By Ron Wynn
The reason for the death of Tennessee State University football player William Wayne Jones III, who collapsed Wednesday during a non-contact practice drill on the field, is not yet known. Jones was a walk-on (non-scholarship player) from Smyrna. An autopsy was set to be performed later Thursday, according to TSU head coach Rod Reed and interim President Dr. Portia H. Shields. Both spoke at a Thursday press conference at TSU, one the football team attended as well.
“The team is not doing very well right now,” Reed said. “But we still have a game left in the season. This tragedy has deeply affected all these young men in a very direct, deep fashion.” He later said in retrospect the fact TSU has a bye this weekend was probably a good thing. “I don’t know that we could get the team together and in the mood to play a game Saturday, if we had one,” Reed added. “When you see one of your comrades go down on the field like that, not out in the street, but right there in front of you, it deeply affects you.”
Reed also said he saw Jones go down out of the corner of his eye, and that nothing before that was unusual or different. “We had just finished stretching,” Reed continued. “We were going into drills. I was working with the linebackers because our linebacker coach is out on the road recruiting. I looked out and saw someone go down. Wayne had just caught the football and was returning it to (defensive backs) coach Sanders when he went down. As soon as the trainers started working on him, then I went over and stayed with him.”
TSU trainers and support personnel found Jones unconscious and tried to revive him. Reed said when the ambulance came, EMT’s also tried to revive him with CPR. Jones was transported to Baptist Hospital and pronounced dead at 5:50 p.m. Wednesday.
Dr. Shields said the student body was planning three separate events in honor of Jones. The first was held Thursday on campus at 5 p.m. The second was scheduled for Friday, and a third for Monday. “The students came to me and wanted to do something to honor Wayne, and to use this event as an occasion to rally around TSU and to come together and try to get through this situation,” she said. “This is a very tough thing. I spoke with the team and they are having a very hard time with it. They are hurt, angry, disappointed, and very much in mourning. They don’t understand why this young man was taken in this way.”
Reed said Jones did have a preseason physical, and there were no pre-existing conditions that would have indicated he had any problem. The team’s Thursday and Friday practices were cancelled. They will resume preparation for the Nov. 17 game with UT Martin Sunday. Both Jones and Reed talked about the amount of energy and enthusiasm he brought to the team, even though he was a redshirt freshman who didn’t dress (in uniform) for the games.
“Wayne loved TSU and we met when he was a Boot Camper this summer,” Dr. Shields added. “He was a leader on and off the field. I would stand next to him during games and he would always be yelling encouragement to the players, rooting them on. The freshman students are especially hurt by this, but they are rallying around each other and making this sad occasion a time of prayer and reflection on his behalf.”
“He was very energetic, very much a part of the program,” Reed said. “He came to see me a few weeks ago and wanted to know how come he wasn’t playing. I told him, “son, we’ve got Stephen Godbolt out there, we’ve got other really good players out there, and you’re a walk on. You’ve got to be a standout on the scout squad, show me what you’ve got running down there on kickoffs and punts. From that point forward, it was full speed, 100% ahead all the time. He was definitely going to make a big impression on the field down the line.”
Both Dr. Shields and Reed have spoken extensively with the parents. Reed remained with them until 3 a.m. Thursday morning. “The Dad said to me, I’m going to make the arrangements, but I won’t let them interrupt your preparation for the game,” Reed said. “I told him, you just make the arrangements and don’t worry about us or the game.”
William Wayne Jones III was a three-yard starter at Smyrna. He also played basketball, and had an outstanding senior season. That year he had 50 tackles and an interception. He also hit the game-winning shot in overtime to help Smyrna beat rival LaVergne in basketball. Because TSU didn’t have any scholarships remaining, he’d agreed to pay his own way this season, but Reed felt he was well on his way to earning a scholarship for next year.
There are plans to put a special plate with Jones’ name and number (47) on his locker. Shields and Reed said that funeral arrangements had not yet been made. Reed said he’d dealt with a similar incident during his days as a coach at Bethune-Cookman. “There was a player who I had recruited that got stabbed and killed when I was at Bethune-Cookman,” Reed concluded. “So yes, it is something that I’ve gone through before. But it doesn’t make it any easier. You’ve just got to try and keep things together.”
“I’ve gone through it at other places,” Shields said. “It just really tears at your students. But we’re coming together here to honor his memory, because of his great love for TSU.”