Nearly an hour had passed since Roy Link made the decision to start searching on his own. His pink T-shirt was slick on his back with sweat. He could hear the helicopters buzzing overhead — searching, so far, fruitlessly.
The 62-year-old came to an open field and was met with a choice — two wooded areas with a small clearing in between. Link, an ex-Marine and former supervisor for Hernando County parks, said he decided on intuition alone. He would go to the woods on his left.
He had barely stepped a foot into the forest when he heard the first whimper. And then another, a little louder. Link said the cries broke through his daze, and the realization dawned on him: JJ.
“JJ,” Link called out. And the whimpering grew louder.
And then he saw him, just 100 feet away: A 2-year-old boy, standing in the woods, barefoot among the briars — his wild, golden hair a bush of brambles and curls on his head. That’s him, Link thought, that’s JJ.
The man was cautious but friendly. The boy had spent the last nearly 24 hours alone in the elements.
“Hey, buddy,” Link said. JJ lit up. “You ready to get out of here?” Link said. The boy threw up his arms in response.
The boy was sturdy in his arms, Link recalled, as heavy as a bag of feed.
“Mama, Mama,” the boy said, latching onto Link. We’re going to Mama, Link said.
After nearly a day of looking for 2-year-old Joshua “JJ” Rowland, the search ended when Link found the boy safe and alive Friday morning. The boy was discovered north of his home, just south of D.S. Parrott Middle School, 19220 Youth Drive in Brooksville.
Sheriff’s officials said they believe JJ left his home in the area of Cheever and Yontz roads while his parent was asleep Thursday morning. The last time anybody saw the boy was around 10:40 a.m. Thursday.
Law enforcement from across the state, including the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Florida Department of Corrections and local police, searched for the boy for about 24 hours.
“That long period — everybody starts thinking the worst, and it’s hard not to. It’s like how can all these people and all these deputies searched all this and not find a clue?” Link told the Tampa Bay Times in a phone interview. “You know all that bad stuff starts going through your mind, but then finding him healthy and alive, it’s just … wow.”
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Link, a humble man, is a bit overwhelmed by the attention he’s received since finding the boy Friday morning. A father and a grandfather, he said he is the third generation of his family to live in Brooksville.
The man had planned on fishing Friday morning, but that changed when his wife, Kimberly, told him the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office was looking for volunteers to search for JJ.
“How could you not?” Link said.
Crowds of people gathered early Friday to search for JJ. During a news conference with Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis after the 2-year-old was found, Nienhuis said more people showed up to help than the agency had jobs for.
People came out in droves, Link said. Anyone could have stumbled on JJ, he said. In a video posted to the Sheriff’s Office’s Facebook page, Nienhuis called Link the “man of the year.”
“So I give all them people and the sheriff and everybody that showed up a whole lot credit for their time they spent out there,” Link said.
About 15 minutes before finding JJ, Link said he prayed to God the boy would be found. Not necessarily by him, but that someone would find the boy alive.
When Link stepped back out of the woods holding JJ and on the phone with 911, he saw other people across the pasture. They came running over and one person offered to take JJ, but the boy clung to Link.
In a 911 call released by the Sheriff’s Office, JJ can be heard asking for his mom. On the audio recording, people can be heard giving the boy food and water.
“Good job, buddy — way to make it,” Link said on the 911 call. “Such a big guy you are.”
Soon, the crowd grew bigger with emergency responders and volunteers. Link could sense JJ becoming frightened, and the boy held onto him tight. The 2-year-old wouldn’t even go into the ambulance without Link.
“He had scratches all over his arms and legs, but he really looked in good health.” Link said. “He did not look like a 2-year-old that’s been out in the woods for ever-how-many hours.”
JJ’s mother quickly met them at the ambulance, and a few minutes later, his father showed up. Everyone was laughing and crying, Link said. Watching JJ, Link thought he would make a good hiking partner when he got older.
After an eventful morning, Link got home and began pulling the spurs from his clothes. His wife took one whiff of him and said he had to do something about that. He had, after all, been carrying a toddler who’d been wearing a diaper for nearly a day.
Link said he doesn’t have any plans for the rest of Friday, other than to take some time for a nice rest.