Mill Creek, which made an unexpectedly strong, second-place showing the year before, had been written off by some. Graduation had taken too many of the team’s best runners.
But what the naysayers didn’t factor in was the team’s resolve, inspired by the spirit of Tajay Hoppines, a beloved former teammate and 2012 Mill Creek graduate who died last year.
Teams from Marietta, Norcross and Brookwood were considered threats heading into state.
Two of Mill Creek’s Hawks were running the 3.1 miles sick. Another finished in one shoe. He’d lost the other when another runner stepped on his heel.
“It was so exciting watching everyone run by,” said former teammate Andy Hull, Tajay’s quiet, reserved best friend.
Victories in cross country — unlike in other sports — aren’t decided in a flash. The runners’ times have to be reviewed, scores have to be tallied. It can take what seems like an eternity, 20 minutes or so, to declare the winner.
Mill Creek coach Andy Christie hoped to avoid the suspense. He had a former assistant coach stand at the finish line, filming as the runners came in and trying to size up how the team had done.
"Get your cameras ready in case it's good news," Christie told parents.
'He never had a bad day'
Tajay Hoppines was a natural athlete who trained hard and ran harder. He helped propel the Mill Creek cross country team to a record win and himself to a college scholarship. He was a kid with an effervescent smile, an upbeat personality and a big heart.
Born in Jamaica, he was raised by his great-grandmother until he turned 6 and reunited with his mother in Gwinnett County in 2000. When he was 9, his stepfather, Odeon Shadeed, introduced him to soccer.
“He was sometimes timid and always athletic,” said Shadeed, who coached Tajay’s team at the Dacula Soccer Club in north Gwinnett County. “After two or three years, I realized he had moved past what I could teach him.”
Tajay could run like the wind and found a second outlet for that skill in cross country, one of the most difficult and intense high school sports, requiring extreme stamina and discipline.
Cross country is sometimes confused with track, but the longest run in track is usually the shortest in cross country, which takes runners over varied terrains – usually grass paths and trails through the woods.
Tajay attracted notice his first year at Mill Creek.
“In the first few weeks of practice, he would be running near the front, faster than I would have expected for a freshman,” Christie said. “He definitely caught my attention, and he definitely caught his teammates’ attention.”
Shane Huckeba was one teammate who noticed. When he first saw Tajay, he thought: “Who’s the kid in the basketball shorts?”
He quickly recognized Tajay as someone skilled enough to take his coveted position on varsity. Shane started driving himself to work harder, run faster.
“Honestly, without his influence, I don’t know if I would have gotten fast enough to compete in college,” said Shane, who graduated from Mill Creek in 2010 and now runs on scholarship at Augusta State University.
A training run in cross country can cover eight miles, giving teammates ample opportunity to talk and bond, and runners gravitated to Tajay. He was quirky, competitive and bubbling over with amusing tales of the “fine hunnies” he met the other day or the girl he was getting up the courage to ask to homecoming.
“He never had a bad day,” said Andy, now an international affairs major at Georgia Tech. “Or if he did, he wouldn’t tell.”
Tajay and Andy met through cross country, but became close in 11th grade when they had an electrical engineering class together. Tajay had decided not to run cross country that year so he could concentrate on his studies.
“We goofed off a lot, but we always did a good job on our assignments,” Andy said. “He was usually very relaxed and laid back, while I was always stressing to get our assignments done.”
Tajay played computer games all the time, yet he’d still manage to get his projects done faster and get better grades on them, Andy said.
“We talked about running a lot. We were competitive, in a friendly way, with each other,” Andy said. “I would tell him about a race I ran, and he would jokingly respond how he was the fastest guy from Jamaica.”
Tajay’s natural athletic abilities were evident at games, meets and practices. At running camp, Tajay would be the last person standing in dodgeball. In volleyball, he’d be the one comically diving for the ball that others assumed was out of reach.
“He would make this really weird yell, and he’d have everybody in stitches,” said Bob Kvietkus, assistant cross country and track coach at Mill Creek. It was a shrill yelp, a sharp contrast to Tajay’s normally deep speaking voice.
Tajay was "a gamer," Kvietkus said. "He was good at practice, but when it came to a meet, he'd give it everything he had. He stepped it up at state (in 2011) and really helped us become runner-up."
'Such an accomplishment'
With a student body of about 3,700, Mill Creek is the state's largest high school. The facility is one-quarter the size of the Mall of Georgia, boasting a theater, two gyms and a 15,000-square-foot field house on 60 acres in north Gwinnett County. It's so big that students who live next door to each other could easily never meet at school. The potential for such a large institution to be cold and sterile is not lost on staff, faculty and parents, who work to counteract those perceptions.
