Atlantic’s top jumper, David Long, never played sports before his oldest brother’s death in 2007. Now, it’s his main motivation.
Before every jump, Atlantic’s David Long clears his mind. He sits behind the pit, waiting for his name to be called by the announcers. When his time comes, he shakes the nerves away. Long’s mother, Melissa Williams, sits in the stands. Friends and other family members are there sometimes, too.
Except for one.
Just before Long bursts out of his stance toward the high jump bar, he gazes up at the sky.
He’s looking for his brother, Avery Atkins.
“I wonder if he’s watching,” Long said. “I wonder if he’d be proud of me, of what I’m doing.”
Atkins was a football star at Mainland High School where he was an All-State cornerback and running back. He went on to become the highest-rated recruit in former-University of Florida football coach Urban Meyer’s first recruiting class at UF in 2005. Atkins started three games for the Gators as a freshman. He transferred to Bethune-Cookman before the start of the 2006 season, where he played three games before leaving the team.
On July 5, 2007, Atkins was found dead in his car in the garage of his home in Port Orange. Atkins reportedly died as a result of ecstasy intoxication.
He was 20 years old.
Long, who was 7 years old at the time, got the news from his father.
“I asked if we could go to the hospital to see him,” Long said. “They said, ‘No, he’s gone.’ I felt like the world was crashing down.”
Atkins was the eldest of five. Long, the youngest, always looked up to him. Long still remembers sitting in front of the television on Saturdays to watch his brother speed across the field at the Swamp in Gainesville.
“He was an amazing athlete,” Long said. “He was everything I wanted to be. I remember thinking that I wanted to be like that one day.”
For all his brother’s athletic talent, Long didn’t play a sport at the time. But Atkins’ death changed all that. Long needed an escape.
He joined a Pop Warner football team, the Daytona Beach Buccaneers, within the year. He excelled quickly, starring as a defensive end, wide receiver, kicker and punter. Similar to Atkins, Long was a gifted athlete.
“I wonder if he’s watching. I wonder if he’d be proud of me, of what I’m doing.”
Leading up to high school, Long dabbled in football, basketball and baseball. Entering his freshman year at Atlantic, he settled on track, his best sport.
Long, now a senior at Atlantic, competes in the high jump, long jump, triple jump and is an alternate for the 4x400-meter relay. His specialty, however, is the high jump. After winning the Five Star Conference Championship and the District Championship in his junior year, Long placed third in the event in the state meet.
This year, he’s going for gold.
“I’m going for the state championship this time around,” Long said. “I’ve been putting in the work. I’m ready for it.”
Long used to shut down when forced to think about his brother. At home, he’d lock himself in his room. At school, he’d run to the bathroom to let out the tears.
The tears are dried up now. And although there’s still pain, Long smiles when he thinks about his sibling. He gushes when he talks about him. And nearly 10 years after his death, Atkins continues to be Long’s motivation. He always will be.
“I just keep going out and doing it for him,” he said. “I run with something in my heart. It’s him.”
Long also has two tattoos on his right arm — something to keep Atkins close. The first: his brother’s name in clouds atop his old No. 6 high school jersey. The second tattoo is an inscription.
Long gently rubs it as he walks off the track at Atlantic High School following a long practice.
“It says: Don’t expect everyone to understand your journey,” Long said. “Especially if they’ve never walked your path.”