Ja'Quayvin Smalls pursued his dream of playing Division I college football from Wando High School to the sweltering plains of middle Georgia and the cool mountains of western North Carolina.
And he was on the brink of making that dream come true this summer when his young life was cut short.
A standout defensive back at Wando, Smalls was participating in his first workout at Western Carolina University on Wednesday when he collapsed and died. He was 20 years old.
"It's just sad, very sad," said Wando athletic director Bob Hayes, who was the Warriors' coach when Smalls played for Wando. "In my nine years here, he was one of the tops in terms of what you are looking for in a kid. He was a young man who came in and worked hard and made himself into a very good player."
Smalls, 5-10 and 185 pounds, had reported to Western Carolina, which is located in Cullowhee, N.C., earlier this week for the start of voluntary off-season workouts, enrolling in the second session of summer school. He took and passed a physical exam Tuesday, according to the Asheville Citizen-Times.
Smalls took part in his first conditioning drills with the team Wednesday. The workout, overseen by strength coach Brad Ohrt, began at about 5 p.m. under reportedly cool and overcast conditions.
At some point, Smalls complained of cramps, according to Western Carolina's sports information department, and had been removed from the lineup to be stretched when he stopped breathing. Emergency personnel were contacted at 6:27 p.m., and athletic trainers administered CPR until the emergency crew arrived. Smalls died at about 7:30 p.m. at Harris Regional Hospital in Sylva, N.C.
The cause of Smalls' death remained undetermined Thursday.
WCU coach Dennis Wagner met with Catamounts players and Smalls' family Thursday, and volunteer workouts have been canceled until next week.
"Our hearts, thoughts and prayers go out to the Smalls family as they suffer the loss of a loved one," Wagner said in a statement released Thursday night. "It is certainly a sad day in Catamount athletics.
"Although the time we were able to spend with Ja'Quayvin here on campus was far too brief, we had already built a relationship with him and his family through the recruiting process. We got to know what a wonderful young man that he was. We are going to miss him dearly."
Hayes said that Smalls, the son of Harry and LaSonia Smalls, had never had any notable medical problems during his days at Wando.
"No, we never saw anything like that," Hayes said. "He was just a great kid and a great leader, a quiet leader. He was a first-in-line type of guy who led by example."
Hayes recalled that Smalls did not start for the Warriors as a junior, but blossomed into a player worthy of the North-South All-Star Game as a senior in 2006.
Smalls' finest moment as a Warrior may have come during a 2006 game against powerhouse Summerville and the Green Wave's star receiver, 6-4 A.J. Green. Green, now at Georgia, had torched the Warriors for 203 yards and a touchdown on 10 catches as a freshman in 2004, and had five catches for 60 yards and two TDs in a 21-14 win over Wando in 2005.
Giving away six inches, Smalls held Green to two catches for 10 yards in that 2006 game, as Summerville escaped with a 12-7 win over Wando.
"You are going up against the best in A.J. Green, so you put your best defensive back on him," Hayes said. "And Ja'Quayvin had an unbelievable game that night. He basically shut him down, as much as you can shut down A.J. Green.
"That kind of sums up Ja'Quayvin for me. We challenged him that week, we challenged him to be a starter in our program and to be a college player, and he was up to the challenge."
Smalls made 55 tackles and eight interceptions as a senior at Wando and scored four touchdowns, two on interception returns and two on blocked punts. Hayes said Smalls had scholarship offers from smaller schools, but wanted to play Division I football. That's why he went to Georgia Military College, a junior college in Milledgeville, Ga., for two years. Smalls went from a walk-on to a scholarship player at GMC before signing with Western Carolina last February. He would have had two seasons to play with the Catamounts, who play in the Southern Conference.
Georgia Military assistant coach Rob Manchester told the Citizen-Times that Smalls was "one of the most dependable kids we've ever had. He's also one of the hardest-working kids we had in the weight room. He was always up front in the drills, running and all that.
"I mean, he was in excellent condition. He worked out great ... He was one of our hardest workers, one our best in-shape guys."
Smalls has two younger siblings, Jarrell and Ja'Keil, and his family has been touched by tragedy before. According to his Western Carolina bio, Ja'Quayvin's cousin was Carl Smalls, the former St. Andrews High School standout who played at North Carolina and was shot and killed in 2002.
"This is a sad time for Ja'Quayvin's family and the Wando family," Hayes said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with them."