Tompkins High head football coach Todd McVey remembers Sebastian Terrell walking across the stage to graduate on May 26, 2018.
Kalief Muhammad, a Tompkins coach who had known Terrell since Terrell was in the third grade, remembers Terrell as “humble, muscular and model-like.” Matt Copeland, Terrell’s freshman football coach, Algebra I teacher and graduate course educator during his senior year, recalls a young man who was “strong-willed, for better or worse. If he wanted to do something, he was going to do it. And he was going to do whatever he wanted to do, regardless of what anybody else wanted.”
Sebastian’s friends, family, supporters and admirers spent the last few days, and surely many more to come, remembering. Terrell died from leukemia on Friday morning at MD Anderson Cancer Center. Terrell was 18-years-old.
Though he was home as recently as Thanksgiving, things took a turn for the worse for Terrell on Thursday due to numerous health complications and the progression of leukemia. At that time, at almost midnight Thursday, Terrell's mother Annabel said his fight was “moment to moment.”
On the family’s “Terrell Tough” Facebook page that provided consistent updates on Terrell’s status, Annabel posted at 12:07 p.m. Friday: “Sebastian passed away this morning. Our hearts are broken.” Terrell’s passing came 10 months after he had completed his first stage of chemotherapy.
“When I got the message, it was like time stopped,” said Muhammad, whose oldest son, Taurean, was on the same swim team as Terrell in the third grade and who was Terrell’s running backs coach and track coach at Tompkins. “For me, I have a son, and that could’ve been my son. When he was diagnosed, this young man had an unbelievable body. Not only was he athletically inclined, but his physique … he was very muscular, very model-like. And then my son and teammates go visit him, and you see how fragile and frail he was, and I was just shocked.”
‘I KIND OF KNEW IT WASN’T GOING TO END WELL’
Terrell, a class of 2018 graduate, was a football and track and field standout at Tompkins.
At 5-foot-6, 160 pounds, he played running back and safety. He was on the varsity football team as a sophomore, and it was his 66-yard touchdown scamper that was crucial for the Falcons their first ever district win against Seven Lakes, 21-20, on Sept. 25, 2015.
That 2015 season, Terrell lead Tompkins in carries (66) and rushing yards (208) in the program's three-win second season as a varsity program. He scored two touchdowns.
Terrell, who did not play football his junior year because of an ankle injury, was a quiet young man who found his release in the weight room, where he could bench press 300-plus pounds. But for as talented as Terrell was in the pool or on the track or field, it was who he was as a person that made an impression.
“He was noticed because he was humble. About everything,” Muhammad said. “Disregard his athletic ability, the way he treated people, how kind he was, how humble he was … From the looks standpoint, he had it all. From a personality standpoint, he was amazing. Great.”
Terrell was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in July of 2017, only a month before his senior year was set to begin.
Terrell came home one night, ate dinner and watched “The Office,” a normal routine before he went to bed. But while watching TV, his stomach started to hurt. He went to the bathroom, returned to watch TV, and his stomach began to hurt again.
Terrell began throwing up from what was assumed to be a food bug. But in the wee hours of the next morning, as the stomach pains never left, he continued throwing up “black liquid” every hour, which eventually resulted in a trip to the emergency room at 4 a.m.
Blood tests were run, and scans discovered Terrell had 60-70 percent blast cells because of a perforated stomach ulcer, a hole in the stomach that created bleeding. The “black liquid” was old blood, which had caused Terrell to throw up.
“When I found out those words, that I might have leukemia, I was so sick that it almost makes sense,” Terrell said in a YouTube video blog he did explaining his diagnosis on Sept. 25, 2018. “I didn’t beat myself up about it. I didn’t cry or nothing. I was like, man. I might actually have cancer. … Me getting sick with that stomach ulcer definitely saved my life, because I’d had no symptoms. It got me into the hospital at the right time.”
The cancer only grew from there. Three days after an “exploratory surgery” discovered where the ulcer was, Terrell started chemotherapy.
