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.