Jacob Wesley Alexander Salter made his buddies laugh, his football team proud and his parents joyful. Full of jokes and little-boy exuberance, he always found a way to make others smile.
But the smiles are gone now and tears have replaced the laughter. Jacob died, last Friday, at age 8, and the community is grieving.
"The day of the funeral, I'm gonna let him have my Communion suit and he'll wear it in his grave," said best friend Mikey Ripa, 8. "I know I'll be an old man when I die but, when I go to heaven, I'm gonna ask God to make me 8 years old again so I can hang out and play with Jacob."
The son of Annie and Marc Salter of Little Rocky Run, Jacob was a third-grader at Union Mill Elementary. He swam, bicycled, rollerskated and played baseball, but he always wanted to play football like his three older brothers.
A congenital heart condition — mitral valve prolapse, which affected the blood flow in the heart and made him tired — prevented him from doing so, until this year, when his cardiologist gave him the go-ahead. But after running a play with his SYA Wildcats anklebiters team, Friday night at Mountain View School, Jacob collapsed on the field and died shortly afterward at Inova Fair Oaks Hospital.
Preparing for a game the next day, the team was practicing light drills, including a pattern designed specifically for Jacob, a speedy running back. "We ran three offensive plays, and the last one was a sweep to Jacob," said assistant coach John Hagan. "He caught the ball from the quarterback and ran to the outside."
The team was taking a water break when Jacob stopped and said, "I can't see." He dropped to his knees, unconscious, and a football mom who's also a nurse immediately administered CPR until paramedics arrived.
"Practice was almost over," said head coach Sean Thompson, noting that Jacob hadn't even broken a sweat. "He looked so healthy and happy, the whole practice; there was no indication there was anything wrong. It was devastating and unexpected — so unbelievable."
CALLING JACOB a "supernatural athlete," Thompson said he was the team's star and one of the league's best players. "He was an incredibly fast runner, and he mentored the younger kids. All the players loved him. He was sweet, respectful, well-mannered — just a great kid who went out of his way to be nice to the other players and make them feel special."
Team mom Barbra Hagan said when the team won its first game and Jacob scored two touchdowns, he told his mom, "We won by two touchdowns." Said Hagan: "He didn't brag that he'd scored them — he was happy that the team won."
"He was always full of energy and enthusiasm," added her husband John. "He was a coach's dream and a gifted athlete — he had great speed and a great instinct for the game."
"Now he's playing for a different team with the best coach he could have," said Jacob's dad, Marc Salter. Although initially hesitant to go along with it when the cardiologist said his son could play football, he eventually agreed because he knew how much it meant to Jacob. "He really wanted it," said Salter. "He asked the doctor if he could play."
But Jacob was not just an athlete; he was also a fun, little kid. "He's my next-door neighbor, and every time I played with him he made me smile," said Kevin Hagan, 8. "He told me jokes. And we played Dragonball Z on PlayStation 2."
Friend Nathan Marks, 8, said, "I was always excited for [school] lunchtime so I could play with Jacob. "He was always making me laugh." Neighbor Lauren Knoble, 9, said they'd Rollerblade together, snowboard in winter and play wall ball at school. "He was really good at that," she said. Saddened by his death, she says what makes her feel better is knowing that "now, his heart doesn't hurt."
JACOB'S MOTHER, Annie Salter, a seventh-grade English teacher at Liberty Middle School, said his heart condition wasn't diagnosed until he was eight months old. "He went for a well-baby checkup, and they sent us to a heart specialist," she said. "One of his valves wasn't working properly, so his heart worked a lot harder than it should."
And although the condition sometimes tired him, Jacob grew into a happy and active boy, playing with his friends and horsing around with his brothers, Marque Anthony, now 19 and a sophomore at West Virginia University; Jayson, 15, a Centreville High sophomore and Mycal, 13, an eighth-grader at Eleven Oaks School.
Jacob saw a cardiologist regularly and took medicine which helped his heart. His parents explained to him that, because of his heart problem, he might not be able to do everything the other kids did. But in the end, there was no keeping him down — he was determined to be one of them.
"He did everything he wanted to," said his mother. "Most people wouldn't have known anything was wrong with him." After examining him in September and giving him the thumbs-up for football, the doctor said he'd see Jacob in January. Besides, said his dad, they were told Jacob's heart could suddenly fail anytime, regardless of what he did or didn't do. "It could have happened even while he was sleeping," added his mother.
AND DID HE ever love football, said Annie Salter. "He was the MVP in the SYA Sully Bowl on Labor Day," she said. "In every game, he scored at least one touchdown — and, in one game, he scored five. He was an awesome athlete."
He was also her youngest child, her baby. "Jacob loved his family and friends, and he loved his mom," she said. "He brightened my world. We would listen to the Temptations' song, 'Treat Her Like a Lady,' and he'd stand on the bed, so he could be as tall as I am, and dance with me. He loved life; we'd sing together in the car — he was just a joy."
He was artistic, too, making detailed drawings of his family and taking pains to get everyone in proportion. And in a "book" he wrote in second grade, in the "about the author" section, he said he wanted to someday be an illustrator.
Jacob also liked cartoons and movies and enjoyed being outdoors — especially at the beach. "He and his brothers were close," said Annie Salter. "They'd go swimming or play mini-golf together; they'd carry him on their shoulders and wrestle with him."
HE AND HIS DAD also shared special times. When school let out early on Mondays, Marc Salter would pick him up and they'd hang out together. "We'd go to restaurants or the mall or I'd help him with his homework," he said. "We even had a secret handshake. He was just outgoing and fun-loving."
Still, his mother called Jacob "an old soul in a young body" because he was wise beyond his years. "He knew how to treat females, and he was a role model to other kids," she said. Sometimes, he'd wander off at malls and parks, but she believes he was simply absorbing everything he could: "It was as if God knew Jacob was only going to be here for a short period of time, so He made him enjoy life to the fullest."
His brothers are taking his death hard — "Mycal especially," said his dad. "They were inseparable." And his mother knows his siblings need time to grieve in their own ways. As for her, she said, "the good Lord's strength and the love from family and friends" will see her through, as will memories of Jacob.
"He was very loving — I have kisses for a lifetime," she said. "I thank God I had Jacob for the amount of time I had him because he blessed me tremendously and taught me how to love unconditionally. I just know he was Godsent; he'll be deeply missed."
FAMILY FRIEND Katherine Knoble said Jacob touched many lives: "He had a kind spirit — you always felt good around him. He was also a comedian, and he knew about every rap song possible and tried to teach them to me."
Saturday noon, a hospital chaplain addressed Jacob's family, teammates and coaches at Mountain View field, telling the boys they could still talk to Jacob through their prayers. Then a football was thrown to where he would have caught it. Instead, it landed on the ground, untouched, and several players crossed the goal line together.
Grief counselors were at school Monday. Said Union Mill Principal Molly Kingma: "Jacob was a wonderful student who'll be missed by all of us."
Funeral services were Thursday morning at First Baptist Church in Manassas, with the Rev. Keith Savage officiating. Burial followed at Quantico Marine Corps Base (Marc Salter was an Air Force sergeant).
"We're going to play the rest of the season in Jacob's honor," said Coach Thompson. "And we'll wear his number, 28, on patches on our jerseys. This is what he'd want."