This story originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of Gator Country Magazine. VIP subscribers to GatorCountry.com receive the magazine in the mail every month, and copies are available throughout Gainesville.
Of the 47 players on the Pinellas Park varsity football team, Jeremi Powell stands out.
At the Patriots’ practice, he never slows down. He chases every ball. He follows through on every play. He is always talking to his teammates, encouraging them and giving pointers on how to improve.
His love for the game is obvious as he brings an extra fire that lights up the field.
It’s clear to anyone watching — this is a special player.
When practice ends, Powell and a few of his teammates do back flips down the field.
Powell isn’t the most outspoken, but he seems to be the most respected. He possesses stillness and maturity beyond his 19 years.
He’ll tell you it’s because he had to grow up a lot faster than most of his teammates.
“I’ve grown up my entire life without my dad,” he said. “I never met him in my entire life. It’s just me and my mom, my two brothers, and my sister. I have a job. My mom has a job, and I just got my sister a job, so we’re all supporting each other.”
The second of four kids, Powell works part time in the kitchen of a nursing home so he can help contribute to his family. When he steps onto the football field, all the stresses of life just melt.
“It’s my time to get away,” he said. “I hate leaving. I hate walking off that field. I just hate it because I know after this, I’m going to have to go deal with everything.
“When you play football, you don’t have to worry about anything. I have so much going on in life. When I get to play football, it’s just me (and) my family that’s on the field, and we just get to do something that we all love.”
The 6-foot-2, 200-pound linebacker from Largo was the second commit of Florida’s 2012 class. For many scholarship athletes, being able to play football at a university is a dream come true.
For Powell, it’s a much bigger accomplishment – He’ll be the first in his family to even go to college.
“It means so much because when I talk to my mom, she tells me all the stories about how she wants us to do better than she did,” Powell said.
Powell’s mom, Kevra Grimmage, didn’t finish high school.
“It’s so sad,” he said. “I feel so bad for my mom, but I can’t feel bad for her because I’m making her proud. You should see how proud my mom is that I’m going to Florida and I’m finishing high school.”
It was Powell’s mom who got him started playing football in the first place. It helped keep him out of trouble and give him an outlet for all his anger.
“My mom finally decided to put me in football,” he said. “It’s the best thing when you get to hit someone without getting in trouble.”
Football was one of the few things in Powell’s life that actually remained constant. Grimmage struggled to make ends meet as a single mom with four kids.
“I moved around like 50 times, I went to like 50 elementary schools when I was in third or fourth grade,” Powell said. “We were by ourselves. There was a time in our lives when me and my mom and my family didn’t have a place to go. I was homeless.
“My mom is so strong. I don’t know how she did it, because I remember walking along the streets with a briefcase, just rolling it.”
Powell and his family would try and stay with other family around Florida, but that often didn’t work out. Things started to stabilize for them after meeting a man at a church who really helped them out.
Powell doesn’t flaunt his past, but he knows it’s a huge part of who he is.
“I don’t talk about it,” he said. “I don’t mind people knowing, because look where I am now.”
It’s all the struggles Powell has faced in his life that give him an extra drive when it comes to football. He knows he needs to stay busy to stay out of trouble. When football season ends, he plays basketball and runs track, but he doesn’t like them as much because he doesn’t get to hit people. Football is the release he needs.
“I’m angry inside,” he said. “I really am. I don’t really talk about it too much, but, I’m hurting. I’m always hurting because I have so much stuff going on. I feel very grateful that God blessed me with this – to play football at Florida.
“Just to get my mind off things and try and make it,” he said. “I just want to take care of my family. That’s what fuels me.”
Even with all he has going on in his life, he never takes a second off. He’s always focused on the game, even if it’s just running through plays in his mind.
He spends the week counting down the moments until Friday night, when he gets to face his next opponent under the lights.
“I’m always thinking of how I’m going to beat this person,” he said. “I strategize. I watch film. When I see that person in front of me and watch what he’s doing wrong, I’m going to take advantage of it.
“I don’t stop. I hate stopping. When I stop and I miss a tackle, I’m so mad at myself. If I’m not yelling, I’m beating myself up in my head. I’m going to forget about it, and I’m going to do it right the next time.”
Every loss is excruciating for Powell, especially when his teammates don’t take it as seriously as he does.
“I know they love it, but they don’t love it the way I love it,” he said.
He carries that attitude into his role as team captain.
“I’ve been the captain, but I was just sitting back and lying low, letting the team be free because what’s football if it ain’t fun? But now I’m taking over. I told them I’m taking over. There’s no I in team, but I’m trying to be there, and I need to step up. I’m stepping up.”
The opportunities for Powell at Florida seem endless. He can get a quality education and be in a great football program with the chance to go pro. His eyes light up when he talks about his future, but his excitement has little to do with fame or popularity.
“I want to do this,” he said. “I want to do this for my mom so she can smile. She’ll have something to be happy about because she’s been through so much, and she deserves so much. I’m doing this because I love it and I’m doing it because I want to give my mom nice things.”
He paused for a moment, and continued confidently.
“I’m doing this, no matter what.”
Powell still has some time before he gets started at the Gator Nation. He knows his unique past has dramatically shaped the player and the person that he is, and he’s thrilled to add that fire to Florida.
“I’m going bring some heart,” he said. “I bring a lot of heart. I love what I do. You have no idea. No idea. I’m so blessed to be here right now.”