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When Paige Pettell met Justin Hornback in sixth grade, he described himself as a “big ol’ country boy,” she said.
“It was the first thing he said to me,” she said, recalling how the two became best friends.
Many who gathered Tuesday to say their final goodbyes to Hornback, who died Friday at Kosair Children’s Hospital after a battle with leukemia, said he was a country boy with a kind and generous spirit.
On days when Justin was hospitalized at Kosair Children’s Hospital, he would go visit younger children to cheer them up, Justin’s father, Henry Hornback, said.
“He would let the little ones at the hospital draw on his head,” he said. “He would always bring the fun to everybody.”
Friend Zach Dowell, who grew up with Justin, said his sense of humor was one of his best qualities.
“He had a great sense of humor,” he said. “If he were here, he would tell (everyone) good stories. He didn’t like to see people sad.”
Justin, 16, a junior, also was a member of the North Hardin High School football team before his illness sidelined him last season. But even though he was unable to return to competition, head coach Brent Thompson said Justin was “always part of the team.”
“Justin’s a big ol’ country boy and has one of the biggest hearts I’ve ever been around as a coach,” Thompson said. “He’s always giving and wanted to help make other players better.”
Thompson, along with the rest of the Trojan football team, came to the funeral home Tuesday to pay their respects.
"I just know this was something these juniors needed,” Thompson said. “I think they needed to see him to get closure to it.”
Teammate A.J. Hampton Jr. played alongside Justin and said Justin was a player that dedicated himself to being better, even though it may not have started out that way.
“He was always that guy that made us do sprints,” Hampton said of their freshmen year. “But then he asked me, ‘How do I get better?’ He always wanted to find a way to get better. He was always determined and willing to work.”
Hampton also remembered hearing Justin’s “baritone” voice bellowing words of encouragement for his teammates from the sidelines.
“I admired his ability to always encourage people, even when he wasn’t feeling well,” Hampton said. “When I got a concussion, he helped me off the field.”
Red and black were the colors of the day – Justin was an avid fan of the University of Louisville – as mourners filed in with balloons of the colors in tow, a request made by Justin. He also requested a mix of country and rock music to be played and that visitors dress casually. Many honored Justin by wearing red and black or Trojan blue.
“I guarantee he’s seeing all this and loving every bit of it,” Henry said.
Justin was able to attend a Louisville football game in September at the request of then-head coach Charlie Strong, who visited Justin several times in the hospital, Henry said. Justin’s mother, Rhiannon Hornback, said the former U of L coach called to offer condolences following Justin’s death.
“He was crying on the phone,” she said.
Apart from his love of the Cardinals and football, Justin also loved restoring cars, said Oscar Green, his grandfather.
Justin’s latest project was a ’79 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, which his mother, father, Zach and Paige rode in for the funeral procession.
“It just didn’t get finished,” Henry said. “He wanted it Cardinal red with some ghost racing stripes. He loved that car.”
His father said he plans to finish the car, which once belonged to his mother and was passed down to Justin from his brothers, as a tribute to his son.
“He was a good-hearted boy and will be missed by many,” Henry said. “I wasn’t ready to give him up, but at least he’s not hurting anymore.”
Gina Clear can be reached
at 270-505-1746 or gclear@ thenewsenterprise.com.