Though stage one of chemotherapy cut the blast cells to zero percent, they returned to almost 50 percent in March of 2018 after Terrell had been sent home for a month.
Three months later, Terrell’s body rejected a bone marrow transplant.
“If the bone marrow transplant doesn’t work, at this point we’re trying to get lucky,” Copeland recalled Annabel telling him.
“At that point, I kind of knew it wasn’t going to end well,” Copeland said.
'HE LOOKED ALIVE AGAIN'
The family sought someone to do homebound services during Terrell’s senior year, which was the 2017-18 school year.
Since he lived relatively close to MD Anderson, Copeland volunteered, taking a “tough love” approach to teaching government and English to Terrell, the only two courses left on a shortened 22-credit plan.
Copeland and Terrell had a trust and strong bond as teacher-student from their days during Terrell’s freshman year. It was a hard time trying to get Terrell to do schoolwork, Copeland admitted; Xbox and “Fortnite” were Terrell’s best friends.
But Terrell also wanted to graduate to make his family happy. While he hated schoolwork, he grinded through it. With the help of Copeland and accommodating teachers, Terrell passed, making B’s in both courses and ultimately walking across the Merrell Center stage with his classmates.
“For a while, it didn’t look like he was going to be cleared to walk,” Copeland said. “But the nurses and doctors said, you know ... we’re going to get this kid to graduate. When you’re fighting cancer, your mental side is almost harder than the physical side.”
Tompkins head basketball coach Bobby Sanders was the public address announcer at the class of 2018 graduation. Before and after announcing Terrell’s name, Sanders awarded lengthy pauses. Long ovations followed.
McVey, who joined Tompkins as head coach in January 2017, shed tears as he looked on.
“It was so great to watch him walk the stage at graduation,” McVey said. “He had been fighting so hard.”
Copeland said it was “the first time he (Terrell) looked normal.”
“It was nice. At the hospital, he was always on morphine,” Copeland said. “Mentally, he wasn’t real strong. It was nice to see him at home and more himself. He looked alive again.”
During his senior year, Terrell got into designing clothes, creating a brand called “deadheaven.”
When Copeland asked Terrell what went behind the name, he was told, “’I don’t know. It just sounded cool’. He thought of it, went with it because it was cool, and never thought about it again.”
Terrell created a website with stuff he designed. His passion turned from weightlifting to his brand.
“He wanted to make it into a social media monster and live off it,” Copeland said.
Copeland was impressed with how diligent Terrell was in creating deadheaven. He put in a lot of time researching to find the right t-shirt and hoodies, found the right companies to screen-print the products, and figured out profit margins.
It provided distraction for Terrell, who reached a point during his hospital stay where he didn’t know when it was day or night, only understanding that it must be daytime because he showered at 7 a.m. every day, per his schedule.
Terrell struggled to find any everyday rhythm because he was being woken up every two hours every night to have his vitals checked. He couldn’t eat fresh foods due to bacteria concerns, so he had to load up on preservatives.
“I tried to get him to go outside every day,” Copeland said. “He’d never go outside when I asked. But he’d go outside to get his Pizza Hut.”
‘YOU CAN’T TAKE THIS FOR GRANTED’
Terrell was a unique character, a pleasant one. His own person. A remarkable one.
A life tragically cut short created a lifetime of memories for others. Some people remember a young man who addressed everyone he met with a humble charm. Others remember an undersized, speedy running back who played offense and defense, fought through a devastating back injury as a freshman to stay on the field because he knew his team needed him, and who helped a newborn football program establish footing on varsity in its early years.
“It makes you value life in that tomorrow’s not guaranteed for anybody,” Muhammad said. “At all. You can’t take this for granted. It’s tough. He’s made an imprint in our program, and that’s a hard thing when you’re coming to a new school and you know you’re going to get beat on. It’s a sacrifice for those guys then for us to be where we are today as a program. He’s done so much for the program, and it was an honor for us to be there and be part of that with him. He did a lot more for us than we could ever do for him.”
Terrell is survived by Annabel, father A.J. and younger sister Meghan.