My Sunday column — one I wish I didn’t have to write
In 20 years of covering prep sports in virtually every corner of the state of North Carolina, I’ve had the opportunity to see thousands of student-athletes take the field, court or pitch.
J.J. Thompson was one of the best I had the honor to write about. The former Greene Central High School star was the best player in our area in 2006, when The Free Press named him its overall player of the year.
Friday night, J.J. succumbed to cancer, less than a month after his 23rd birthday. The news of his untimely death spread quickly throughout Greene County and North Carolina on Saturday.
Jim Bob Bryant won the Associated Press Coach of the Year award this past season at Havelock High School. In 2006, though, Bryant was Greene Central’s head football coach.
Saturday afternoon, Bryant was driving back from a coach’s clinic in Western North Carolina; more than 12 hours after finding out about J.J.’s untimely death, the coach’s voice still cracked with emotion.
“I love all my players and they know that,” Bryant said. “But J.J. was like a son to me. If he’d have ever wanted to move in with me and my family, he could have in a heartbeat — that’s how much we thought of him.”
One of J.J.’s closest friends was his defensive coordinator at Greene Central, Andre Quinerly. “Coach Q” was the catalyst in bringing J.J. back in 2011 to the Rams’ sideline, where the recent Winston-Salem State University graduate coached Quinerly’s linebackers.
“I lost a fantastic player and coach, but more than that, I lost a good friend,” Q told me Saturday afternoon, his voice shaking. “Yes, he was young, but he was going to be a great coach because the kids really admired him.”
“He had just received his business degree from Winston-Salem State, but I told him as soon as he got his teaching certification, he had a spot on my Havelock staff,” said Bryant, who added that J.J. would’ve been a great head coach one day.
His first three years of high school, J.J. was a defensive star at Greene Central and a blocking back on offense. His senior year, though, team issues forced him to become the Rams’ starting tailback, a position he hadn’t played since middle school.
He rose to the challenge — rushing for over 1,000 yards and 16 touchdowns, along with leading the Rams to a 9-3 record on a squad that included other great Rams players such as defensive star Brandon Sutton, quarterback Cameron Shelton and receiver/defensive back Harrison Walston.
“That’s just the way he was; he was unselfish and a total team player,” Quinerly said of J.J., who received a football scholarship to WSSU. “His commitment was to his team. He’d sacrifice his own health to do what was best for the team.”
Bryant said, “He was a team-first player. He told me, ‘If it helps the team, I’ll move anywhere you need me.’ He didn’t care about glory for himself — he just wanted his teammates to be successful.”
Quinerly said J.J.’s greatest game was a non-conference affair against Kinston in September 2006. In a game no one expected Greene Central to win, J.J. rushed for 84 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries in the Rams’ 22-21 victory in Snow Hill. More importantly, though, he finished with 13 tackles, including six for loss, on defense.
“Like he always did, he put the team on his back that night,” Quinerly recalled. “He was hyped up and he guaranteed the team, ‘We’re winning this game.’ And we did — because of his heart.”
Most Greene Central fans remember how the charismatic Brandon Sutton led those teams with his skill and talent; Sutton — now a rookie with Richmond Raiders of the Arena Football League after a spectacular career at Catawba College — said he was always pushed by J.J.
“He made sure the person beside him was always doing his job,” Sutton said. “And he always motivated me. If I got a sack, he said he was going to get two. If I had an interception, he had to get one, too. He was the ultimate teammate and a great friend since we were in fifth grade.”
The last couple of times I saw J.J. in football season and at a basketball game, he busted my chops about my need to write a story about his return to the sideline as an assistant coach for Greene Central. I tried to tell him I wasn’t the sports guy any longer with The Free Press, but that I’d put something together for the upcoming football season.
He persisted, though.
“C’mon, Mr. Hanks — you know you want to write this story!” J.J. said with a laugh in our final conversation. “It’ll be like old times!”
I wish I could’ve written that story instead of the one I’m typing now. Rest in peace, young man.
Bryan C. Hanks’ column appears in The Free Press every Sunday. You can reach him at 252-559-1074 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his blog at bhanks.encblogs.com and follow him on Twitter at BCHanks.