Tennessee State walk-on football player William Wayne Jones III collapsed Wednesday during a non-contact practice and later died, coach Rod Reed said.
Jones, 19, was a freshman defensive back who hadn't played in a game for the Tigers because he was being redshirted.
He had caught a football in the early stages of the practice, which began just after 4 p.m., and was returning the ball to defensive backs coach Ed Sanders when he fell to the grass.
"We didn't think it was anything serious, but the trainers checked on him right away," Reed said.
The trainers found Jones unconscious and without a pulse and immediately tried to revive him, Reed said.
An ambulance was called and Jones was transported to Baptist Hospital. He was pronounced dead at 5:50 p.m.
Reed said he knew of no pre-existing conditions that would indicate Jones' health was at risk.
The players were wearing helmets but not in full gear.
It was the first practice since TSU played at Murray State on Saturday. The last time Jones had been on the field was last Thursday because he did not dress for games. TSU does not play again until Nov. 17 at Tennessee-Martin.
"To see him go down and stay down was a hurtful site," said starting sophomore safety Daniel Fitzpatrick, who said he and Jones were close friends. "When a player goes down you never know. Sometimes they jump right back up and sometimes they don't. Either way it always gets your attention."
Athletics director Teresa Phillips said in a statement that Jones' death had left the university in a state of mourning.
"This is a very tragic day for our entire Tennessee State University community and we are devastated by the sudden passing of this young man," Phillips said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with his family during this very difficult time. Our university and our football team are hurting as we feel the loss of one of our own. As a team and a family we will grieve alongside the family and do everything we can to help support them through this very difficult time."
Reed said he had invited Jones to join the team after Jones graduated from Smyrna High School last spring.
Jones was a three-year starter at Smyrna who recorded 50 tackles and had an interception in his senior season. He also played basketball at the school.
"He was a great young man," said Smyrna football coach Matt Williams. "He was an unselfish kid who always did what was best for the team."
Reed said he did not have any scholarships left when he invited Jones, who was 5-11, 175 pounds, to join the Tigers, and Jones agreed to pay his own way as a walk-on.
"He was a real feisty little guy and the kind of kid you want on your football team," Reed said. "We never had any problems out of him. We were going to redshirt him because we thought he had some talent and could help us on down the road."
During a team meeting called at 7:30 p.m. at TSU's indoor facility the players and staff were informed that Jones had died.
The meeting lasted about 30 minutes and concluded with the players and coaches standing hand-in-hand in a large circle while being led in prayer by team chaplain Lee Brown.
"This affects not just our team but this entire school," said sophomore quarterback Mike German. "It really puts things into perspective. I mean nothing is guaranteed. You woke up this morning, you won't wake up again."
Plans are already being made to memorialize Jones' locker with a special name plate and the No. 47 he wore on his jersey, Reed said.
Smyrna basketball coach Lonny Drayton said he learned of Jones' death during "the middle of (Smyrna's) practice, which turned out to be the end of practice."
"We have a team of predominantly freshmen. But he knew them. He'd be there talking to them in the locker room.
"The running joke for us was that he was a champion at Mortal Kombat. He was the reason I went out and got the game. He played it in the locker room all the time. He would set it up with his PlayStation and he'd go out and always win it."
Drayton said Jones hit the game-winner in overtime this past season to help Smyrna beat rival La Vergne.
"That's a shot that he probably took 600 times that week," Drayton said. "He would work on his shot all the time."