HARRISONBURG — As Turner Ashby’s junior varsity football coach puts it, Jackson Reel was born fighting.
After having surgery as a baby to treat the congenital heart disease he was born with, Reel proved “tenacious,” throughout his life, despite his rocky start, coach Paul Collins said.
Always striving for his goals and putting in the hard work to get there, the 16-year-old TA junior, who died in a single-car crash in Rockingham County last week, was remembered fondly Saturday by more than 2,000 friends and family in the Turner Ashby High School gym.
A memorial service was held Sunday for TA student Cyndal Ward, who died Wednesday from injuries sustained in Tuesday’s crash. Authorities say Ward lost control of the car as she tried to navigate a turn on Coopers Mountain Road. The vehicle ran off the right side of the road and struck a tree.
Reel’s sense of determination was a characteristic not lost on those around him.
Following another heart surgery a few years ago, doctors told him he would likely not be able to pursue his passion for wrestling. But Reel had other ideas.
“No one would blame him for losing hope [or] giving up,” said Marshall Smiley, wrestling coach at Turner Ashby. “Jackson Reel didn’t buy into that, he decided right then and there that his fate would be in his hands.”
And so it was.
Reel, of Hinton, went on to have many successes in the sport at TA, especially his sophomore year.
Initially Reel got beat at the regional competition and had to work his way back up through a series of matches to earn a spot at the state competition.
“He had a fire in his eye,” said Smiley. “He won third and a trip to the state tournament.”
At states, Reel came in seventh in the 132-pound division.
“He was a hard worker,” said teammate Joshua Harris, 16, who wrestled for a short time with Reel. “Everybody looked up to him.”
Outside of sports, Reel had a similar drive, his aunt, Angela Andrews, said.
“He didn’t always just go along with everybody,” she said. “He did things his way and if he believed in something he did it wholeheartedly and if he didn’t agree with you, you couldn’t change his mind.”
Coaches, family and friends say another of Reel’s shining characteristics was his sense of humor and accompanying good-natured disposition.
“He was fun; he was kind of the light in the room,” said Andrews. “He just always had a good line for everything. He was very witty.”
Andrews also remembers Reel for his unique hugs.
“He’d always pick you up when he was hugging you,” she said with a laugh. “[They were] some of the best hugs, but you had to tell him when to stop so he wouldn’t break you.”
Outside the gym doors on Saturday, a table was adorned with some of Reel’s personal items — medals, wrestling gear, a Steelers blanket, antlers, the movie “Where the Red Fern Grows,” and a couple of messages from friends sharing memories and their love for him.
Aubrey Charette, 18, knew Reel for about eight years. She met him riding horses at Hunter’s Edge Horse Farm, which Reel’s family owns.
Not obeying rules of riding form, Reel would just hop on a horse, said Charette.
“He was the bravest kid,” she said. “He was really talented.”
Among the throngs of people who had personal stories to share and attended Saturday’s service were those who did not know him as well as his family and close friends did.
Corbin Fawley, 18, for instance, only had one math class with Reel.
“He still made an impression on me,” said Fawley. “Probably of everyone [in that math class], he was the one that stood out the most.”
Part of that had to do with the good-natured smirk Reel always wore in class, Fawley said.
“He was always finding humor in everything,” said Fawley. “He was a very positive, radiant person.”
Contact Emily Sharrer at 574-6286 or email@example.com