JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The Jacksonville Jaguars are making plans to honor a paralyzed football player who died Wednesday, three weeks after his last visit to the facility and just before beginning an internship with the team.
J.T. Townsend, paralyzed from the neck down during a high school game in 2004, spent countless hours getting to know Jaguars players over the years. He considered running back Maurice Jones-Drew and former Jaguars/current Houston Texans fullback Greg Jones close friends.
"We lost a friend today," Jaguars coach Gus Bradley said. "He was my kind of guy. Just visiting with him and talking with our team today in our team meeting I know he inspired many. It was truly a privilege to get to know him the short time that I did. A lot of guys on our team were close to him and then when I had a chance to meet him and just visit with him he just captured you.
"He just drew you in and just his attitude and the way he saw things, I wanted to be around him more and more. That's what happens when people are positive: you gravitate towards those types of people. And there's no doubt our whole team gravitated towards him."
Townsend attended practice May 15, visiting with Bradley and players, and then ate lunch with the team. The Jaguars had agreed to hire the 26-year-old as an intern, giving him a chance to work as a graphic designer and help create game-day programs.
Now, the team will recognize Townsend's family at a game and could do more in the next few weeks.
"It's just a real sad deal," Bradley said. "We'll grieve for a while and then we will end up celebrating all of the things that he's done for us and many people around this community. It's a tough day for our team and a tough day for me as well even the short time I had a chance to get to meet him."
Townsend was a senior strong safety and defensive captain at Episcopal High in Jacksonville when he injured his spine making a tackle. He had surgery to fuse vertebrae the following week, spent months on a ventilator and then eight years in a wheelchair.
PGA Tour golfer Fred Funk was one of the family's biggest fundraisers early on, helping raise enough money to build a house equipped to take care of a quadriplegic.
In 2011, Townsend stared giving back. He created the J.T. Townsend Foundation, which raises money to provide medical equipment and assistance to others with disabilities in Northeast Florida.
He also graduated from college last month, getting a sports management degree at the University of North Florida after finishing a six-month internship with the Wounded Warrior Project.
He remained in close contact with his hometown Jaguars, attending practices, games and getting numerous players involved with his charity.
"He was just such a great guy to see here, knowing what he went through," center Brad Meester said. "He always had such an energy to him, always happy. A guy in that situation could be the other way, but he was always upbeat and excited about what was coming up the next day. It's just hard to hear what happened."
Bradley spoke to Townsend's grieving mother and delivered the news to most of the team at a morning meeting.
"It's shocking," receiver Cecil Shorts III said. "It's sad. He was truly an inspiration to all of us. No matter what, even though the situation he was in, he always had a smile on his face, always laughing, always in a good mood. He's truly in a better place now."
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