WINTER GARDEN The scar running along the base of Naquan Renalds’ neck is the physical reminder of the moment when the rising senior on the West Orange football team nearly lost everything — including his life.
A week to the day after the standout wide receiver scored two touchdowns in the West Orange Warriors’ 38-28 spring game victory against Gainesville May 27, Renalds was hanging out with friends at Zander’s Park, in the East Winter Garden neighborhood of Winter Garden, off of 11th Street.
At some point between 7 and 8 p.m. June 3, shots rang out.
When the dust settled and the drive-by shooting had ended, friends of Renalds’ realized the star wide receiver had been critically wounded by a bullet that had entered his neck and exited through his shoulder.
In the chaos that ensued and during the ambulance ride to the emergency room, Renalds remembers two overriding thoughts: To stay calm and control his breathing — as he had once been cautioned by a friend who had been shot — and the thought of losing the football career that means so much to him.
“When I was in the ambulance, I was thinking about football — I was thinking that, if I die, it’s gone,” Renalds said.
In the aftermath of the shooting, as doctors frantically worked to stabilize the Winter Garden teen, word spread quickly through the community and especially the football team. For someone such as Joe Light, an assistant coach for the Warriors, the speed with which the news came — and the varying degrees of accuracy in the wide-ranging reports — was a lot to handle.
“I was hearing different things,” Light said. “I heard he was OK and then I heard he was in critical condition and wasn’t going to make it. … I’ll be honest, I broke down and I was crying — there was a wide range of emotions there.”
For West Orange head coach Bob Head, the barrage of calls and text messages brought back the worst kind of memories. Head was the head coach of the football team at Olympia when, in April of 2006, standout offensive lineman Dereck Parker was shot and killed.
“The first thing I thought about was just that feeling of how horrible (losing Parker) was and how it impacted our team,” Head said. “It’s just startling when you get a call like that.”
Players, coaches and other members of the community joined Renalds’ family in the waiting room that night, anxiously awaiting word on whether their teammate and friend would survive.
After a successful emergency surgery to stabilize and repair the damaged parts of Renalds’ throat, doctors informed him that he was in the clear — and also how close the bullet had been to being fatal.
“They said it was very close — that if it would have hit something in my neck, I probably wouldn’t have made it,” Renalds said.
The news that Renalds was going to be OK was delivered by his mother to the dozens of people waiting downstairs at Orlando Regional Medical Center around 1:30 a.m. It was a relief for all gathered — but not the end of the story, as teammates and coaches knew they would need to be there for Renalds and his family in the days and weeks to come.
“Our team is close — Naquan is a huge member of our team and a huge member of Winter Garden,” Head said. “He stands for a lot of the things our team stands for. Those kids rallied to him immediately. It was pretty impressive.”
That knowledge, that he had dozens of supporters cheering him on, was a source of strength for Renalds in the moments and days to follow.
“I felt like I was important and I had people behind me,” Renalds said.
At first, visitors beyond his immediate family were not allowed. Then, even once they were allowed and teammates began to cycle in and out of his room, Renalds was unable to talk while he was healing.
“I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to talk again — I was trying to talk and nothing was coming out,” he recalled. “I was writing stuff on paper the whole time I was in the hospital.”
Renalds spent a total of eight days in the hospital before being released to go home. Once home, he had to wait only an additional two weeks before — remarkably — he was cleared to return to the field for conditioning. In spite of how close he had come to being fatally wounded, the after-effects of the incident — at least regarding Renalds’ athletic ability — were non-existent.
“He has this big scar all the way down his neck — and he’s out there running around and diving for balls like it never happened,” Head said. “It’s really a miracle that he’s recovered like he has.”
— Naquan Renalds
As such, Renalds’ recruiting stock has not taken a hit, and he continues to receive interest from programs like USF, Kentucky, Syracuse, Toledo and Wisconsin. To the unaware observer, it’s almost as if nothing happened. To those who know Renalds, though, there is a subtle change in the young man who, even before the incident, was a leader for the program.
“I see a whole different spirit around him now,” Head said. “He’s not taking one day for granted. A lot of kids feel like they’re invincible — he just seems like he has a different spirit about him right now. …
“I’m telling you what — he looks better than ever.”
For the team, Renalds’ journey and his return to the field has been a rallying cry ahead of a season where new leaders — including Renalds — are being asked to step up and avoid a dip in production after a historic season in 2015.
For Renalds, the knowledge of how close he came to losing everything has left him with a perspective beyond his years — a perspective that has fostered another level of motivation.
“I’m very motivated now that I was in that situation and made it out of that situation,” Renalds said. “I’ve got to keep pushing myself.”
Contact Steven Ryzewski at [email protected].