Jaylend Ratliffe had size, speed, power, strength, toughness and confidence on a football field. One teammate marveled, "He looked like he was Jesus running." His high school coach still uses him as an example to his quarterbacks. "This," he tells them, "is what being a quarterback is all about."
When Georgia Tech assistant Bryan Cook first watched the tape, he saw a quarterback perfectly suited to run the triple-option. Cook went to watch Ratliffe play as a junior in 2013.
"When you watched that game, there was one guy on that field," he recalled. "Everybody in the stands, all the little kids had their Ratliffe jerseys on. He was the guy, and it was evident pretty quickly."
Ratliffe grew more and more interested in Georgia Tech. In March 2014, he took a spring visit to campus. By then, he was a four-star prospect and the No. 11-rated player in North Carolina, according to ESPN RecruitingNation, with interest from North Carolina and NC State, too.
He still remembers sitting down with coach Paul Johnson -- and the detail of their conversation: Johnson looked him in the eye and said: "Jaylend, I want you to know something. Here at Georgia Tech, we're not like other schools. If anything ever happens to you, we're going to honor your scholarship."
At the time, Ratliffe had no idea why Johnson would say such a thing. He still had his senior year to play. But the power in that statement told him to commit to Georgia Tech.
Five months later, the reason why became clear.
It was late July. Ratliffe was bored at home, so he decided to join his brother and some friends to ride ATVs just outside his home in Laurinburg, North Carolina. Ratliffe had little experience driving them. There were not enough helmets for all the riders, so the boys decided to leave the helmets behind because, as Ratliffe put it, "Ain't nobody going to do nothing stupid."
Ratliffe rode with Dakota Holland, a teammate at Scotland High. After several hours of riding, it started to get dark, so the boys made their way in the direction of Holland's home, Ratliffe behind the wheel.
They got to an intersection, and Ratliffe made a wrong turn. He turned around and went into one of the sharpest curves in Scotland County. Holland, holding onto Ratliffe from behind, estimates they were going about 60 mph.
"I thought he was going to make the curve," Holland says. "I saw us getting closer to the white line, and I could have jumped off or pulled him off me. I didn't. Something made me stay on there and just hold onto him."
Ratliffe and Holland went careening into a ditch filled with big pine trees. Holland closed his eyes and prepared for impact.
They hit a tree.
Holland woke up on the ground, spitting out blood. Ratliffe lay nearby, unconscious. Each lost a shoe. Friends riding behind them saw the whole thing. "They were like, 'You all came off like Superman,'" Holland recalled.
Ratliffe doesn't remember the accident itself. All he remembers is being in an ambulance with his mother, who asked, "What were you doing riding a four-wheeler?"
"I don't know, mamma," he replied. "My head hurts."
On the ride to the hospital, Holland tried talking to Ratliffe.
"Jaylend?" he asked. "Are you all right?"
"I'm thirsty," Ratliffe replied. "My head hurts."
When they arrived, Holland and Ratliffe went for separate evaluations. Holland had a leg injury but would be OK. Doctors initially thought Ratliffe had a broken left arm and left leg. Word started circulating around the community that he would be OK, too. But Ratliffe continued to complain about head pain. Tests showed massive bleeding in his brain and a fractured skull. There was only one choice: Ratliffe would need to be airlifted to a hospital in Charlotte for further treatment.
Doctors initially tried to relieve the pressure in his brain by drilling a hole into his skull, hoping to avoid massive surgery. Ratliffe seemed to be doing well enough. Friends and family thought he would be able to go home sooner than expected. Two days later, everything changed. Ratliffe, alert one moment, grew unresponsive. His mother started rubbing his chest and screaming his name. Doctors and nurses rushed in, monitors beeping all around them.
"I thought he died," Scotland coach Richard Bailey said. "I went to the chapel in the hospital, got on my hands and knees and asked, 'Why is this happening?'"
Doctors removed a part of Ratliffe's skull to completely relieve the pressure. He remained in a medically induced coma for nearly a week. The Scotland County community held vigils and began wearing "2 Strong" T-shirts in support.
Back home, Holland went to a local fast food restaurant, hobbling on crutches and painkillers. A few people recognized him and sent a message through his friends: "We're behind you and Jaylend, and we wish them nothing but the good Lord to touch them."
When Ratliffe finally opened his eyes, a new reality set in for his loved ones. He could not walk. He could not talk, eat or swallow, a tracheostomy tube down his throat. He had no feeling on his left side.
He only grasped the severity of his injury after looking at himself in the mirror and seeing his skull lopsided on the right side.
