J.T. Townsend dies Tuesday night

Former high school athlete, disabilities advocate suffered heart complications

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Jerry Townsend Jr. -- who everyone knew as J.T. -- died late Tuesday night after his heart stopped, according to the chairwoman of the J.T. Townsend Foundation.

He was 26 years old.

Townsend was left paralyzed after a spinal cord injury during a football game in October 2004. He battled his injury, returned to finish his high school education and had just graduated in April with a sports management degree from the University of North Florida.

He also formed the foundation that helped and inspired people with injuries similar to his.

"J.T. was a courageous and inspirational young man who never lost his enthusiasm and exuberance for life after his terrible injury," said Charley Zimmer, head of school at Episcopal School of Jacksonville, Townsend's alma mater. "There are no words to describe the depth of admiration and affection this community has for J.T.  The very fact that he had just graduated from college and was interviewing for a job adds to the tragedy of this news. We are immeasurably blessed to have known him."

IMAGES: Remembering J.T. in photos

In a statement, the J.T. Townsend Foundation said, "It's with a heavy heart, the J.T. Townsend Foundation (JTTF) announces the passing of our founder, friend and president –- J.T. Townsend -- on Tuesday, June 4. As we cope with the news, let us offer support and comfort to each other and remember the unyielding spirit of J.T. Townsend and the Townsend family.

"At 26 years old, J.T. embodied courage, service, and love for all. Through adversity and against all odds, J.T. persevered through extraordinary obstacles, graduating from the University of North Florida in (April) 2013, fostering new breakthroughs in research for spinal cord injuries, and providing aid to countless families living with disabilities in our community. Under his leadership, our organization grew to what it is today." 

Townsend died without warning. Judy Zitiello, foundation board chairwoman, said she received a call at 1 a.m. Wednesday from Townsend's mother letting her know Townsend passed away overnight.

"She said he was sitting in his chair watching basketball and then he slumped over around 11 o'clock, and they called paramedics and they came and rushed him in to Memorial Hospital," Zitiello said.

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Memorial Hospital's doctors worked for more than an hour to try to revive him, but were unsuccessful. While heart failure was suspected, the cause of Townsend's death was officially undetermined.

Zitiello said she was "blind-sided" when she heard about Townsend's death. She was with Townsend Tuesday night preparing for a rotary meeting and EverBank gift-giving event Wednesday.

"If you meet J.T., he is the most inspiring and amazing man, and has always been," Zitiello said.

"He was a big part of our family," said Zitiello's husband, Tom, who is also involved in JTTF. "We considered J.T. family and is family. We always go out together and do things together. He will be missed but remembered forever by my children and my family. Just pure joy. I see J.T. smiling all the time in my life."

Townsend was a native of Jacksonville and was the oldest of three children.

After his injury, he started the J.T. Townsend Foundation, which raises money to provide medical equipment and help to others with disabilities in northeast Florida. Townsend was the president of the foundation and was very active in the Jacksonville community.

"His dream was always to repay the community that helped him when they needed help most, so the J.T. Foundation is exactly that," Zitiello said. "It's his dream of helping -- the mission is to help children and adults with disabilities with financial assistance and to get them the things they need."

"He's just going to be really missed," professional golfer Fred Funk, who helped with Townsend's foundation, said in a phone interview. "His love of life and his love of other people, and you just can't replace it. I've never met anyone like J.T. and I never will meet anyone like J.T."

Upon J.T.'s graduation from UNF, a graduation party was held for him on the Episcopal campus. Members of the Episcopal faculty administration, including Zimmer, served on the board of drectors of the J.T. Townsend Foundation.

"The work that J.T. did for others with similar challenges was incredible, and he never lost the optimism and faith that was evident throughout his life," Zimmer said. "He was truly a remarkable young man and a gift to all of us."

Townsend was scheduled to speak to the Rotary Club of West Jacksonville on Wednesday. The club's motto is "service above self," and members say that's what Townsend embodied. That's why they were looking forward to hearing from him.

Even though they couldn't, they still chose to honor him and what he stood for.

"We were very much looking forward to hearing J.T.," club President John McCorvey said. "We've heard a lot of wonderful things about him, about how what an inspiration he has been to others, how he has turned tragedy into triumph."

Sissy Horn was looking forward to meeting the inspiring young man. The Rotary Club told Townsend's story on its website, telling members about his life before and after his injury and why it was important for him to give back.

"I was so excited to get to meet J.T., and I heard this morning on my way to the dentist that he had died last night due to heart failure," Horn said. "So it was really a kind of sad, bittersweet kind of thing that I thought, 'Oh, I'm not going to get to see him today.'"

Instead, the group honored Townsend and his work and heard from a member who knew him well from working with him at his foundation.

Because the group was suddenly left without a speaker, Horn stepped up, using her time to encourage others to continue the work to help others, like Townsend did.

"We need to remember what a great young adult he was and what he did and how he rallied this community together," Horn said. "And again, here today this rotary, he's rallying us together."

"He is basically what we inspire to be as rotarians," McCorvey said. "Someone who overcomes obstacles and despite those obstacles manages to be a force for good in the community."