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WCU Football Player Collapses At Practice, Later Dies

Team To Honor Player This Fall

By Justin Caudell
On July 17, 2009

  • Firefighters investigate Harrill Residence Hall for the source of the fire. Kalen Quinn

A Western Carolina University football player's first practice as a Catamount ended in tragedy.

Ja'Quayvin Ja'Quar Smalls, a junior defensive back from Mount Pleasant, S.C., died unexpectedly on Wednesday, July 8 at Harris Regional Hospital in Sylva after collapsing during conditioning drills as a part of voluntary off-season workouts.

Smalls collapsed while running as a part of the evening workout session. Wednesday's workouts were the first with the team for Smalls, who was enrolled in the second session of WCU's summer school that began on Tuesday, July 7.

Observers on the scene say that Smalls was complaining about cramps during the beginning of sprint exercises, about 90 minutes after practice began, and was removed from the lineup to be stretched. While being treated by trainer Brandon King, Smalls quit breathing around 6:25pm, at which point athletic training personnel administered CPR until emergency medical personnel arrived at the stadium. He was transported to Harris Regional Hospital, where he died at approximately 7:30pm.

Members of the football coaching staff and the team traveled to the hospital to be at Smalls' side, and university student affairs and counseling staff were on hand to provide support. It was the first death of its kind for WCU athletics, with no past players passing away during or following a practice.

"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. "Our hearts and prayers are with the family and friends of Ja'Quayvin, and with his coaches and teammates."

WCU head football coach Dennis Wagner echoed Smith's sediments.

"Our hearts, thoughts and prayers go out to the Smalls family as they suffer the loss of a loved one," said Wagner. "It is certainly a sad day in Catamount athletics. Although the time we were able to spend with Ja'Quayvin here on campus was far too brief, we had already built a relationship with him and his family through the recruiting process. We got to know what a wonderful young man that he was. We are going to miss him dearly."

Currently, no cause of death for Smalls has been determined and Brian Thomas, the public relations coordinator for WestCare Health System, said results from tests conducted during an autopsy on Thursday, July 9 may take 2-3 weeks. Dr. Larry Selby, the coroner who performed the autopsy, was not available to answer questions. Thomas said he did not know what tests were conducted, whether preliminary results showed any abnormalities in Smalls heart or whether he carried the sickle-cell anemia trait.

The trait, which affects an estimated eight percent of the country's African-American population, causes a condition known as exertional sickling. In as little as two minutes of intense exercise, red blood cells can contort from their normal disc shape into a crescent shape, or the sickle of the syndrome's name. This occludes blood flow in athletes affected by sickle-cell anemia, and when this happens, athletes in any sport can die very quickly.

On Thursday evening, University Chancellor John Bardo, the football coaching staff, and members of the university student support and counseling centers met with the team and members of the Smalls family who traveled to Cullowhee for slightly more than an hour at a conference room at Central Dorm.

"Right now we are concerned with comforting the Smalls family and helping them get Ja'Quayvin back to the Charleston area," Wagner said. "And we are concerned for our players, because they, too, suffered a loss in a teammate. Some of our players were there when it happened, and we are here for them to answer questions and to help get them through this. They are a strong group of guys and they all care for each other and will find a way to regroup in this trying time."

Smalls, who transferred to WCU and was part of the Catamounts' 2009 signing day, spent the past two seasons at Georgia Military College and ranked second on the team in tackles. He was a two-time Defensive Player of the Game at Georgia Military and started ten games last season, recording 45 tackles and one interception.

"There's so many ranges of emotions," said Rob Manchester, Georgia Military's defensive coordinator after hearing of Small's death. "He was a heck of a player for us and a great student athlete. Smalls was the example of the way you want guys to come here and be. It's sad news to hear because he had a great future ahead of him at Western Carolina and altogether."

A two-star rated prospect by Scouts.com for the 2009 Signing Day, Smalls also recorded 55 tackles, 12 passes defended and eight interceptions as a senior defensive back at Wando High School in Mt. Pleasant and posted four scores on a pair of interception returns and also returned two blocked punts for TDs. He Earned All-Lowcountry and All-Region honors in his final season as a prep and was named to the 2006 North/South All-Star game.

Funeral services celebrating the life of Smalls were held on Monday, July 13, at Noon in the East Cooper Baptist Church in Mt. Pleasant. He was laid to rest in Long Point Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery and Rev. Sidney Melvin was the Eulogist.

Visitation with family occurred from 6-8pm at Long Point Missionary Baptist Church. There was no viewing at the funeral home.

Those left to cherish his loving memories are: his parents, Mr. Henry and LaSonia Smalls; two brothers, Jarrel Smalls and Ja'Keil Smalls; paternal grandparents, Henry and Virginia Smalls, Jr. and maternal grandparents, Alfreda Farr (John) and George Capers and nephew of Iva Capers-Simpson (Robert), Renee Anderson and Sean Smalls (Jessica) and a host of other relatives and friends.

The Western Carolina University flag at the main entrance to the university campus was flown at half staff on Monday in remembrance of Smalls.

Also, for the upcoming 2009 football season, the Western Carolina football team plans to wear "JS" decals on the back of every helmet in memory of Smalls. His locker inside the Dale and Dianne Hollifield Locker Room in the Ramsey Center will not be reassigned and will be memorialized to include his helmet, uniform and any additional game-day equipment.

In addition, there also will be a one-year moratorium on the use of the No. 3 jersey that would have been worn by Smalls.


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