"I never saw a head like that," he said.
Still, Ratliffe believed he would get out on the football field. Once he was able to speak again a few weeks later, he asked his doctor: "'Am I going to be able to make it to the first game?' And she's looking at me like, 'Are you crazy?' She told me,' Sweetie, you can't play this year.'
"It took me about a week or so to actually get it inside me that I wasn't going to be able to play."
In all likelihood, Ratliffe will never be able to play football again. That hasn't been easy to accept. He took his frustrations out on his mother and stepfather, lashing out at them with hurtful words. He sought counseling from the team chaplain and youth pastors and eventually learned to rely on his faith.
But there was something else to keep him going: Georgia Tech would honor his scholarship.
"That's Coach Johnson," Cook said. "There was never a blink in his eye about what he was going to do with Jaylend Ratliffe. It was an absolute."
Sitting in that hospital bed, Ratliffe replayed over and over the conversation he'd had in Johnson's office months earlier.
"They said it from Day 1, and they said it even when I was at the roughest part of my life," Ratliffe says now. "I can't put it in words how I felt when they said that. They looked at me beyond the athlete. That's one thing they told me -- you're not going to play forever, how's your education going to make you better?"
Right then, Ratliffe determined to "make Coach Johnson proud."
Much work had to be done. Ratliffe began speech therapy, physical therapy and occupational therapy. Holland visited Ratliffe in the hospital as much as possible.
That Jaylend Ratliffe is even at GT is a miracle. Here he is learning to walk again after his ATV accident. pic.twitter.com/fQCwtOCY5U— Andrea Adelson (@aadelsonESPN) March 23, 2016
Ratliffe made gradual improvements each day until he finally got to go home on Sept. 4 -- five weeks after the accident. On the ride home, Ratliffe begged his mother to take him to the high school fieldhouse to watch the junior varsity football game.
"I had to be around football," he said.
The next night, his Scotland team played Marlboro County (S.C.). The entire community prepared for Ratliffe's homecoming. Ratliffe arrived wearing his No. 2 jersey and a helmet covering his skull with the team's logo. Fans wore 2 Strong T-shirts.
Marlboro took the field for warm-ups wearing 2 Strong shirts, too. Ratliffe and Holland were named honorary captains. They got a standing ovation before the coin toss. Ratliffe looked up at the crowd, mesmerized. He threw up two fingers. So did Holland. Somebody snapped a photo.
That image made the cover of the phone book.
"It was almost like Georgia Tech was playing Georgia and they won with an end-of-the-game field goal in overtime," Ratliffe said. "It meant so much to my community and my county. Nobody thought I'd make it out of the hospital. I think they just wanted to see the both of us as happy as we could be, to see the both of us together again."
"That was one of the best days of my life," Holland said.
Holland played in the final quarter of Scotland's final game of the season. Ratliffe continued with his therapy and eventually had another surgery to put his skull back into place. Ratliffe has accepted his fate, though "what-if" moments are unavoidable.
"If I had known it, I would not have touched that four-wheeler," Ratliffe said. "But now that it happened, I wouldn't take any of it back. People look at me like a walking miracle. I think that's a blessing because I'm just some regular kid from Scotland County, and God chose me to be a miracle. Out of all these people in the world, he chose me. What more could you ask for?"
Twenty months after the accident, Ratliffe looks like a normal teenage boy. The only hint that he survived a traumatic brain injury is the scar that runs down the side of his head. His speech is completely normal. He can walk and run normally. Last spring, he even ran hurdles for the track team and finished second in the conference.
His left hand is not completely healed, and he most likely will never recover his fine motor skills. His balance is slightly off, too.
For a left-handed quarterback, this is particularly devastating news. Still, Ratliffe hoped that once he arrived at Georgia Tech in January he would be medically cleared and moved to a different position.
But several weeks ago, Ratliffe learned Georgia Tech will not allow him to play football. He had no reaction to the news.
"Of course I want to play," he said. "But at the same time, part of me never saw it happening again. Hopefully, one day people's minds will be changed. If not, I get a free education. At the end of the day, you still can't beat that."
He is taking three classes this semester, does therapy twice a week and works out with the strength coach three times a week. Ratliffe has access to everything the student-athletes get and has been watching his teammates at every single 5:30 a.m. workout.
The plan is to work with Cook and the quarterbacks once spring practice begins March 28.
"It will a near miracle for him to play again," Johnson said. "But we're happy to have him as a student-assistant."
You could say the miracle already has happened.