Later this year, Jason Rexroad in planning to walk through a small tunnel with 100,000-plus screaming University of Tennessee football fans waiting on the other side.
He'll be a freshman at Middle Tennessee State, and no one would blame him for feeling intimidated by the environment. With a peace in his heart, though, Rexroad won't be thinking about the Orange Crush crowd or the fact that his team will likely be considered heavy underdogs.
On that day - Nov. 5 - Rexroad's mind will be on his mother, and how she should have been spending her 47th birthday.
"She was my biggest fan," Rexroad said. "Every game, she'd be on the sideline yelling with my jersey on, just yelling. I can still picture that right now."
Leslie Paige Rexroad was heading north on S.C. 31 on Jan. 27, 2009, when she lost control of her 1998 Toyota and hit a guardrail while trying to exit onto S.C. 9. She died that evening.
Friday, 20 days before the two-year anniversary of her death, Leslie Rexroad's only son signed a ceremonial letter of intent to play football at MTSU. It was the culmination of nearly two years worth of friends and family helping a young man recover from such a tragic event.
No looking back
Jason Rexroad and Everett Golson sat feet away from each other on the stage in the Myrtle Beach High School auditorium Friday. Golson, the high-profile quarterback, also signed a ceremonial LOI to Notre Dame.
Both players are enrolling in the next 10 days at their respective colleges in order to get a head start in academics and athletics.
It was fitting that the two shared the dais.
The childhood friends started playing football together before high school. They wrapped up their Seahawk careers by winning the South Carolina Class AAA state title last fall.
In the process, they both racked up shoe boxes of scholarship offers from some of the biggest schools in the country. For Rexroad, he had one letter touting the restaurants surrounding one school and another bragging about that university's notoriety as a nationally ranked party school.
Many more of the envelopes containing letters from college recruiters were never opened.
Last summer, the 6-foot-3, 275-pound lineman committed to Middle Tennessee State and never looked back. He took no official visits to other schools and never wavered, even when programs with better traditions came calling.
"There were some nights when I turned my phone off," Rexroad said. "I got calls from a lot of people. I just had to tell them 'I appreciate everything you're telling me, but I'm going to Middle Tennessee. That's where I'm going to go; that's where I'm going to play at. Coach [Rick] Stockstill will be my head coach.'"
Stockstill, a former Clemson and South Carolina assistant coach, never stopped mining the Palmetto State for talent when he got the top job at MTSU. Early on he pin-pointed Rexroad.
The match was nearly perfect, considering Rexroad's father, Brian, was originally from Tennessee and still has plenty of family around the state.
The lineman is expected to contribute - at least minimally - right away at the Sun Belt Conference school. With the right development plan, there are hopes of something even bigger down the line.
"He's self-motivated," Brian Rexroad said. "He knows that to reach what he wants - which is hopefully the NFL and if not, coach in college - he knows hard work pays off. He's been working hard since he was seven years old. He's reached one goal now."
Back to his roots
Jason Rexroad's path to school led to a new path in life.
After his parents' divorce and move before his freshman year in high school, he transferred from the Myrtle Beach school system to North Myrtle Beach. He played football for the Chiefs, and there were signs - his size, his ability with his upper body - that he was going to be a very good player.
After Leslie Rexroad's car crash, however, it became clear that Jason's mental status was suffering from his location.
"I watched how he was coping with things, his demeanor, his grades, everything," Brian Rexroad said. "Where his mother died at, the spot on the highway, he had to drive by there two times every day on the way to and from school.
"I asked him, and he said 'Dad, it bothers me.'"
Jason Rexroad dealt with the physical reminders for about four more months while he finished out his sophomore year. That June, he and his father petitioned the South Carolina High School League to allow an immediate transfer.
Rexroad wanted to distance himself from the accident and return to where he was comfortable, Myrtle Beach. After all, Rexroad said the day after his mother died, he received more than 100 text messages from friends at Myrtle Beach.
"When he came back to Myrtle Beach, it was kind of like he was coming back home," Seahawks coach Mickey Wilson said. "I think that's something that paid off. He's got a lot of friends here. I think that change alone may have helped that situation. He felt like he was back where he was supposed to be."
Said Golson: "He was always part of the family. Unfortunately, he had to leave. But when he came back, he was back to the same thing. He was welcomed back to the family. We just wanted him to know we were there for him."
Moving beyond the grief
Football was very clearly a distraction for Rexroad after everything that had happened.
That doesn't mean it was easy.
After the SCHSL approved his transfer back to Myrtle Beach, he showed up for summer drills with his new/old school out of shape not only emotionally, but physically.
"He couldn't make it through the warmups," Wilson said. "He was puking on the fence."
AlthoughRexroad's bloodlines (his dad stands 6-foot-4 and his grandfather played professional baseball) and size were recognizable, there was room for serious growth.
Myrtle Beach was coming off the first of two state titles during the Golson era, and Rexroad was going to have to earn a spot on that line.
The summer before his senior year was a different story. He had molded himself into a body that college recruiters foam at the mouth over. And those conditioning drills were no longer holding him back.
Inside, he had motivation to earn not only a college scholarship at Middle Tennessee State, but also his emotional recovery.
"I don't want to see any kid go through that, because it tore his heart out," Brian Rexroad said. "At the same time, it has helped prepare him for this next step in life. ... He's ready to move on with his life. He thinks of his mom every day. It's not something that's ever going to leave him.
"It's helped show him that you have to live each day to the fullest, because you do not know if tomorrow is going to come."
Jason Rexroad took advantage of that knowledge, and the ensuing payoff is what his biggest fan wanted for him.
"It's hurtful, but it's helped me out. It's given me something to work for," he said. "She's up there watching; she's in a better place. And she's up there watching. ... I know she'll be there at Middle Tennessee, too."