College football player from Cherokee drowns in N.C.

Vince Njoku was already a good athlete when he started playing football in middle school. But something happened before his junior year of high school.

“It was really his transition from sophomore to junior year that he had this huge gain in his talent, and his athletic ability just shot up,” Mason Liner told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today.

Liner and Njoku were among a talented class of 2013 at River Ridge High School in Cherokee County. And after completing their freshman year at various colleges, many friends were excited to reunite with former classmates. Liner, also a college football player, was planning summer workouts with Njoku.

Sadly, the reunion with friends came earlier than planned. Monday night, hundreds gathered at River Ridge’s football field to remember Njoku, who drowned hours earlier in North Carolina.

Njoku, 19, of Woodstock, drowned in Lake Hickory, not far from Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, N.C., the university said. Njoku was a freshman at Lenoir-Rhyne, where he was a running back on the football team, but redshirted his freshman year due to injuries.

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Divers pulled the Njoku’s body from water 13 feet deep, the Hickory Daily Record reported.

“We ask that you keep Vince’s family and friends in your prayers in this trying time,” Richard Gould, visiting professor of journalism, told students in an emailed statement.

Word spread quickly about Njoku’s death through social media and phone calls. Will Redding, a freshman baseball player at Georgia Southwestern State University, told The AJC he first thought the text was a joke. But when he got a call from a former coach, it confirmed the news.

Later Monday, dozens of former classmates, current students and coaches gathered at the football field — the only place that made sense.

“At the beginning, everyone got there and everyone was mad and angry and sad,” Redding said.

Someone brought candles and passed them out the crowd, with some standing together to form Njoku’s high school No. 1 on the field.

“We’d always do a prayer before each game, in a circle,” Redding said. “We imitated that and did it like it was a real game.”

But it wasn’t just athletes that gathered to remember Njoku, according to his friends. Known for his constant smile, Njoku was kind to everyone and humble, friends told The AJC.

“It wasn’t like one group of friends. That was a bunch of different groups and different cliques,” Liner said. “All of these people who normally wouldn’t associate themselves with each other were all in one place.”

Njoku’s friends said it wasn’t a secret that he couldn’t swim. Sometimes, it was even a joke to ask him to go to the pool or lake, knowing his reply would be no.

But in his short time at college, Njoku had made several new friends. He likely went along to the lake to have fun before heading home for the summer, his high school friends said.

Funeral arrangements have not yet been announced.

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