ZEPHYRHILLS — Mayor Daniel Burgess remembers that horrific day nearly a year ago. All over this small, close-knit town the text messages flew.
Tyler "TJ" Jeffries, a 2007 Zephyrhills graduate and soldier serving in Afghanistan, had been critically injured when someone set off an IED on Oct. 6 as Jeffries' unit patrolled the dusty streets.
"It hit everyone so hard," said Burgess, whose brother, Nick, played baseball with Jeffries.
Friends and family kept a close eye on Jeffries through a Facebook page. They saw photos of him learning to walk on prosthetic legs. They read about how the 24-year-old greeted his unit when it returned home to Washington state and how his sergeant gave him his wristwatch, found in the dirt after a chopper took him away.
And on Thursday, they saw Jeffries in person when he returned for the Zephyrhills High homecoming.
"Hey, bro," said Dan Burgess, the mayor's dad and Jeffries' baseball coach, before Jeffries took his seat in a silver convertible in the annual homecoming parade. Tonight, he will be honored at the football game against Weeki Wachee.
Dressed in Bulldog orange shorts, Jeffries flashed a toothy grin as he greeted his old coach. Others crowded around him as he stood with his service dog, Apollo, a 130-pound Doberman that helps him with stairs and retrieves dropped keys or credit cards.
"Good luck with the pull-ups," he told 17-year-old Gabrielle Johnson, an ROTC member who hopes to join the Marines. She and fellow JROTC member Brianna Raymer said they were thrilled to meet Jeffries, to whom they and the other members had sent a big greeting card when he was at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. They have planned a drill meeting in his honor on Jan. 11.
"Meeting him," Johnson said, "was just so cool."
Jeffries, who can walk and drive a car, lives in an apartment in Bethesda, Md., near the hospital so he can continue rehab. His next goal: to run.
"I hope to do that in the next couple of months," he said.
Jeffries said he still suffers pain. Often it feels like his legs are still there.
"I can feel my toes right now," he said.
His mother, Pam Britt, said Jeffries has come a long way since he nearly died in combat. Each day, he was determined to walk again.
"You could see the pain on his face," she said. "You could tell every step was painful."
Jeffries said he still has some days when he gets depressed. But he draws inspiration from his fellow patients at Walter Reed.
"Some of them are triple and quadruple amputees," he said. "There are people worse off than me."
Lisa Buie can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4604.