Harper has been Yellowjacket mainstay for six years

Jaylon Harper with his parents Toni and Royce Kennedy are recognized at last week’s senior night in Mineola.
Jaylon Harper with his parents Toni and Royce Kennedy are recognized at last week’s senior night in Mineola.
(Monitor photo by John Arbter)

A man is defined by the company he keeps. Ask Mineola student-coach Jaylon Harper about any aspect of his life, and he will patiently list the individuals, by name, who have made a positive impact on him. It is a novel way to speak about one’s life, and it is brilliant in its truthfulness.

For six years Harper has helped guide Yellowjacket teams through the challenges of competition. Although much coaching work may seem mundane – being a timer in track season or leading warm-ups in football – his impact on Mineola athletics has been deep-seated and lasting. 

When asked about his student-coach, Mineola Athletic Director Luke Blackwell commented:  “Jaylon is unbelievably gifted by God and the Holy Spirit.” There must be something to back up such a bold statement, and there is. Blackwell summarized, “He has an extreme love of being around the teams, and we all benefit from his positivity. Most importantly, he has a good heart.”

Coach Ryan Steadman explained how Harper is an integral part of the Yellowjacket basketball family.

“He leads all our pre-game prayers,” Steadman remarked, “and he is ready to do whatever we need at any moment.” 

It is not surprising that prayer is central to Harper’s life. Blackwell described his abilities as a gift. Harper is quick to identify his family, both immediate and extended, and his church in the formation of his prayer life. He prays daily and initially learned how to pray through the recitation of the Our Father. 

After a brief stint as a junior high athlete, Harper found himself transitioning from the track to the coaching ranks. Finishing up his daily routine at the Wood County Cooperative in the late morning allowed Harper to arrive in Mineola just as the athletic periods were starting. It was a natural transition. 

As his time among the coaches grew, he became known in greater coaching circles. Harper can quickly name the coaches not just on the Mineola staff but among the neighboring schools. He will also explain when and where he met each individual coach. 

Just as many autistic people, Harper has unique and special talents. His mother, Toni Kennedy, was quick to point out three. 

“His love of prayer, his love of music, and his love of helping others,” she responded when asked what makes her son so special. 

His musical talent is a lesser known aspect of Harper’s life. Kennedy remarked that Harper had been playing the drums since he was 2-years old. He continues to play, now at the St. Louis Baptist Church of Tyler. Harper is especially fond of the hymn “How Much Do I Owe?” as performed by the St. Louis choir. The power of that hymn speaks much about who Jaylon Harper is. 

Donya Moony, the instructional facilitator at the Wood County Cooperative, offered some additional insights.

“He is an innate leader,” she said, “well-respected, well-mannered and a role model among our 60 students.”

Moony explained Harper is the first student of the cooperative who has used athletics to such a degree, and she expects to see him pacing on the sidelines somewhere in the future. She noted that he is pursuing the coaching field through the Texas Workforce Commission.  

Harper is quick to acknowledge the many friends he has made through the cooperative in Quitman. “They are my Quitman friends,” he stated. 

According to Moony, parents Toni and Royce Kennedy continue to be very involved in his life.

That influence combined with the continuing church affiliation led Moony to remark, “Jaylon has given all of us much more than we have ever given him.”

One would never know that from speaking with Harper. During any lull in conversation, he would begin thanking a new group of people.

In addition to the whole coaching staff at Mineola schools, he also wanted to thank art teacher Kari Callison and drama teacher Terri Dievendorf.

Jaylon’s mother also was thankful for the others in her son’s life. The Wood County Cooperative staff has helped Jaylon to become a better person, said Kennedy.  She also shared that the Mineola coaching staff, particularly at the middle school, unlocked Jaylon’s ability to communicate.

As anyone who has attended a Mineola varsity basketball game has likely seen in person, Harper has become known for his half-court shot attempts taken at half time of the games.

What is particularly noteworthy is how he urges both the home side and visiting fans to join in the cheering and clapping. It is uniquely Harper. 

The small act often defuses a gym which might be harboring some negative vibe between the fan bases. 

Even this simple act however has a special connotation to Harper.

As he explained, “My hope is that whatever I do, I do my best job, on behalf of my mother, my father, my uncles, my cousins and all my friends.”