WRCB Television's David Carroll knew the back story. Despite a double-red-flag warning to stay out of the ocean, a 7-year-old boy had gotten sucked into a wicked undertow at Panama City Beach on June 19 and was rapidly being swept out to sea.
The boy's mother was caring for his infant sibling, so she couldn't provide assistance. The boy's father had not yet reached the beach after leaving the family's condominium. Watching this potential disaster unfold from a few feet away, Central High School football coach Curt Jones instantly surmised that he was the child's only hope — emphasis on "only."
So as he stood in Judge Sherry Paty's courtroom early Tuesday afternoon, about to describe what happened next to a dozen or so people gathered to honor Jones for the choice he made that June day, Carroll injected a critical question into the proceedings — one that most of us, whether right or wrong, surely would consider under similar circumstances.
"My first thought was, 'What would I have done?'" Carroll said. "I hope not, but would I have looked around for someone else to help?"
Sitting nearby, recently retired judge Clarence Shattuck added, "Or if you were like a lot of folks today, you might have pulled out a cellphone and taken photographs of it, which would have turned it into a tragedy. We're so glad you (Jones) did what you did."
What he did that day was do what true heroes do. The coach of the Purple Pounders rushed into the wild water, somehow reaching the boy about 50 yards from shore, where massive waves began to pummel them both.
Somehow, some way, despite swallowing dangerous amounts of salt water, Jones pulled the boy within 15 yards of the shore, where the young man's father met them, helping both to the water's edge.
"We hadn't headed down to the beach yet," Jones' wife Misty said as she recalled that morning. "It was early, probably no later than 8, and my mother (Rita Cherry) and I were still getting ready to leave the condo where we were staying. My father (Doug Cherry) and our son (11-year-old Cadan) had already gone to the beach with Curt, but they'd wandered off somewhere. Watching from the condo, my mother said, 'Something's going on down there; we need to get down there.'"
By the time they reached Jones, he was vomiting time and time again from the salt water he'd swallowed and the stress of the moment.
"I didn't feel normal again until after 2 that afternoon," he said before adding with a grin, "but I know this, the next time I go to the doctor I'm going to tell them I've already had my stress test."
Amazingly, he never learned the name of the boy he saved.
"It was surreal," Jones said. "All of a sudden, they were just gone. I think they were embarrassed. They just faded off for the rest of the vacation."
Thanks to Alan Pressley — who quietly does more to celebrate the good deeds of folks such as Jones than any other 100 people combined in our town — the coach's heroism wasn't allowed to fade away.
Reaching out to Carroll, Paty, Shattuck and Chancery Court Judge Pam Fleenor — like Pressley, a Central High graduate — as well as the Tennessee Titans, Pressley was able to help present Jones with a football autographed by Titans coach Mike Vrabel, a miniature Titans helmet signed by quarterback Marcus Mariota and an autographed photo of Tennessee basketball coach Rick Barnes. An invitation to take in a Titans regular-season game also was extended.
"I'm humbled," Jones said of the recognition. "That's the best way I can say it."
That's far from all everyone else has said.
Central baseball coach Glen Carter couldn't resist having the kind of fun athletes and coaches have with one another by cutting and pasting photos of Jones' head onto the bodies of "Baywatch" lifeguards.
But most of the reactions have been similar to the one Jones recently experienced while pumping gas.
"I had a Central coaches shirt on," he said. "This man comes up to me and says, 'Are you the football coach at Central?' When I said I was, he said, 'I just want to shake your hand and thank you.'"
We return to Carroll's question and Shattuck's cellphone observation. In this case, the difference in a boy's life and death was literally seconds.
"I've been told," Jones said, "that had I been two or three seconds later getting to him, that boy might have drowned."
But because Jones did what most coaches attempt to teach their players to do — put others before themselves, or their Instagram accounts — the boy lived.
"I think about it every now and then," he said. "Just sitting around, I'll think about how that could have turned out completely different."
With a completely different person than Jones standing on the shore that day, it might well have become a tragedy rather than a triumph.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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