The school has more than 200 clubs and sports teams; 76 percent of the students are involved in at least one.
Christie came to Mill Creek in 2008 from rival Dacula High School, where the cross country teams he coached brought home three third-place state trophies.
Mill Creek’s cross country team had never placed better than sixth before the 2011 state meet. That year — the last for seniors Tajay and Andy —the team’s goal was to place fourth, good enough to win a trophy. They began the day early with a “shake-out run,” a one-mile trek before breakfast that helps runners keep their muscles loose for the big race.
“Everyone was excited, but very focused,” Andy said. “We chanted the MC Baby cheer out in the field.”
They ran hard, but were still shocked when Christie announced they had finished in second place.
“We all went crazy, were jumping up and down, hugging each other, and congratulating each other,” Andy said. “It was such an accomplishment for all of us.”
Tajay went on to achieve another success. His cross country scholarship to Valdosta State University was celebrated with a signing party in the school media center.
How could Tajay be gone?
It was the second week of August 2012, and the new school year had just started. Christie had spent the morning darting between classes and photography sessions in the school theater.
When he was summoned to the principal’s office, he knew it couldn’t be good — especially not this early in the school year.
Shortly after noon, a newspaper reporter had called Principal Jim Markham with tragic news.
The college classes Tajay had so looked forward to were still a few days away, but training for Valdosta State’s cross country team had already started, including a team-building event in the Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, Fla.
Tajay and his new teammates had been on a long run and decided to go for a swim in the murky waters of the Suwanee River to cool off. Teammates told authorities Tajay was trying to cross the river when he started struggling at the half-way point. Some tried to reach him, but couldn’t.
Authorities suspect Tajay got caught in a swift current. His body was recovered the next day.
How could Tajay be gone? Christie and the team had just seen him the previous Saturday. He’d come to say his goodbyes and to see how his friends and former team performed in the time trial on their home course at Little Mulberry Park. He was smiling, excited, his shrill yells of encouragement audible for a mile.
Christie kept his emotions in check in Markham’s office. But as soon as school was out, he raced to break the news to the team, which met in a classroom before each day’s workout. Some of the boys had already heard on social media, but still needed to hear it from him.
As Christie looked at the fresh young faces in front of him, all stricken and some streaked by tears, it was difficult, then impossible, for Christie to contain his emotions.
“We can skip practice today if you want,” Christie told them.
But the team members wouldn’t hear of it. They went on to put in a through-the-roof workout, fueled by sorrow and disbelief. People were running times they never had before.
They left school that day resolved to dedicate their season and their bid for a first-ever state championship to Tajay.
'Never give up'
In the days immediately following Tajay's death, members of Mill Creek's team stuck together. They went to runner Richard Fuller's house that first night — just to hang out and tell stories about zany, fun-loving Tajay. The boy who loved the ladies, hated being cold and was dead at 18.
The next night, Christie had them over to his house to watch the Olympics.
All the team wore bracelets the color of the Jamaican flag — green, yellow and black — with Tajay’s initials inscribed on one side. On the other side were the words: “Never give up.”
The soccer team sold the bracelets to raise money for Tajay’s family. Tajay’s mom and stepfather had 1-year-old twins and needed help with the expense of flying relatives in for the funeral.
A memorial was held at the school. The theater was overflowing.
Some students who barely knew Tajay talked about how he’d lifted their spirits with a warm smile or a small kindness. Others regaled the grief-stricken crowd with stories of loud, outgoing and kind-hearted Tajay, who seemed to savor every day and would be their example going forward.
Mitch Flammang, one of Tajay’s former teammates, struggled to find the words to express what Tajay meant to him, the memories still so vivid of their many runs and daily trips to the park.
“We had some of the craziest and some of the deepest conversations that I can ever remember,” he said.
Tajay had a goofy side that could make people laugh, but also a deep desire to be the best he could be, Mitch said. “Tajay was one of the greatest friends a man could have. I love him, and I miss him.”
The gathering was an awakening for his stepfather.
“To tell you the truth, I knew he was always a super person,” Shadeed said. “But I never really grasped that until the service at the school. It didn’t occur to me that he touched people that way.”
It was the same at Valdosta State. In just a few days his dorm room had already become “the happening place,” said Todd Smoot, who was VSU cross country coach at the time.
“He made quite an impact in a few days and hours,” Smoot said. “He wasn’t a stranger at all. It was as if (the team) had known him for years.”
Smoot and most of the VSU team came to Gwinnett for Tajay’s funeral. On the college campus, they held a candlelight vigil. At least 300 people attended.
"He is remembered," Smoot said. "In much of what they do, they mention him."
Season to remember
The cross country team set its sights on claiming the state championship in 2012. It would be quite the feat, given that, to date, only girls' teams at the school had seen that kind of success.
