Category Archives: JT Townsend

Champions for Hope

Champions for Hope

Judi and JT graduation copy

On a warm June day as I stood at the UNF Arena podium before approximately twelve hundred mourners, I felt a strange peace come over me. I had prayed I could get through the eulogy of a man who changed my life and the lives of my family. A man I love dearly. A man who had shown me my purpose.

At that time I felt my purpose was to carry on his legacy of fulfilling the mission of a foundation we built together by helping people who had been in his very situation, broken and afraid. On that day I could never imagine how that defining moment would explode into yet another purpose even more personal than this.

Just ten months later my husband and I sat on the sofa of my new doctors office. I had always been very healthy. Recently what I wrote off as advancing age; knees clicking, meniscus tears, indigestion all started creeping up on me. Years of walking, body sculpting classes, treadmills and ellipticals pounding my medium sized frame were starting to reveal a truth…I was aging. Confident the doctor would concur with our diagnosis, we smiled when she entered the room and asked me to take a seat on the examining table. She was pretty, about thirty something, so accomplished for her age. But her demeanor was serious. She began to explain the results of the sonogram she had ordered the day before as she turned to her computer screen she pointed to something in the middle of my torso. “You have a mass in the head of your pancreas.” she said. Tom jumped from the sofa to sit on the table beside me. “Your blood work and symptoms reveal it could be pancreatic cancer.” A tear trickled down her cheek as she stoically shared her findings leading to this conclusion. My immediate response, “Can you live without your pancreas?” I was unaware of what the pancreas did. Tom held me tightly as she explained, “Yes,you can, but you would live on insulin for the rest of your life.” She had made an appointment with a surgeon at the Mayo Clinic for the next day. We left her office in utter shock.

The rest of the week was filled with MRI’s, more blood work, conversations with our surgical team, visits to church and meetings with immediate family. I was on a fast decline. Just 11 days after my initial appointment I was on the operating table for a 9 and 1/2 hour Whipple surgery by one of the best pancreatic cancer surgeons in the world.

My treatment and recovery took more than one year. To this day I am affected by the resection of my entire digestive system. Chemo and radiation have turned my stomach muscles to mush as well as deterioration of my bones. I recently underwent 2 and 1/2 hour surgery to repair hernias that developed where drains and other incisions had been required.

But, I am here 26 months at this writing cancer free from a lethal cancer that has a less than 8% survival rate of five years. I am a miracle.

To endure a day like October 8th, 2004 for JT, the date of his near fatal spinal cord injury and April 29th, 2014, the date of my diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, is something I would not wish upon anyone.
But, a friend told me one day I would look back on this trial as a blessing. And, that has proven to be true.

That blessing is the revelation of purpose. To move forward with each day that God blesses us with. To take that most difficult situation and turn it into good. To show others that through faith you can conquer anything. Be the example, make others see the hope you glean from a relationship with the only one who truly matters, our savior Jesus Christ.

What was hope for JT? That he would walk again? That he would be able to play football again? That he would hold his wife and baby one day. Only JT knows the true answer to that question. But, he never questioned “why me”. He moved forward each day with a smile and purpose to use his life experience to help others.

What is hope for me? That I will survive this death sentence? That cancer will not steal me from the ones I love too soon? Deep in my soul I promise you I am fine with death. But, I am hopeful that others will see my peace and they will reach deep down too and use each and every day to fight to give others hope.

JT and I have a mutual friend, a friend who we love and loves us both right back. The 2005 Players Champion – pro golfer Fred Funk and his wife and children joined forces with my husband, rock and best friend Tommy Zitiello, to create an event that will be like none other. An event to be held on one of the most prestigious golf courses in the country, The Champions for Hope Golf Classic.

The inaugural Champions for Hope golf classic presented by the Funk-Zitiello Foundation, Inc. (501C3 IRS designation applied for) will be held Friday, June 16th,2017, Father’s Day weekend, a gala, concert and auction at the TPC Sawgrass clubhouse. Golf will commence on Saturday, June 17th on the famed Stadium course. There will be 25 foursomes and a fifth celebrity. The proceeds from this event will be paid to two First Coast causes, The JT Townsend Foundation, Inc. and to fund a grant to research pancreatic cancer.

We intend for this event to grow annually, to give hope to the families of those affected by both of these causes and in years to come other worthy causes.

To find out how you can become a champion for hope send your inquiry to info@championsforhopegolf.com.

God bless everyone, individuals and sponsors who have stepped up to join our team of champions for hope to help benefit these two deserving causes.

