College athlete drowns in Florida river

After graduating from Mill Creek High School, Tajay Hoppines was looking forward to college life. He never made it to his first class.

A talented athlete at both soccer and cross-country, Hoppines, 18, left Gwinnett County on Sunday and headed to Valdosta State University, where he had earned a scholarship to run. He was running with his new cross-county teammates Wednesday afternoon when the group decided to take a swim in the Suwannee River, witnesses told police.

"Some of the boys were swimming across and he decided to swim across," Sheriff Tony Cameron of Suwannee County, Fla., told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Hoppines went under the water around 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Cameron said. Divers recovered his body Thursday afternoon in Live Oak, Fla., about 50 miles south of Valdosta.

Cameron said while the waters look like a lazy river, powerful currents catch some swimmers by surprise.

"It is deceiving, and it drops off pretty fast," Cameron said.

A friend and former teammate, Nick Muntean, said Hoppines admittedly wasn't a great swimmer. But when it came to soccer and running, Hoppines was at the top of his game, Muntean said.

"He couldn't turn it off. He only knew how to go full-tilt," Muntean said.

As a high school freshman, Hoppines joined the cross-country team, and hit the ground running, literally, his former coach said.

"Right from the start as a freshman, he was running times that weren't normal for a freshman," Andy Christie, Mill Creek boys cross-country and track coach, told the AJC.

In the spring, Hoppines scored his team's lone goal in a state semifinal loss to Centennial High School. Prior to that, he helped his cross-country team run to a second-place finish at the state meet, Christie said.

Which sport to pursue was a tough decision for Hoppines. But when he signed to run, he never looked back, Muntean said. It was his fierce determination, along with a sense of humor, that made him popular among classmates, according to those who knew him best.

Christie shared the news of Hoppines's death with his runners Thursday after school. Then, the team waited for the rain to end before setting out to run.

"I thought it was important for the boys to get out and run," Christie said.

Many of Hoppines's friends planned to gather Thursday evening to honor the college freshman. Most were still in disbelief about the tragedy, choosing to focus on the legacy Hoppines left behind.

"He definitely made a lot of people's lives brighter with the time we had with him," Christie said.