The memory of TJ honored through cross country season

‘Star athlete’ at South-Doyle committed suicide

By Steve Williams

Thomas Polen, an exceptionally bright student and versatile runner in his senior year at South-Doyle High School, shockingly committed suicide on Aug. 24, said his father at the cross country regionals on Oct. 25, a year after his son won the meet’s Class A-AA championship at Victor Ashe Park.

Polen, who was 18, attended South-Doyle only one year, moving to Knoxville with his family from Illinois.

Called “TJ” (Thomas James) by many student-athletes at South-Doyle and other schools in the area, his memory has been honored throughout the cross country season this fall.

Karns had a plaque with Thomas’ picture and track shoes hanging in its team tent at the region meet, while “our kids wore (TJ) ribbons and sweatbands,” said S-D Coach Don Madgett.

Jeff Polen, Thomas’ father, took time to talk about his son at the recent region meet.

“I wish we would have saw signs,” began Jeff. “I wish we would have known that he was hurting or he didn’t want to go to college or whatever the case was. My son got a 34 on his ACT. He had hundreds of scholarships. He was one of the smartest, sweetest boys. He won this regional last year. It hurt that he didn’t want to run in (college).

“But finding my son dead was probably the hardest day I ever had in my life,” with his voice agonizing as he recalled that moment.

Polen had received two academic scholarships from the University of Tennessee, which together equaled a “free ride,” said his father.

The tragedy happened on the opening day of the 2023-24 school year at UT. Thomas had left home to go to his first of two classes, but when the teacher didn’t show up for the first class, he came back home, recalled his father.

“I was not home,” said Jeff. “My wife (Cherie) was at work. His sister (Abbey) was at school. He was the only one there and I found him dead behind my pick-up truck. He had shot himself in the head.

“No note, no message, no sadness, not a word to anyone, not a friend, not a family member, not a teammate, no one, so we have no clue.

“The pain is immense. It comes in waves. Either I’m ecstatic thinking about him and I love him to death or I’m crippled sad and on my knees crying. He was my world. I never missed a practice he ever had in his life. I never missed a meet. I never missed a baseball game.”

South-Doyle Athletic Director Daryl Chandler said: “He was a star athlete. And our students and athletes, they were broken. They held their own memorial service on the track (at S-D) after school hours a week after his death. The members of the track team and cross country team and their extended family and friends were there. They had a big turnout. Like I said, he was a model student, an outstanding student and outstanding athlete. It just left us all broken.

“It’s just something that you just don’t want to ever happen again.”

Thomas’ father has been trying to support the South-Doyle team the best he can and keep his son’s memory alive.

“I’m starting the Thomas James Polen Foundation,” said Jeff. “There will be cross country scholarships ($500 each) given to a boy and girl at South-Doyle and I’m doing the Best of the Best scholarships for (the area’s) boys and girls in track and field.

“I pray everybody watches their kids and talks to them. I missed something. Just ask your kids if they’re okay. Be there for them.”

In addition to becoming South-Doyle’s first region champion in cross country in over 30 years, Polen and his teammates set school records as they placed third in the 4×800 and fourth in the 4×400 at the TSSAA state track meet last spring at MTSU.

Thomas also set an individual school record in the open 800.

“He couldn’t touch (Catholic standout) Keegan Smith on a cross country field, but he loved beating him in the 800,” his dad chuckled.

“He was a great kid and a wonderful teammate,” said Chandler. “I can’t say enough good things about him. I traveled with them to the state track meet and spent a day or two with them in the hotel. They were wonderfully behaved young men.”

Chandler said suicide among young people is “a national problem. Mental health needs to be addressed. I think our schools are doing a better job each year with trying to identify students, and in society its people at risk. We’ve got to do a better job.”

Chandler also mentioned the effects of the pandemic. “Kids are just now getting back to normal. They were home a year and a half. It was hard on young people and they are just now getting back to way things were before.”

Karns’ Rowen Moser-Bryan, also a cross country runner, and Thomas were good friends and Thomas also respected Cade Crum, a Bearden runner, said TJ’s dad. In fact, Jeff had come early to this year’s region meet to watch Rowen run.

“It says a whole lot about the man (Jeff) to be out here supporting TJ’s teammates,” said Chandler. “That says a ton right there.”

“Rowen has run numerous races with ‘Run for TJ’ written on his arms or his back or shoulders, because TJ meant something to him,” said Jeff. “They’re doing it here (at the region) with memorial-type messages.”

Like many others, Chandler and Coach Madgett are still saddened by Thomas’ death.

“I would just say it was a shock and a huge loss,” said Madgett, who in addition to being South-Doyle’s longtime cross country and track coach is the school’s 12th Grade Dean and Science Department Chair. “Besides his running ability, I had him in Physics class and Astronomy class. He was such a good student. He took the Advanced Placement courses and scored well on the tests.

“I just can’t say he was mild-mannered. I can’t say enough good things about him. It’s a loss for our community and our world that we don’t have him in it now.”