Dec. 18, 2015
By Simit Shah
“Jesse Tarplin loved everyone, and everyone loved him. He was a special person, the kind you don’t come across very often in life.”
Lance Thompson wasn’t alone in struggling to believe the stunning news: Tarplin, an 11-year veteran of MARTA’s police force, died in a traffic accident last weekend while escorting a funeral procession in southwest Atlanta.
Tarplin starred on the gridiron in his hometown, first at Cross Keys High School and then at Georgia Tech. He was one of the top prep linebackers in the nation, named all-state twice. When George O’Leary and his staff came calling, he jumped at the opportunity to play collegiately close to his family.
When he arrived on The Flats, a broken thumb threatened to derail his freshman season. The coaching staff pegged him for a redshirt, but they couldn’t keep him off the field.
“He had this tenacity about him,” teammate and close friend Donte Booker remembered. “No matter what, he was hustling. He never took a play off, his motor was running from the time he was a freshman until he graduated.”
Tarplin soon outgrew his position and moved to defensive end, working under the tutelage of Thompson for three seasons. He led the team in sacks as a junior and capped his career with a stellar senior year in 1998.
He was a human wrecking ball for the ACC co-champions, recording three sacks against 23rd-ranked N.C. State and a career-high 12 tackles against Clemson. He finished the season with nine sacks, earning All-ACC honors.
“From a coach’s perspective, he was always on time and had the right attitude,” said Thompson, currently interim defensive coordinator at Auburn. “He was ready to work. He was a smart guy. The team and his teammates were important to him. “
Fittingly, it was Tarplin who secured the game-clinching fumble recovery against Notre Dame in the 1999 Gator Bowl.
“When there was a big play to be made, he was there,” noted Booker. “If it was third-and-long, we could count on Jesse to make the tackle or get that pressure on the quarterback.”
Fellow defensive end Nate Stimson tweeted a picture last weekend of the entire unit and Thompson with the bowl trophy following the 35-28 victory.
“That picture in the locker room after we beat them in the Gator Bowl – that was an awesome group,” Thompson remembered. “Notre Dame had four or five guys go to the league that year, but we just beat them up and down that day. We had a lot of heart and pride, and Jesse was right there in the middle of it.”
His ferocity on the field was counterbalanced by his generosity off the field.
Tarplin, Booker and Joe Hamilton were roommates during most of their time at Georgia Tech and formed a strong bond as the football program grew to national prominence during their careers.
“He was a gentle spirit,” said Booker. “He was tenacious on the football field but off it he was a joy to be around. Jesse never met a stranger. He’d bend over backwards to help anybody. He brought happiness to everyone he met.”
“Jesse was a big guy trained to hit people hard, but he was a true gentle giant,” added Hamilton. “He cared about everyone around him, and we were all family to him.”
Booker, a Pittsburgh native, said that he clicked with Tarplin from the moment they met on a recruiting visit, and Tarplin’s family quickly became his own throughout their time at Tech.
The two shared an interest in criminal justice as a career goal.
“That was always Plan B for us,” he said. “Once football was over, we knew we’d end up in some sort of law enforcement. That was his passion, and we talked about it constantly.”
Booker became an officer with the Atlanta Police Department 12 years ago, and Tarplin joined MARTA’s police force shortly afterwards. Their jobs intersected from time to time, and their friendship remained strong.
“I was there for the birth of all of his children, and I’m the godfather for his second son, Javious,” said Booker. “I never had a brother, so he’s closest thing for me. I can’t describe how close we were.”
As the tragic news spread last weekend, it was tough on his teammates. Tarplin’s wife, Dominique, is expecting the couple’s sixth child.
“Something like this hits you hard,” explained Hamilton. “He was such a good man – a great father who cared deeply about serving his community. We’ve talked and cried a lot these past few days. We have to be strong for his family, and they have to know we’ll always be there for them.”
The viewing will be Friday from 9 a.m.- 9 p.m. at Willie A. Watkins Funeral Home (1003 Ralph David Abernathy 30310) and the wake will be from 6 p.m.- 7 p.m. at the same location.
Funeral services will be held Saturday at Jackson Memorial Baptist Church (534 Fairburn Rd. NW Atlanta, Ga 30331) at 2 p.m.
Donations to the Tarplin family can be made here: www.gofundme.com/jessetarplin