. I told him, 'I know, it's okay, just relax,' and within seconds, you could see this calm come over him," recalls Soha.
Unable to move, or even breathe, Townsend was carted off the field and placed into an ambulance that rushed him to Wolfson Children's Hospital.
"We were asked if that would be alright -- and, of course, the decision was made with the family -- to get him over there as quickly as possible," says Wolfson. "I learned later that the reason why they asked was because they thought that J.T. wouldn't survive. The first responders felt that he wouldn't make it. They called it, I hate to say this but, a death ride."
When he woke up, he was greeted by his mother, Carmen Townsend, and confronted with grim news. Surrounded by medical tubes and a web of rods connected to his halo brace, Townsend found out a spinal cord injury had left him quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down.
Townsend didn't despair. Even though he couldn't walk, it was a miracle that he was alive. "I remember him -- the next morning we went there and J.T. has this halo on his head and, as Don said, a big smile. I mean, he was alive," says Mary Wolfson.
Adds Soha, "Someone came up to me after the event and made the comment, 'If you knew that J.T. was hurt so significantly, why did you save his life? If you knew what the probability was that he would never walk again, play football again or whatnot.' My response was, 'I'm not a judge.' ... That was not our call to make, nor should that be anyone's call to make. That young man had a burning desire to live."
The turn of events derailed his dreams of playing college football and left him confined to a wheelchair. But it didn't sap him of the spirit that would compel him to keep going. He underwent rehabilitation and physical therapy at Atlanta's Shepherd Center, where his family first heard him speak again, and soon returned to school.
"That was one of the most scariest days for us because we had been with him every day since that had happened," says Townsend's aunt, Pat. "Now, it's like he is going out and you just have to let him go."
"He loved life so he went out there every day," his sister, Precious Townsend, says. "It doesn't matter if the nurse didn't come, he might have woke up on the wrong side of the bed that day. It doesn't matter, he is going to school."
In 2005, he graduated with the rest of his class. It was emotional day for Townsend's family and everyone in attendance. Student after student walked up to accept their papers until it was J.T.'s turn and Charley Zimmer, Head of School at Episcopal, waded through the crowd to Townsend and handed him his diploma. "In my 50 years, this is probably the strongest, the most courageous, most self-effacing young man that I've ever known," says Zimmer.
"Oh my God, my heart was so filled. In spite of everything that he went through, in spite of everything that they said he wouldn't accomplish, he had his mind set. He had determination, he had faith, he was going to get that diploma, and he had his mama riding him, 'It's not just going to stop on high school," Carmen Townsend recalls.
That summer, pro golfer Fred Funk came into Townsend's life. Since his family's home was not suited for his care, Townsend had been staying with his aunt at her home near EverBank Field, then known as Alltel Stadium. When Funk stopped by to visit in July of 2005, he was caught off guard by the sweltering heat -- it was nearly triple-digit temperatures inside.
"It was about 98 degrees in there," Funk recalls. "He had this window air conditioner that would make up for it, but it couldn't, and we walked in the house and it was basically a shack. It was depressing. That alone was depressing, but when I walked in the room, J.T. was sitting in the wheelchair and J.T. had this unbelievable smile. It just lit up the room."
Funk's wife Sharon remembers her husband returning home, but something had changed. "He said, 'This man is incredible and we need to do something for him."
Fred Funk recalls, "We ended up saying, 'We're going to build him a house.' At least get him into an environment where he can be with his family and be in a healthy environment and the house is built for him to have as many comforts as he can possibly have."
The Funks started raising money, through a trust fund relying on donations and broad community support, to fulfill that promise.
"For them to say, 'We'll build you a house.' How often does someone say, 'We'll build you a house?'" says Carmen Townsend. "I felt then like the wheel was turning, our life would be better."
The fundraising campaign took off. It wasn't long afterward that the Townsend family and the friends who helped them build it were walking through their new home for the first time. "We built him a house and it was one of the happiest days of my life," recalls Funk.
Townsend's mother was floored by the wave of generosity that brought her family together once again.
"How do you tell a man -- the Funk family -- 'thank you'? But it just seemed like it wasn't enough. Thank you for how you put my family together, thank you for how you changed our life, thank you for how you gave my son a chance."
With his family and community at his back, Townsend enrolled at the University of North Florida. It was while studying sports management at UNF that Townsend's goals came into focus. He wanted to give back, not just to those who had come to his side and helped him overcome tragedy but also to those who found themselves in need.
"It came to the point that he wanted to start making a difference," says Carmen Townsend. "We wanted to start giving back."
One night while brainstorming with friends J.T. started envisioning something that would be able to help people like himself, whether they're getting stonewalled by their insurance carrier or they need medical equipment so expensive that they don't have any means of affording it, friend Judi Zitiello recalls.
In April 2011, the J.T. Townsend Foundation was born. Nearly five years later, the nonprofit now raises money to provide equipment to and help those with disabilities in Northeast Florida.
"He has such a huge heart and that was what his dream really was, to give back to the community that helped him to pay it forward," says Zitiello, board chair for the foundation.
In April 2013, two years after launching the foundation, Townsend reached yet another milestone. Inside the UNF Arena, he received his bachelor's degree in sports management. While his family and friends were in attendance, it was the entire arena that rallied and broke into applause when Townsend's name was announced.
"Since my brother got a standing ovation, he let it ride," recalls Precious Townsend. "He went all around the auditorium just to get back in his one spot. I said, 'J.T., you're not supposed to do that.' He said, 'I had a standing ovation, I had to let the sound out a little bit.'"
Townsend was also seeing progress with his physical therapy. Undeterred by doctors' prognosis that he would never walk again, he kept pushing forward. "I said, 'J.T., just because the doctor said, that don't mean it has to be so. God got the last word,'" Carmen says.
With Townsend, friends recall, it was never a matter of if but when. When he would walk again. When he would get married. When he would get his first job. When he would get his first car. "He wanted my car," friend Valerie de la Torre says.
His persistence paid off.
"I think it might have been Carmen who said, 'Jerry, come here.' And she just said, 'Just stand right there.' And then J.T. said, 'Look daddy,' and he moved his arm," recalls J.T.'s father, Jerry Townsend. "...Man, I ran out of the room and ran into the other room, and I knew then we were on our way."
Then J.T. stunned everyone again when he regained movement in his toes. "When he moved his toes, Oh my God! Oh my God," his aunt Pat recalls.
In June, just months after his college graduation, Townsend's heart stopped and he passed away. He was 26. In the same arena where he had proudly graduated, he was laid to rest.
But, as friends and family point out, his spirit lives on. Reminders of his what he stands for are apparent in the lives of those close to Jack Hutchinson, Billy Flagg, Jonas Howell, and others who have received assistance from his foundation.
"He figured out, so many people don't, he figured it out in a way that is an inspiration to so many of us," says Don Wolfson. "It's not how long you're here, it's what you do with that time while you're here."
On that life-changing October night in 2004, as he left the field at Bishop Kenny on a stretcher, it was hard to imagine how Townsend would make it. When he passed in 2013, it was hard to believe he was gone.