GAINESVILLE — Joey Ivie's parents told him he didn't have to shoulder the pain of a grieving family.
The Florida defensive lineman didn't have to blame himself for being 100 miles away from an accident he couldn't have prevented.
When his only sister lay dying after a car crash in April, the 20-year-old Pasco High graduate didn't have to be the one in the room when Jordan took her final breath.
"He wanted to do it, for himself and for us," said his dad, Joe. "I think he just, in his own way, felt like he needed to be there for her."
And no one could convince him otherwise.
So Joey stayed with Jordan in her hospital room on the last Sunday in April. He wrapped his massive arms around the 17-year-old former cheerleader. Then he held Jordan against his 6-foot-3, 295-pound body, until he felt his baby sister's heart stop.
Joey was nearing the end of his sophomore year at UF when his mom called. Jordan was in a car wreck, his mother said, and she might not survive. Joey didn't believe it.
"You know how moms exaggerate," Joey said.
But this time, she wasn't.
Jordan and her boyfriend left to run an errand in Dade City when his Ford Mustang veered off the road to avoid oncoming traffic. Both were wearing seat belts, but the Mustang hit four trees before stopping. Her boyfriend broke his arm, while Jordan slammed her head on the passenger's side.
By the time Joey got a ride home from Gainesville, Jordan had been airlifted to St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa for emergency brain surgery. She never recovered.
Two days later, on April 26, Joey stayed with her until the very end.
"There's no feeling — there's no expression besides sadness," Joey said. "Just emptiness."
The whole family took the loss hard, and Joey did so in his own way.
As the oldest of five siblings, Joey always had been less of a friend and more of a protector, his dad said. Now, in the hardest moments of their lives, there was nothing he could do.
"In a lot of ways he took it really hard because he was not at home when all this happened," his father said. "He took on some responsibility that he really didn't need to."
But Jordan had always done things she didn't need to, either.
She loaded her schedule with online classes so she could move up a grade and graduate high school with her brother Andrew, who was one year older. She planned to start studying at community college before transferring to UF, in time for Joey's senior year. For years she cheered for Joey and Andrew at their Pasco High football games and wrestling matches.
"She even went to their weightlifting meets," their dad said, "and nobody goes to those."
On the day she died, more than 100 people flocked to Pasco's football stadium for an impromptu vigil. They spelled her name in tiny candles on the track where she used to cheer and wore her favorite color, pink.
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For the funeral four days later, they had to borrow Pasco Middle School's auditorium, so all of the mourners could fit.
Joey remembers the man who released the doves at the service saying the birds never fly more than three laps together. Joey counted 10.
"That kind of made me smile," Joey said. "There's something special about that girl."
In the days after Jordan's death, Joey became a protector again, shouldering some of his family's toughest responsibilities.
He spoke at her funeral, addressing a crowd of hundreds. When Jordan's name was called at Pasco High's graduation a month later, Joey walked across the stage to accept her diploma.
"For a big, scary defensive lineman," his dad, said, "he's got a pretty big heart."
It took a few months before that big heart began to heal, so he countered the grief with his three permanent foundations: faith, family and football.
He ran. He prayed. He worked out. He prepared himself for a potential breakout junior season in the defensive line rotation and, perhaps, a shot at a pro career.
"Jordan Ivie is my Motivation," Joey's Twitter bio reads. "God keeps me going."
Just like the rest of his family, Joey said he still has his ups and downs.
Saturday figures to have some of both, when his Gators open the season against New Mexico State. Jordan was supposed to be in the stands at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, close enough to the field to give her big brother a high five.
If Joey gets emotional when he looks into the crowd above, he will have someone beside him to help him through it.
His younger brother Andrew is a freshman at UF, after signing with the Gators in February. He's a defensive lineman, just like Joey, who followed the same path from Dade City to Gainesville.
So when Joey runs out of the tunnel, into a noisy, buzzing stadium missing one special girl's cheers, he won't have to do it alone.
"It's real neat to play at the same school as your brother — your blood brother," Joey said. "There's nothing stronger than family."
Contact Matt Baker at email@example.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.