ST. PETERSBURG — The parking lot at First Baptist Church of St. Petersburg started filling up at 9 a.m., two hours before the funeral service for Northeast High football player Jacquez Welch.
Two weeks ago, Welch, 17, collapsed during a game. Doctors at Bayfront Health discovered Welch had the rare arteriovenous malformation, an abnormal tangle of blood vessels and arteries that can cause bleeding on the brain if ruptured. Days later, Welch was taken off life support and his organs were donated.
The impact was felt throughout Pinellas County with nearly every public and private school football program paying tribute in some way.
On Monday, the outpouring of support continued.
Cars filled the parking lot, even lining the street. Mourners poured in, jamming the church to the doors. Some wore T-shirts with red hearts surrounded by No. 4, Welch’s jersey number. Others proudly displayed photos of Welch on their attire.
Inside, there were reminders of the Vikings senior running back/linebacker everywhere.
A mural was staged in a hallway where family members and friends took pictures. A display with Welch’s jersey, cleats and helmet was placed near another wall. Red wristbands with Welch’s name were given away.
Football played a prominent role in Welch’s life. That was evident Monday. The laminated service program was made to look like a Sports Illustrated cover. It was called ‘The Heavenly Edition.” A slideshow from Welch’s playing days was on an overhead projector. A white and red flower arrangement was created in the shape of a jersey. Even Welch’s casket was adorned with the Vikings mascot and football photos.
Through the many reflections, presence of state dignitaries and the outpouring of grief, Welch was remembered as a student-athlete driven to succeed.
Northeast coach Jeremy Frioud talked about Welch’s work ethic. Frioud pleaded with his players and other students in attendance to honor Welch by striving to do their best.
“Keep pushing, keep finding a way, whether it’s in a race, in practice or with homework,” Frioud said. “When you’re tired or don’t think you have anything else to give, think about Jacquez and what he would have done.”
Others mentioned Welch’s smile, his willingness to help anyone and the friendships formed.
Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch and state representative Wengay Newton both spoke, with the commissioner declaring Oct. 7 Jacquez Welch Day.
Sobs were heard throughout the two-hour service. Hundreds of Northeast students and players sat together. Last week, some of these same students attended the funeral of Marquis Scott, a former Vikings player who was fatally shot while riding his bike on Sept. 17.
Elder Benjamin Adams Jr., the senior pastor at St. John Primitive Baptist Church, acknowledged the broken hearts in his words of comfort.
“You may be hurting, you may want to cry,” he said. “Just know that God will heal.”
Two hours later, Northeast players headed to practice, trying to find solace on the field their teammate loved.