Players of past and present joined coaches and friends of Vince Njoku as they gathered about 10 p.m. to reminisce about the former River Ridge football player who died in a tragic accident Monday while swimming with friends near the campus of Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, N.C.
According to a Hickory Police Department report, the 19-year-old spent Monday afternoon swimming and jumping off of rocks at Geitner-Rotary Park into Lake Hickory. After several leaps into the lake, Njoku’s friends realized they couldn’t find him. A fellow student, Jonah Elliot, dove into the water to search for Njoku.
At 5:30 p.m., Njoku’s friends put in a frantic 911 call. Rescuers from surrounding counties responded with divers and boats.
As word spread through the campus of fewer than 1,900 students, crowds arrived at the park and waited at the end of the trail, where Njoku had walked with friends toward the lake hours earlier. About an hour-and-a-half after the emergency call was received, divers pulled Njoku’s body to the surface from a depth of 13 feet, but near the rocky shoreline, reports showed.
Hickory Police Department Criminal Investigation Division Capt. Reed Baer said alcohol was not a factor in the incident, which is being treated as an accident.
Former Lenoir-Rhyne football coach Mike Houston, who recruited Njoku to the Bears and coached him as a freshman, told the Hickory Record, “It’s just a sad way for such a bright soul to leave us.”
“He was bright eyed with a big smile,” said Houston, now football coach at The Citadel. “He’s just a very nice young man and an outstanding athlete. He was just a very kind-hearted person.”
Njoku, the first member of the River Ridge football program to continue his career into college, sat out his freshman year at Lenoir-Rhyne as a redshirt. After recovering from a knee injury, he was preparing to fight for playing time this fall as a running back for the Bears, last year’s NCAA Division II runner-up.
A week before he signed his National Letter of Intent with Lenoir-Rhyne in February 2013, Njoku spoke to the Cherokee Tribune about what he called “the biggest choice” he’d made.
“It’s great,” he said. “Not everyone gets to do it every day or every year.”
Monday night, as Njoku’s parents traveled to Hickory after hearing the news of their son’s death, a gathering was taking place at the River Ridge football field. Robert Braucht, the only football coach the school has known, said many stayed until after midnight.
“He had a great perspective on life,” Braucht said. “He achieved a lot by working hard and persevering. He achieved one of his life goals, and that is something for us all to learn from. He was a great kid.”
Braucht said this is a time when the younger members of the River Ridge football program — those who may not have known Njoku — will be called upon to lead the team.
“We are going to have kids that, as time goes on, it sets in,” Braucht said. “We had about 100 players come out with some faculty and stuff (Monday) night and talk about what Vince meant to them and the relationship they had with him. It’s hard for some of the kids to wrap their minds around how this could happen. That is what is tough right now.”
“For the next few days, it’s time for our younger kids to step up and be leaders for these older kids who need someone to comfort them and be there for them.”
River Ridge students organized an effort to wear No. 1 — Njoku’s number when he played for the Knights — today as a tribute to him. Some painted the number on T-shirts, while others scrawled it on their skin with markers.
River Ridge athletic director Mike Baker said Njoku was the first athlete the school has had to part with.
“He was a special kid,” Baker said. “He was taking advantage of a great situation, going to college, and it’s just really sad.”
Baker said the moment Njoku committed to Lenoir-Rhyne was a proud day for River Ridge because of who he was.
“It was a special moment for the school because of Vince and what he brought to the table — for us and how he developed as a player and as a person,” Baker said Tuesday morning. “There are a lot of people sitting outside my office now thinking about him.”
Ian Shield, who succeeded Houston as Lenoir-Rhyne’s football coach, was among those waiting at the accident site Monday.
“We all lost a loved teammate, friend and son,” Shield said in a statement from Lenoir-Rhyne. “Vince will be gravely missed within our football program and campus community. Our collective thoughts and prayers are with the Njoku family.”
Many Lenoir-Rhyne students had already left campus for the summer, but university officials set a memorial service for Njoku on Thursday at a university auditorium.
A local memorial for Njoku will take place Monday at 10:30 a.m. at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church, at 490 Arnold Mill Road in Woodstock.