The mind is its own place, and in it self

Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n.

Paradise Lost 
Book I, ll. 254-255

The most powerful force in nature, the mind is capable of transcendence. It is equally susceptible to corruption.

David Foster Wallace — perhaps the most brilliant mind of a generation — created works of vast intricacy that revealed the charm in every cranny of human existence. His command of subjects as far reaching as neurology, kinesiology, complex mathematics — and, above all, his hypersensitivity to every aspect of the human condition — betrayed an imagination that was nothing short of genius. However, despite this vast intellect, his mind — the potent font from which all his achievements sprang — was plagued by demons that overwhelmed him and eventually led to his suicide.

The mind is a powerful force, and can overwhelm with its capacity for good or bad.

Being alone with one’s mind is not often a comforting experience. There’s a reason one of the most fiendish forms of torture is solitary confinement. Imagine being locked in your own head, completely divorced from physical experience — it’s a condition that would ruin most men. However, it did not ruin my friend JT — a man with the most remarkable mind I’ve ever known.

JT Townsend came to Episcopal High School as a junior, joining a very small population of black students in an overwhelmingly white private high school. Black students assimilated well in our school, but there was an indubitable sense of insularity in their experience. JT overcame that insularity immediately. His enthusiasm, charisma — and most of all, his trademark smile — won over students from every social sphere. And he could play ball.

A standout as soon as he took the field, JT played both sides of the football — as a sure-handed wideout and a safety with a nose for contact. Whatever small success we experienced on the field was due in large part to his ability. This was comically apparent in our complete lack of victories following his injury.

The injury.

We’d just qualified for the playoffs for the first time in recent memory on the back of JT’s 100+ yard receiving performance and dozen or so tackles against district rival (and heavy favorite) Hamilton County. Now we faced our neighbor school, Bishop Kenny. We were down, but the game was not out of reach, when BK ran a simple dive up the middle. JT stepped up from his strong safety/linebacker hybrid position to make the play.

I never knew whether it was a flaw in JT’s tackling form that caused the injury. I couldn’t bear to watch the film when we reviewed the game afterward. All I know is, after the hit, I arose from the pile and found JT on the ground, twitching.

Twitching — it’s such an unnatural word. But the injury was unnatural. Instantly I knew (since we’d only just recently watched Rocky IV as a team — remember Apollo Creed after the fight against Ivan Drago?) that the injury was life-or-death serious. In fact, at that moment, I wasn’t sure if JT was alive or dead. An ambulance rushed onto the field. JT was stabilized. He was rushed to the hospital. Somewhere along the way, an emergency tracheotomy was performed. Grisly stuff.

He made it through the night and several of us visited the hospital. He wasn’t in good enough shape for us to see him. We had no idea what the hell was going to happen to him. Soon after, a spinal cord injury expert was brought on campus to speak to us at an emergency assembly. Episcopal is a small community, so every student was invested in the situation. Eventually, we learned JT would return to school as a tetraplegic, lacking mobility in all four limbs.

What happened from there is a triumph of an uncommon mind. JT graduated. Armed with a powered wheelchair he steered with his mouth, JT made his way around campus with the same smile he had before. As cliché as it might sound, the kid behaved as though the goddamn injury never even happened. He yukked it up, kept staring dead ahead with those clear, untroubled eyes and flashed that electric smile wherever he went. It was impossible to be around JT without feeling a renewed optimism in the human spirit.

JT was shepherded through fancy treatments at new spinal cord injury facilities around the country. They strapped him up on a treadmill and moved his legs to simulate walking. This made me nervous. It was clear JT would never walk again. Was it dangerous to suggest to him he might? He’d already lost so much. Would giving him the hope he’d again be able to walk only result in more devastation? 

It ended up being a moot point. Years after the accident, JT continued exhibiting the exact same personality I recognized the first day I met him. He went to college and started a foundation that helped other folks in trying circumstances. Imagine that. Your life is wrecked in a flash, and instead of focusing on your own misfortune, you turn to others.

There was a wonderful mystery in JT’s experience, post-accident. What the hell went on in that head of his? How could someone dealt such a horrible tragedy respond with such exuberance? He had a hell of a mom, that’s for sure. I cannot fathom the care JT’s condition required, but she provided it. And never was without a smile, either. Which may be key to it all — the influence of a powerful mother can never be underestimated. But there’s no denying JT had something unique in his personality that enabled him to overcome his injury and create a life just as impactful — if not more — as if he’d continued on his athletic trajectory to major college stardom and beyond.

I saw JT intermittently after high school graduation — at local events like Jaguars games and the TPC. At first I didn’t know what to expect — whether we’d be able to identify with one another given our vastly different life experiences. But JT’s charm overcame that, just as it overcame every other difficulty he faced in life. We’d talk sports. He’d check on me rather than the other way around. And he’d smile.

The world tends to be an uncaring and unconcerned place. One of the most frustrating things about life is how little we can do to change it. This frustration breaks many people. It did not break JT. Dealt the most severe of physical circumstances, he altered a community and changed countless lives through his indomitable spirit.

“The mind is its own place, and in it self / can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.” John Milton’s Satan spoke these words in Paradise Lost. For those who may not be Renaissance scholars, Satan is not the villain of Milton’s epic, but a Romantic hero, who with his imagination overcomes his dreadful lot in life, ultimately meeting a tragic end. JT made a heaven on earth of what must surely have been a physical hell. I’ll never know how he did it. I can only wonder with awe at that impossibly hopeful mind and that impossibly bright smile.

Be at peace, J-Town.

Pete Anderson is an advertising copywriter currently living in Brooklyn, NY. A former high school football player and DIII pitcher, he now focuses his athletic mediocrity on the game of golf. Find him on Twitter @Deucedbrains and at