ST. PETERSBURG — For years, football dominated Jacquez Welch’s life, his performance determining his disposition.
The senior linebacker/running back had a schedule, a plan, to earn a scholarship playing college football before even enrolling at Northeast High School three years ago. Good grades mattered, so Welch took a summer algebra course before his freshman year to get a head start academically.
“Jacquez knew what he wanted and was serious about going after it,” said Mitch Disney, Welch’s algebra teacher that summer who is now the head football coach at Dunedin High. “Even back then, he was talking to me about how much it meant to go to college.”
All of that extra work paid off last week when Welch received his first offer from Concordia University, a Division II school in St. Paul, Minn.
Days later, the unthinkable happened.
After making a tackle in a varsity game against Osceola on Friday, Welch never got to his feet. Paramedics took an unresponsive Welch to Bayfront Health, where doctors discovered he had an arteriovenous malformation. The abnormal tangle of blood vessels and arteries can cause bleeding on the brain if ruptured, and the condition is usually present before birth and can easily go undetected.
On Monday, Welch, 17, was taken off life support. His organs will be donated.
Welch’s mother, Marcia Nelson, told a congregation full of Northeast faculty and students at Gateway Baptist Church that doctors said seven lives would be saved by her son.
“Quez was a giving person. He would give to anyone and everyone if he had it,” Nelson said. “He wanted to do this.”
She emphasized that playing football did not cause her son to collapse. Brain AVMs are rare, and symptoms like headaches or seizures usually start to show up in adulthood. Nelson said that until Friday, there was never any indication that her son was anything but healthy.
Welch’s teammates were encouraged to talk with counselors on campus Monday. The entire faculty met the team after school, many embracing sobbing athletes.
“The mood was very somber at school,” Vikings girls basketball coach Will White said. “It was so sudden. I think people are still in a daze.”
This is not the first time Northeast’s football program has dealt with tragedy.
• In 2014, defensive lineman Leshawn Williams, then 17, sustained a knee injury that required his leg to eventually be amputated.
• In August of last year, Ruben Marcano, a 14-year-old freshman on the junior varsity team, died in an accident while at home.
• On Sept. 17, Marquis Scott, who played for the Vikings two seasons ago, was fatally shot while riding his bike.
Before last week’s game, Welch, one of the team’s captains, was among those who presented a framed jersey to Scott’s family.
Welch played well, scoring on a 60-yard run within the first three minutes of action.
It was the last time he touched the ball on a football field.
The players rushed to the hospital afterward. Seminole High football coach Chris Miller also was at Bayfront that night to check on a player involved in a car crash. He saw the entire Northeast team.
Vikings coach Jeremy Frioud wrapped his arms around Miller before telling him the news.
“It’s surreal,” Miller said. “I went through it this summer, and I know how devastating this can be.”
In July, Seminole defensive back Sophie Delott, 17, was struck and killed by an impaired driver while biking home from work on the Indian Rocks Causeway Bridge.
Northeast paid tribute to Delott before playing Seminole on Sept. 6. Welch was among the players picked to head to midfield to deliver roses to the family.
“Jacquez was clearly their best player and just a special kid,” Miller said.
Welch’s absence will weigh heavily on the Vikings as they prepare to play Dixie Hollins on Friday. The game is a big one, with first place on the line in Class 6A, District 8. Coach Dale Caparaso said his Rebels will honor Welch by having players from both teams head to midfield and lock arms during a moment of silence before the game. Caparaso also said he is ordering No. 4 decals, representing Welch’s jersey number, that the teams will wear.
Dixie Hollins quarterback Fernando Monroe was one of Welch’s best friends. The two talked hours before their games last week. Monroe congratulated Welch on his scholarship offer.
“He was very excited about that scholarship,” Monroe said. “It shows he wasn’t just a good football player, but a good student, too.”
Both were excited about facing each other.
“The last thing I told him was to have a good game and ball out, and I’ll talk to him later,” Monroe said.
Welch did not want the scholarship just for himself. He wanted it to help out his mother and four younger siblings.
“Jacquez kept saying we’re going to make it out of here,” his mother said.
Now others will benefit from his leadership.
The school plans to set up a $5,000 scholarship in Welch’s honor. Frioud said each season his players will be required to write a sentence that best exemplifies Welch. The words will be displayed on a wall in the locker room, where Welch’s framed jersey will hang. The player who best embodies those traits will be awarded the scholarship.
Frioud said the team is trying to focus on how lucky they were to know Welch.
“He left this world doing what he loved more than anything else," Frioud said. "And that needs to be remembered and that needs to be honored. … If he could have picked his ending, this would have been his ending.”
How to help the family
Northeast coach Jeremy Frioud has set up a Go Fund Me page, which as of Monday night had raised more than $10,000, to help Jacquez Welch’s family with medical expenses. To donate, click here.