But the team was committed to giving its best for Tajay.
“We didn’t want that motivation,” Christie told the team. “But now that we’ve got it, I feel like we’re a dangerous team. And we have a higher purpose than all of the teams we’re running against.”
In the pre-season ratings, Mill Creek was written off by its competitors. Four of the previous year’s top seven runners had graduated — including Tajay and Andy.
The ranking didn’t sit well with Christie or the team, and it didn’t have to for long. A few good showings, including a win against Marietta at Berry College, made clear they shouldn’t be counted out.
Tajay’s stepdad and mom came to several of Mill Creek’s meets. It was difficult, though. They saw students wearing the memorial bracelets and the team in uniforms that carried their boy’s initials. Some students inked Tajay’s initials on their arms with markers.
Students on the soccer team approached them, telling them they were dedicating their season to Tajay. Others who had graduated and were playing college sports said the same.
The Shadeeds were touched. But they also were pained by unanswerable questions.
“What would his first year of college have been like? Would he have buckled down academically? All the things you wonder as a parent,” Shadeed said.
The 2012 season had its share of setbacks. The most serious was when Richard injured his ACL, a ligament in the knee, playing basketball a week before practice began. Surgery followed a month later. He went back to school in a wheelchair, then on crutches — determined to return to running and the 2012 cross country season.
At the Coach Wood Invitational, a big race in Gainesville and a preview of the state championship, two Mill Creek runners were coming back after being ill. Going up against Marietta again, the team lost by 30 points.
“It ended up being a blessing in disguise,” Christie said. “The boys realized it wasn’t in the bag.”
Some people on message boards were pulling for Marietta to win at the state meet, held Nov. 10 in Carrollton.
Richard was back on the team by the season’s start, but he hadn’t done well enough at regionals to make it to state. He carried a giant Mill Creek flag instead.
“Good luck,” he texted his teammates on the eve of state. “I have a good feeling about tomorrow,” he shot in a text to Christie.
“You could just feel in the air that something special was about to happen,” he said.
When the official results were announced, Mill Creek was declared winner. Two of the school’s runners had finished in the top 20, six in the top 40 out of more than 200 sweating souls. Christie, the team and supporters were off their feet, jumping up and down, yelling, screaming, high-fiving.
Christie got the traditional bucket of water on his head, and the team was presented the elusive state trophy and championship rings. “For Tajay,” they all shouted.
The state championship trophy went home with Christie that night. He wanted his wife and daughter to see it. But truth be told, he also wanted a little longer to admire it.
The trophy was back at school by 7:15 a.m. Monday when the team, as is tradition, presented it to the principal, Markham. Later, students lined the halls and stood in doorways, cheering each team member as they paraded through the school, led by a drum line.
At the annual banquet, the cross country team gave an award named for Tajay. It’s called the Talawah, which means strong and courageous in Jamaica. It was presented to Richard by Tajay’s stepfather.
"It was one of the proudest moments of my life — just knowing what I had come back from and knowing that I did it for him," Richard said.
The Mill Creek Hawks were ranked No. 1 heading into the 2013 season, which started in late August. But the team has faced some adversities. Runners have been injured and sick. One runner had an emergency appendectomy.
One of Mill Creek’s runners set a school record earlier this month and was at the doctor two days later with foot pain. Christie was holding his breath.
The team now ranks fourth in the state and has an “outside chance” at a second state championship, Christie said.
“It’s been more of an uphill battle,” he said. “I understand now why people say it’s hard to defend a state title.”
On his wrist, Christie still wears a reminder of that special student, that consummate athlete who managed to galvanize the team in life and death. The Tajay bracelet: Never give up.
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
Nancy Badertscher was covering a Gwinnett County Board of Education meeting earlier this year when the Mill Creek cross country team was recognized for winning the 2012 state championship. During the presentation, it was noted that the team had special motivation to succeed — the loss of a beloved teammate. With the cooperation of coach Andy Christie, school officials, teammates and the family of Tajay Hoppines, Nancy looked deep into the life of this young man who, in life and death, had a profound impact.
Suzanne Van Atten
Features Enterprise Editor
About the reporter
Nancy Badertscher covers Gwinnett Public Schools and early childhood education. She has worked at the AJC for 13 years and has spent her career covering politics, education and governments throughout Georgia. She has won more than 25 state and national writing awards and has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
about the photographer
Bob Andres joined the AJC in 1998. Born in San Francisco, he has held photography and photo editing positions in California, Florida and Georgia. A journalism graduate of San Francisco State University, Andres has also worked as the AJC’s metro photo editor, Sports photo editor and has taught photojournalism at UGA and Cal State Hayward.