LAKELAND – Shortly after 1 p.m. on Friday, the day before their first game of the 2015 season, the Florida Southern men's lacrosse team announced a special signing.
Justin Tankersley autographed his very own national letter of intent, becoming an official member of the Moccasin men's lacrosse team.
"We wanted to wait for the day before the first game to sign just because we felt like he was the missing piece to our puzzle that we needed for the rest of the 2015 season and beyond," said head coach Marty Ward.
Tankersley, however, isn't your typical student-athlete signee. The 14-year-old from Haines City, Fla., suffers from multiple chronic illnesses, including primary immunodeficiency disease, mitochondrial disease, and Townes-Brocks syndrome.
"Justin also has PANDAS, which he acquired from having strep (throat), and it causes his brain to swell," said his mother, Jamie. "With all of that, that makes him difficult to treat and it's been really hard to find a doctor to take him on."
"With Justin, we just take it day-to-day and we try to make him as comfortable as we can."
Also known as "JT", Tankersley was paired with the FSC men's lacrosse team through Team IMPACT, a nonprofit organization based out of Quincy, Mass. Team IMPACT aims to improve the quality of life for children with life-threatening and chronic illnesses by matching them with athletic teams to provide support, friendship and an improved sense of self-esteem.
"I was trying not to cry," said Tankersley's mother after the ceremony. "He has a great time when he comes out with the guys. He has a great rapport with Coach Ward; he's an amazing guy.
"He (Ward) doesn't allow him to sit on the sideline and do nothing. Justin is pretty isolated so Coach tells him to go out there and get into it. It's been really good for him to build up a rapport with the teammates as well because he doesn't have that in his life. It's been great for him socially."
On Friday afternoon, Tankersley was the center of attention as a room full of faculty, staff and student-athletes applauded him for becoming the newest member of the Moccasin family during his press conference in the Lyons Conference Center at George W. Jenkins Field House on the campus of Florida Southern College.
"Today's a special day, not only for Justin but for myself and our program," Ward said. "For us to be able to sign a young man like Justin with as much heart as he shows, with as much family as he shows and as much toughness as he shows every single day battling the things he has to battle, it really puts a lot of things in perspective for us as a group that every day is a good day. We're blessed to be able to go out and compete.
"I think it's a great lesson for everybody in our athletic department. I think it's a great lesson, not only for our men's lacrosse team but for all of our sports teams at Florida Southern, to never take a day for granted."
While the players have welcomed Tankersley into their family with open arms, sharing experiences and teaching him to play catch, there is plenty they can learn from their newest teammate in return.
"The first day we met Justin he was telling us about all of the things he has to go through, the transfusions, the medications, and some days he would get up and just not be into it," said senior captain Trenell Boggans. "We get tired from sprints and get winded, but I think the guys will see that Justin is pushing every day. That means we can make it through a practice, make it through a season, make it through a morning run. It will definitely give us a little extra drive, especially when times come tough, we'll be able to have that inspiration from Justin to push through everything.
"It's good to have him around, and it will be a big thing for Justin and our team."
"One of the best things he's ever said is that there is no success unless there is failure first," Ward said. "I remember him telling me that at practice. I said, 'Jeez, I can't believe you're the one telling me this.'
"He is a smart young man, and he understands that for growth, you have to fail a little bit sometimes, and there has to be some adversity. Justin is a guy that goes against adversity every single day. It's great to see that kind of motivation and drive."
Tankersley has stood on the sidelines at both preseason scrimmages, including the three-plus hour drive to Jacksonville on Jan. 31. After the team's less-than-favorable performance against the Division I Dolphins, he provided words of encouragement.
"Last week at Jacksonville we didn't play very well as a team and Justin was one of the guys after the game to go, 'Hey, you're going to be alright. Stuff's going to go wrong, stuff's going to go right. You've got to build off the good stuff,'" Ward explained.
Tankersley has also attended a handful of the team's practices and assists Ward in his authoritative duties with his trusted water gun.
"At the end of one practice some of the guys kind of walked to the end of their lines and while we were stretching, he just walked up on them and sprays them like, 'Run to your spots. If I catch you slipping, you'll get sprayed with the water gun,'" Boggans said. "That's his way of enforcing, making sure we're doing what we're supposed to when coach isn't looking."
After a brief question-and-answer session with his newest fans, Ward concluded the ceremony by presenting Tankersley with a No. 62 Moccasin jersey, a number that no player has worn in the program's seven-year history.
The partnership with Team IMPACT will allow Tankersley to be a Moccasin for the next two to three years, but he, and the team, are looking forward to his 15th birthday on May 24, the date of the 2015 NCAA Division II men's lacrosse championship game in Philadelphia.