July 11, 2012
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – Before John Thomas Rembert could become part of the Marshall community, he had to feel the community become part of him.
That really had happened before Rembert’s sudden death while vacationing Monday in Myrtle Beach, where the former Marshall star linebacker and Huntington resident died following what an Horry County (S.C.) coroner called a pulmonary embolism.
J.T. Rembert was 29, left a pregnant wife, Shannon, and a son, Keegan, 2. He was a 2005 MU graduate, and by all accounts the late linebacker was the “kind of child, the kind of athlete, the kind of adult you’d want your kid to become,” a former teammate said Wednesday morning.
“I met J.T. when we first got here together in 2001,” said Scott Wilks, sitting on a weightlifting bench in the Bobby Pruett Training Complex that is named for their former Thundering Herd coach. “J.T. was a little homesick, more than a little.
“He really struggled at first. He was really close to his family, which later on really tied into what he became. He just didn’t want to be in Huntington. He didn’t want to be in West Virginia.
“He was homesick more than any individual I’ve ever seen.”
The statistics say Rembert had 175 career tackles, but maybe his biggest one – over that desire to bolt – was his first.
Rembert had come to Marshall from Columbia, Md. (suburban Washington, D.C.). His will to get out of town was foreign to Wilks, who grew up a grandson and son of former Marshall football players and lettermen and returned to the Herd program as an assistant strength and conditioning coach earlier this year.
However, Wilks now on occasion sees other Remberts now among the raw, rookie recruits getting their first taste of college football in the Herd’s summer strength program. They’ve never been away from a distant home and they’re in many ways lost. They don’t know much about where they are.
That’s why Wilks applauded a “great” decision by head strength coach Joe Miday to have the football team run in late May to Spring Hill Cemetery, to view the memorial to the 1970 Marshall football team plane crash victims.
Wilks said Rembert came to understand what he was playing for, and it became part of his soul.
“When we got here as freshmen in 2001, J.T., Jeff Mullins and myself became pretty close. We were lifting partners. J.T. pushed the two of us to be better as far as motivation, always wanting to be in the weight room.
“But all the time I kept hearing, ‘I don’t want to stay here,’ and ‘I don’t want to be here, I want to go back home.’ Later on down the road we joked with J.T. about it, because he wanted to stay here and raise a family and he ended up living here and having great connections here.”
Wilks, now 30, was a quarterback then before finishing his MU career at linebacker. Mullins was a tight end, Rembert an outside linebacker, at “195 pounds,” Wilks recalled. Rembert was 232 by his sophomore season.
“We were the only three freshmen to pass the run test … 16 110s,” Wilks said. “but J.T. was the only one of the three of us who played as a freshman. He played on kickoffs and special teams. He brought a lot to the table. He was a really good athlete, one of the very few to play that year as a (true) freshman. His career really took off from there.
“One thing J.T. always liked was coming to work. He loved football. He always wanted to become a better player. It was all about helping the team, which kind of became an extension of what he became in life, too. He really grew into it.
“He was a guy who wanted to go home all of the time, and then it ends up that he bleeds green.”
Wilks said Rembert had been around the weight room and Shewey Building on occasion in recent years and some of the Herd players came to know the late linebacker.
“And when I heard and I told them yesterday, it was kind of like a shot to the stomach,” Wilks said. “He made so many connections, and he was willing to go out of his way to help if he could.
“When I first got back here (in March, after several years with the Hofstra strength program), J.T. immediately called me. He’d go out of the way to do anything for you, which was totally different from when he first got here.
“It’s the same for everyone when they first get here. It’s all about you. Then you figure out you’re part of something bigger. J.T. made things better. I hope I can say down the road I’d do the same things he did for other people.”
Wilks said Rembert sold insurance and also dabbled in other businesses, but his devotion was the Johnathan Goddard Scholarship endowment, named for Rembert’s and Wilks’ former teammate who died in a motorcycle crash four year ago.
“Other than his family, the Johnathan Goddard Foundation meant more to J.T. than anything,” Wilks said. “He took it under his wing. That’s the kind of thing that really shows his character.”
Wilks knew the fabric of Marshall Football, tied so closely to the plane tragedy, from his family. His grandfather, Herndon, was a 1930s running back. His father, Phil, was a late 1960s defensive end.”
“My dad took me up to the cemetery and pointed out all the names, who they were,” Wilks said. “It was special. He pointed to one, Roger Vanover, and said he was his best friend. That’s how you get tied into it, understanding what this is about.
“The family connection is how tight it is to me. J.T. didn’t have that. He had to learn it.”
Wilks said he hears young players in the weight room now and then, talking about the degree of difficulty of being a long way from home, and he remembers Rembert then and Rembert in the few years before his death.
“I see it. Usually, if I hear them talking about it, I tell them things can change, people change, like J.T. did,” Wilks said. “Of course, you’re not going to believe it until you experience it yourself, and most of these guys will. It can be difficult for some guys to come from Florida to Huntington, W.Va. They don’t have that connection I did.
“J.T., at the end, came around and came to understand what this place really is because he got connected to the community and the community just draws you in because there’s so much love and passion for this university.
“What drew him in, that’s what he became, part of that love and passion for this community and this university, and he really connected himself inside that family.”
Wilks and Rembert were teammates from different places. Wilks knew where home was. Rembert had to find it.