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A city responds to injured Episcopal player

Visitors, T-shirts, an assistance fund are just part of the outpouring following spinal surgery.


The Times-Union

Jim Cheyunsky's phone didn't stop ringing Tuesday.

The Episcopal High School athletic director knew some of the callers. Some he didn't. Some called with nothing more to offer than a word of encouragement. Others offered more tangible help.

All of the callers had the same thing on their minds: J.T. Townsend.

What can we do?

Townsend, a senior football and basketball standout for the Eagles, received a serious spinal injury last week while making a tackle. He remains at Shands Jacksonville hospital while an immense network of support -- both inside and outside the school -- has been building during the past five days.

"It's a wonderful thing to see how much this young man matters to so many people," Cheyunsky said. "Obviously not all these people know him personally, but the response has still been very impressive."


New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin, who spent eight years as coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, phoned his best wishes.

At least two members of the Jaguars have offered to visit Townsend.

The Mudville Grill, a restaurant located near the Southside private school, has raised a banner for Townsend.

WZNZ 1460 AM program director Chris Wayne helped set up a pager number for Townsend -- 840-HOPE -- and has cut a radio advertisement asking listeners to page Townsend with the message #4673, which spells hope.

J.T. Townsend, a senior at Episcopal High School, suffered a spinal injury last week while making a tackle.


"The idea is to get that thing ringing and vibrating non-stop," Wayne said. "And every time it goes off, J.T. will know somebody somewhere is thinking about him."

Coaches, players and boosters from Bishop Kenny, the Eagles' opponent Friday when Townsend collapsed, have been regular visitors to Shands in recent days.

"We trust and believe in God," were the only words of mother Carmen Townsend on Tuesday, while J.T. was nearing the end of about six hours of surgery to fuse vertebrae, stabilizing his spinal cord.

Townsend, a senior strong safety, was injured while assisting on a tackle with about 6 minutes remaining in last Friday's game.

"I was in on the play," said senior Episcopal lineman J.W. Myers. "He was shaking and the trainers came out right away. The last thing we were told before the game went on was he had a collapsed lung. Obviously it turned out to be worse than that, but even thinking it was his lung, we all were just kind of in a haze for the rest of the game. I remember thinking to keep my head up on every play. I don't think the players on either side wanted to be out there any more."

Episcopal canceled its scheduled football game at DeSoto Arcadia on Friday because players are so concerned about Townsend.

For now, however, Cheyunsky has a larger responsibility within the school, helping students, teammates and faculty understand how a perfectly healthy teenager can be placed, in an instant, in the position of fighting for a normal life.

That task, Cheyunsky said, has been easier than expected.

"You know it's a very close family here at Episcopal when you try to minister to the students over this tragedy, and instead, they begin to minister to you," Cheyunsky said.

It has been just that kind of togetherness that led Episcopal Chaplain Bob Marsh, according to school advancement staff member Doug Walker, to opt against bringing a crisis management team to the school campus.

"Bob has been instrumental in counseling the students, but he believes the bond between the students and faculty here is strong enough on its own," Walker said. "And I would certainly agree."

Support within the school has been as much of an outpouring.

Students are wearing ribbons in recognition of Townsend.

The school conducted two prayer services Monday for students and another Tuesday as classmates awaited the results of Townsend's initial surgery.

The school has set up the J.T. Townsend Assistance Fund to assist the family financially, with donations mailed to the school at 4455 Atlantic Blvd., Jacksonville, Fla., 32207.

T-shirts bearing Townsend's jersey No. 7 will be made and sold, with proceeds going to Townsend's fund.

Offers to help the Townsend family have included everything from food to home care to lawn mowing, Cheyunsky said.

Uncertainty might be the overwhelming feeling of the moment for Townsend's family members, but this much is certain: Support will be found everywhere they turn.

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