After the assault, he would stand in front of a mirror training himself to dial back his smile, to hide his shattered front teeth behind his upper lip.
Jacquez Worthy recounts this story in the same engaging way he tells all of his stories, so you might find yourself smiling or even laughing right up until the moment you realize the story is much deeper, when he reaches the heart of the matter.
Standing before the mirror, he said, he was altering not only his smile. He was shrinking, transforming into someone he wasn’t. Someone lesser than.
And if you speak to him for even five minutes, you know that such an endeavor was unnatural. Jacquez, at 22 years old, is not meant to hold back.
Jacquez is greater than.
“Call me Jackie. Like Jackie Robinson.”
The members of Team Jackie in Grove City know as well as anyone that he should not diminish himself. Together, they have teamed up to help Jackie shine again, at full Jackie strength.
“Jackie is so, he’s so electric, that’s what kind of got all our attention,” said Mark Sigrist. “He emotes a cheerfulness, an attitude, a kindness.”
How well do you know the sanitation workers who collect your trash? Probably not that well.
Jackie was one of those workers.
He moved to Columbus on his own about five years ago, while still a teenager, leaving behind what he described as a less-than-ideal family life in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He had a good relationship with an aunt here in Columbus, so he came north to begin his adult life.
One night last year, he and his girlfriend were enjoying a night out. Outside a bar, three drunk guys started to harass her.
“They walk up on her, disrespecting her,” Jackie said. “Me being her boyfriend, I can’t let that happen.”
He tried reason, asking that they be left alone.
“I was just trying to keep the peace,” he said.
The three weren’t interested in being reasonable. One punched him in the face hard enough to break his front teeth.
“They didn’t really break my spirit per se,” Jackie said, laughing. “They just broke my mouth.”
That statement is not quite true. Jackie noticed himself hiding, stopping short of his usual wide grin, throttling down his 12-cylinder personality.
“I didn’t take advantage of the insurance at my job, and I wish I would have,” he said. “A week from the day I turned it down, I got my teeth knocked out.”
So he was stuck with the shattered teeth, and the looks he received whenever he smiled.
“I wouldn’t smile as much,” he said. “I wouldn’t tell as many jokes.”
In Grove City, the missing teeth were not what got him noticed.
Sigrist noticed Jackie this summer, how cheerfully he went about his work when the trash truck swung into his cul-de-sac.
Jill Hutchison noticed him in the spring, on a gray and drizzly day, as she sat in her car in her Grove City driveway. She had been feeling down that day, as so many of us have been at times during this especially trying year.
“I was crying in my car,” she said. “I’m trying to look as inconspicuous as I can.”
Up rolled Jackie.
“He just smiles his big grin and just waved,” she said. “I thought, if this kid is out there in this weather, smiling, I need to suck it up. Just something about him really touched me.”
Jackie remembers the encounter.
“I didn’t really know exactly what was going on with her,” he said. “I’ve always had this gift of just being able to read a person by their face.” On Hutchison’s face that day, he saw weariness.
“I wanted to make her feel better about whatever was going on in her life,” he said. “A smile, dude, can change everything. Everything.”
From then on, he said, “every Thursday I made sure I brought her can up.”
Starting soon after, Hutchison and her kids would chase Jackie’s truck through the neighborhood, bringing him and his partner gift cards, McDonald’s for lunch, even goodie bags for Halloween.
Denise Johns lives in Grove City, too, although her house was not on Jackie’s route. She had a random encounter with him one morning in August, while driving her 15-year-old son to cross-country. It was early, an hour not often witnessed by 15-year-olds in August, and so her son wasn’t in the best of moods.
Near Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park, they slowed to a stop behind a garbage truck, waiting for it to move again. Jackie was on board.
“He jumped off the back of the truck and immediately started dancing,” Johns said. “I think he may have done the moonwalk across the street.”
He ended his dance with a flourish and a wave, letting Johns know it was safe to pass them and be on their way.
“By then, I’m laughing and my son who didn’t want to be in the car is laughing,” she said. “He made our day.”
She posted about the encounter on Facebook, and the post drew lots of attention. Among those who saw it was Sigrist, who read it and thought, “That sounds like Jackie.”
Sigrist’s teeth had been knocked out as a child, and after a few conversations he had asked Jackie what had happened. He offered to consult with his friend, a dentist, who saw Jackie in October and agreed to do the needed dental work at a discount.
The damage was considerable, so they still needed $9,000. They turned to GoFundMe.
“When I saw the GoFundMe set up for him, I actually cried,” Hutchison said. “I had not realized that he had touched others in the neighborhood the way that he had touched me.
“He just has this exuberance in him, ” she said. “He has something that, if it’s channeled in the right way, he’s going to go big places.”
“He’s just a light,” Johns said.
Another friend of Sigrist’s, Grove City photographer Jeffrey Tadlock, volunteered to assemble a video of Jackie’s story to post on GoFundMe. The fundraiser has spread on social media; as of Sunday evening they’d raised $3,700.
The first phase of the dental work, which will be done in stages over the course of eight months to a year, is scheduled for next week.
“Total strangers,” Jackie marveled, “just coming together to help Jackie get back on track. I’m humbly thankful for everything that transpired.”
“At 22, I got a lot of learning to do, and I’ve got a lot of things in my life that I need to improve, he said. “I’m coachable. I really want a mentor, is what it is.”
He returned to the night of the assault.
“Hopefully, I run into those guys again, and I smile, and I thank them,” he said. “That’s the thing I focus on, not holding a grudge.”
But thank them? Why?
“Because I went from there to here, and I’m really humbled by it,” he said.
He could tell those young men that just as little acts of meanness have lasting implications, so do little acts of kindness. They compound, growing wider and brighter, just like the imminent return of Jackie’s true smile.