TAMPA — Just before he was killed, Joshua Rankin was doing what he had done his entire life, people who knew him said Monday.
He took it personally whenever he saw friends, or even people he didn't know, being pushed around.
Like the time he suffered an ankle injury playing for the Robinson High School football team but returned to the field because he couldn't stand watching teammates get beat.
"I'm going in," the 6-foot, 170 pound boy said, as he hobbled on his sore limb.
His father, Milton Rankin, recalled the tale with a chuckle Monday, remembering his late son's doggedness in the face of fierce opposition.
"That was him taking care of his friends," his dad said.
So early Saturday morning, when Rankin, 21, saw a buddy get attacked in an Ybor City parking lot, it was natural for him to come to his friend's defense.
Rankin had been hitting various nightclubs with William Medeiros, also 21. At some point, according to Rankin's family, Medeiros got a text from a girl he had met. Some of the girl's friends were upset.
Later, at about 2:45 a.m., they confronted Medeiros and Rankin near E Fifth Avenue and N 15th Street, according to police. One of the men, Joseph Amore, pulled a knife. Rankin stepped between his friend and the blade.
He was stabbed twice in the throat, once in the chest. He died at Tampa General Hospital.
Medeiros was also stabbed but survived.
Police arrested Amore, 21, of Lakeland, and he remained in jail Monday without bail on a second-degree murder charge.
Just before he died, Rankin landed a contract position through a friend with an auto repair company. He wanted to learn to work on Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
He worked well with his hands and had spent his last days laying tile with a construction crew at Tampa International Airport. But he wanted more.
He was planning a life for himself, family members said. He knew where he wanted to go and who he wanted to be.
"He was talking about saving up money and starting a life," said Tom Montero, Rankin's uncle. "It was a senseless, senseless act for nothing. No reason."
Montero, a social studies teacher at Robinson High, coached his young nephew on the school football and wrestling teams. He said the burly teen was never afraid to go up against heavyweights.
Rankin looked up to his younger brother, Caleb, who had won a baseball scholarship to Asbury University in Kentucky. Growing up, friends told them at least one of them would make it to the major leagues.
He loved TV shows like Duck Dynasty and cartoons like Scooby-Doo.
"This was a boy who could be hard on the outside, but had the heart of a Teddy Bear on the inside," Milton Rankin said.
The parting words he would always say to people seemed, to some, out of character. But in hindsight, they're glad he said them.
I love you, Uncle Tom. I love you, Dad.
They loved him, too.