If those who knew J.T. Townsend could pick one thing they’ll remember most about him, it’s his smile.
“It was a lightning bolt smile, and it was authentic,” said Kristine Webb, director of the Disability Resource Center at the University of North Florida where Townsend graduated in May. “It started from the inside and came from within to what we saw on his face.”
“It just made your day,” said Jennifer Kane, who taught Townsend in two classes as chair of the sports management department.
Of course, Townsend was much more than a smile.
He received a scholarship to attend Episcopal School of Jacksonville in 2003, where he played football and basketball. After a tackle during a running play against Bishop Kenny Oct. 8, 2004, Townsend suffered a spinal cord injury that left him without feeling below the neck. The community rallied around the Townsend family, helping with his recovery and a specially equipped home for his family.
In response, he started a nonprofit to help those with disabilities in Northeast Florida. The J.T. Townsend Foundation has given $149,000 in financial assistance or equipment to 60 families since fall 2010, according to board member Kelly Winer.
Townsend was devoted to the foundation’s work and personally delivered every piece of equipment or check, Winer said.
“One of the most exciting things was to witness him giving back,” she said. “You really can’t compare that feeling of giving back to help people truly in need.”
One of the people Townsend helped was Brett Parks.
In October 2012, Parks tried to stop a man who had just robbed someone at a Southside apartment complex, but the man shot twice, hitting Parks in the abdomen. Parks managed to remain conscious until he reached the hospital, but he lost a lot of blood. After being in a coma for 20 days, he woke up to learn he was missing a kidney and about a third of his right leg. Parks, who joined the Navy in 2008, said the situation seemed bleak.
“Then, one day this guy comes rolling into my hospital room, and he’s got a big smile on his face. I thought, ‘What is he smiling about? He’s worse off than I am,’” Parks said.
“He really motivated me to get up out of bed and stop feeling sorry for myself,” he said.
Two of Parks’ biggest motivations: his 2-year-old son, Jason, and his daughter, 6-month-old Stella, who was born two months after the incident.
“I started working on walking again for my son and my daughter-to-be.”
Now, Parks speaks at churches and high schools about what it means to have courage and faith, something Townsend encouraged him to do.
“He said, ‘It’s not a tragedy, it’s an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to tell our story,’” Parks said.
Everybody has those moments that are life changing, like meeting your spouse and having your children. “Meeting J.T. was a life-changing moment for me,” Parks said.
“He didn’t just survive his injury, he thrived,” Parks said. “He told me, ‘I thought I was going to make an impact before, but look at me now.’”
That impact was felt wherever Townsend went. He received help at the Disability Resource Center, but he was always among the first to volunteer for outreach or speaking engagements, Webb said. He helped design the center’s accessibility, using his large wheelchair as the model.
“If it would work for him, it would work for anyone,” Webb said.
“J.T. was a model for so many folks because he never let the chair or the disability define him. It was his character and his intellect that defined him.”
Kane taught Townsend in two classes, including Resource Development for Nonprofit Organizations, a subject in which he was keenly interested. She saw him mature from a shy, reserved student to a funny, active participant.
“I don’t think anybody looked at him as disabled; they looked at him as so abled.”
Townsend had just completed an internship with the Wounded Warrior Project and was talking to the Jacksonville Jaguars about a position in the graphic arts department, Kane said.
“He came to UNF to learn and for us to teach him, but looking back on it, he taught us,” Kane said.
“He never asked for an extension on an assignment. You can only imagine what he had to do to get to class every day, and he’d be there every day with a smile.”
Once again, that smile is what people remember, like Parks in that hospital room.
“He really helped us smile at a time when we really didn’t feel like smiling.”