catamountATHLETICS

TEAM BUILDING FROM TRAGEDY

The loss of a fellow Catamount is bringing the football team closer together

By BRANDON DEMERY

Less than two months before the football Catamounts were to kick off their season with a game against Vanderbilt, the entire athletic department of Western Carolina was dealt a crippling blow. On the afternoon of July 8, Ja’Quayvin Smalls, defensive back for the football team, passed away at Harris Regional Hospital in Sylva after collapsing during a voluntary off-season workout session at E.J. Whitmire Stadium/Bob Waters Field. Smalls, a junior transfer from Georgia Military College, was enrolled in the second session of summer courses that began the previous day.

Ja'Quayvin SmallsThe locker of Ja’Quayvin Smalls will be kept in game-day
condition this year, and his football teammates will don
his initials on their helmets.

“Any loss of life is a tragedy, but it is especially tragic when someone is taken from us at such a young age,” said Chip Smith, WCU director of athletics. While the sudden loss of Smalls remains on the minds of those within the campus community, the WCU football program is moving forward with true resilience by keeping alive the spirit of a fallen Catamount, said Smith.

Although Smalls was only with his new teammates for a brief amount of time, it was enough for them to see Smalls was someone who would not let being a newcomer hold him back. “Ja’Quayvin was a real hard worker. He had a real passion for the game and he was a fighter,” said Gene Singletary, a senior defensive lineman. Singletary said he especially noticed Smalls’ poise as a transfer player, and recognized that he had come to Cullowhee determined to make a difference – a determination that continues to inspire his teammates. “Players are pushing themselves more during practice,” he said. “Some of the guys are even dedicating the season to him in respect for his passion for the game.”

Equipment manager Mike Taylor said that Smalls’ locker will be encased and kept in game-day condition, and that no other player will wear Smalls’ number 3 for the entire season. The Catamounts also will be donning “JS” decals on their helmets this year out of respect for their fallen teammate. “In the short time we knew him, Ja’Quayvin touched the hearts of a lot of our players,” said Head Coach Dennis Wagner. “We’re doing everything we can to keep his memory alive and let everyone know that Ja’Quayvin will always be a part of the Catamount family.”

Losing a friend and teammate is creating a new sense of camaraderie among players. “This is the closest we’ve ever been as a team. We’re all reaching out to try and be there for one another,” said third-year tight end Chris Everett. “There is usually tension among the team between newcomers and the veteran players, but this tragedy has gotten rid of it all,” Everett said.

“Losing a player with Smalls’ intensity has unified us and showed us the true importance of developing strong relationships on and off the field,” he said. “We witnessed someone push himself until he couldn’t anymore, and we’re on a mission this year. We intend on giving our all in every game. We’re all playing for Ja’Quayvin and his memory.”

JS Decal

Smalls was laid to rest in his hometown of Mount Pleasant, S.C., on July 13 with 45 WCU student-athletes and five members of the coaching staff in attendance. Hospital personnel are awaiting the result of medical tests to determine the cause of death.

Brandon Demery is a senior at Western Carolina University from Raleigh. He is majoring in English/professional writing with a minor in social work and communication.