Champions for HOpe logo copy

The night before he passed…

The night before he passed…

Hi Res Logo

JT Townsend and I were scheduled to speak at the Westside Rotary Meeting at 11AM the next morning of the night he passed away. We spoke about the speech he was giving, the speech he had been working on for several weeks. It was to be his first five minute speech.

I assured him he had practiced the speech plenty of times and I would be there to take over if anything prevented him from proceeding. But I knew he would be able to do it on his own.

Of course, we were not able to attend that meeting and JT never was able to give that speech, but a few months after his passing, I was invited back to the Westside Rotary to speak, and of course, I shared JT’s wonderful words with everyone. There was not a dry eye in the room.

This is what JT had to say:

Hello, my name is JT Townsend.

The night of October 8, 2004 started like any other night for a typical high school football player. I attended Episcopal School of Jacksonville, and we were playing our main rival, Bishop Kenny High School, and were doing well. We had a great pre-game dinner, looked good during warm-ups, and took the field ready to win. Because the schools are only a mile apart, the stands were filled with students and parents. As one of the leaders of our defense, it was my job to rally our younger players and keep them in the game. I was the coach on the field, and although I was not the loudest or most hyper player, I led by example and hard work.

The tackle was just like hundreds of others I had made since I was ten years old: knees bent, head up, arms out. I don’t remember the hit. I heard that I turned blue actually laying there in the grass. For me to turn blue – that had to be a bad sign.

The ambulance took me to Wolfson’s Childrens’ Hospital here in Jacksonville where my neck was stabilized and I was given a halo – a circle of metal drilled into my skull that attached to my shoulders and immobilized my head. My C2 vertebra had been crushed in the accident, and I had no feeling below my neck. I then spent the next 4 months at Shands trauma center with some of the best doctors in the region. The only problem, however, was that the doctors and nurses kept telling me all of these things I would not be able to do – finish school, go to college, have a normal next 10 years. I knew then that I would have my doubters. I knew then I would prove them wrong. I knew then that I would overcome. I knew then that I would turn this setback into an opportunity.

I was fortunate to spend several weeks in rehab at the Shepard Center in Atlanta, a hospital that specializes in spinal cord injuries. Without the resources there I would not have been able to learn about the opportunities available to me such as my pacer that helped me breathe and my chair with the sip and blow straw to move around. Sure – I had my dark days. The days where I cried. The days where I wanted to join my friends and swim in the ocean. The days where I wanted to go shoot hoops in the driveway with my sisters. The days where I asked God why me? The amazing thing is that God answered. He wanted to use me as an instrument of healing and helping. I can do more from this chair than people think.

The community rallied behind me the whole way. Local high schools, especially Episcopal, kept my name front and center and made sure that I was not forgotten. The rest of the year went quickly – I was able to finish high school and enjoy my high school graduation with my family sitting on the front row.

I applied to and was admitted to UNF, where I enrolled in 2005. Obviously I was not the traditional college student! My college career began with a thud – the car would not start on the day I was supposed to begin classes. I had other roadblocks, both real and symbolic, along the way. I had to re-learn how to study. I had to ask others for help. For someone who was shy and quiet, this was tough! At UNF I learned about the power of teamwork, the power of community, and the power of joining together to support a common cause.

That’s when I started having the dream for the Foundation. For several years, though, I had been turning dreams into realities, doing things that others told me I would never do. So many people in our community are worse off than me. I knew I had to start giving back more to support the community that that supported me when I needed it most. In Luke, Chapter 12 Jesus says, “To whom much is given, much is required.” Because I had been given so much, I knew that God would require much of me.

About 3 years ago I started the JT Townsend Foundation, a non-profit group that awards grants to families with children who have severe developmental disabilities. This year, through God’s help, we were able to distribute about $85,000 to 35 different families in Jacksonville. The foundation has a nice buzz going in the city. We are hooked into the Players Championship, the Jags, and other events in town. We look to grow and keep helping others wherever the need arises.

Only with God’s grace can I keep going. Thank you and please look out for those who are less fortunate than you are.

Every day in life we are presented with choices. What we do with those choices determines who we are in life. I can’t change what happened to me but with the right choices I can change the lives of others. We all have a purpose in life and true success comes when we realize our purpose. I think the two most important days in our lives are the day we were born and the day we realize why we were born. I now have a vision and a purpose and with the grace of God I have strength, courage and determination. Thank you and God bless you and all those less fortunate than us.

Graduation Day - from UNF...April 2013

Graduation Day – form UNF…April 2013