During a halftime ceremony at Wando's soccer match Wednesday night, Warriors standout Jarrel Smalls stood on the field with his family at his side and signed a scholarship to play for USC-Salkahatchie.
Smalls is the younger brother of Ja'Quayvin Smalls, a former Wando football player who died in July 2009 during his first preseason workout at Western Carolina University. An autopsy revealed he died from complications associated with an enlarged heart.
As a precautionary measure, Smalls' parents, Henry and Lesonia, decided to have Jarrel sit out his junior season as he underwent a series of medical tests. He also missed his club season before being cleared to return this spring.
"After Ja'Quayvin's death, we just wanted to make sure," Henry Smalls said. "I knew it was kind of frustrating for him. He said he wasn't frustrated, but I knew better."
Sitting out a year caused many anxious moments for Smalls. It also taught him not to take anything for granted.
"I treat every day as if it could be my last," said Smalls, who is second on the team with 18 goals. "Missing my junior year was very hard. I couldn't even go to watch the games. It was really hard because I love the game so much. I made a promise to myself that I would dedicate my effort on the soccer field to my brother and family. I would try harder, work harder. Now, every time I walk out there, I think of my brother and family. That's what keeps me going."
Wando coach Shiloh Tisdale said he's noticed Smalls' new-found appreciation for soccer and life this spring.
"He doesn't take anything for granted," Tisdale said. "He was down and his grades slipped when his brother died. It affected him a good bit. Now, he's doing well in the classroom and in soccer.
"When he had to sit out last year, I called to see how he was doing," Tisdale added. "This was about more than soccer. I wanted him to know he had a place on the team even if he couldn't play. I still wanted him on the team. I still wanted him on the sidelines, even if his role was more as a coach. I knew he would be a positive force for the other players."
Missing last season almost cost Smalls a scholarship. Most coaches start recruiting players in their junior season. Fortunately for Smalls, USC-Salkehatchie coach William Glass was in attendance at the preseason Rotary Classic at Blackbaud Stadium. Glass was impressed enough to recruit Smalls.
"It was just a great feeling," Smalls said. "It was a feeling of accomplishment. Life without soccer was tough. When I couldn't play, I got a job and worked five days a week to take my mind off soccer, but I wasn't too successful."
The Warriors (21-4) hope to extend their consecutive region title streak to 10, but Smalls wants a bigger prize.
"Winning a state championship would be a great way to end my high school career."