TAMPA — The packed auditorium at Jefferson High School rocked on Wednesday morning. It was national signing day and all that went with it, kids and their letters of intent, ball caps from colleges, the next big step, dreams fulfilled.
Receiver Jermaine Eskridge was part of that, sitting near the end of a long table on the auditorium stage. There was a time when people assumed Eskridge, a wondrous talent, big and fast and strong, would be heading off to Florida, or Kentucky, or USF, or Ohio State. The sky was the limit.
Maybe it still is.
"It's not always a straight line," Jefferson coach Joe Midulla said.
Wednesday, Eskridge announced that he was signing with Iowa Western Community College, in Council Bluffs, Iowa, just across the Missouri River from Omaha, Neb. Eskridge has never been to Iowa.
"It's the next step," he said.
Eskridge flashed a million-dollar smile as his name was called and the auditorium erupted in cheers. He thanked his coaches and he thanked his moms.
Keshia Ravnell was in the auditorium. So was Danielle Earle, wife of former Jefferson coach Jeremy Earle.
Eskridge's journey has been filled with twists and turns, highs and lows. It began in a West Tampa neighborhood low on income and high on crime. Eskridge's story included injuries and controversies. And heartbreak. And humanity. And love. And two moms.
"He's part of our family," Danielle Earle said.
You see, Eskridge lived with the Earles at one point.
It broke the rules. The wrong thing for the right reason.
"I think we'd do it again," Jeremy Earle said.
"We feel very blessed today," Ravnell said. She had dialysis later in the day. The 42-year-old goes three times a week in the name of her failing kidneys.
Eskridge only played a single season of high school football at Jefferson. Not much film. He'd like to play for Urban Meyer at Ohio State if he can get his grades up at Iowa Western. He is 6 feet, 3 inches tall and weighs 200 pounds, and when he shakes hands, the oversized mitts that are perfect for hauling in footballs swallow other hands whole.
But it's his story that overwhelms you.
Eskridge received a college offer from Kentucky when he was 15. He was soon caught in the middle of a residency dispute after he received an exemption so he could attend school in Jefferson's district, where his mother, who works full time processing health insurance claims, was undergoing dialysis.
Eskridge missed most of his entire sophomore season while the Florida High School Athletic Association investigated.
Eskridge was cleared, and he played at Jefferson as a junior, and was a star, with 39 catches and six touchdowns before breaking his arm in the playoffs.
Earle saw the talent. Eskridge was one of the top-rated receivers in the nation.
"He was getting offers from everyone in America," Earle said.
But in January of his junior year, Earle noticed the change. Eskridge's grades, never great, were slipping. He was getting in fights at school, arguing with teachers.
Earle didn't have to dig very deep. The Eskridge family had been evicted from its apartment in West Tampa. Eskridge was homeless. Eskridge's father wasn't in his life. That was nothing new. But in 2016, Eskridge lost a cousin, Freddy Benson, to the streets, shot dead in an apartment complex stairwell.
"I think about him every day," Eskridge said.
"You could see the cycle," Earle said. "We were going to lose this kid to that cycle, to that life."
The Earles stepped in. Maybe they shouldn't have. Their heads didn't tell them what to do. Their hearts did. It was the wrong thing, but for all the right reasons
"Looking back, being teachers, it was pretty naïve," said Danielle Earle, who teaches special education at Lutz Elementary School. "But I'm not sure that would have stopped us."
"Here was a kid who had a chance to get out of the mess, get a college education and stop the whole cycle," said Jeremy Earle, who played quarterback at Hillsborough High and USF. "I've got to do what I can. I talked with Danielle and we decided to open our home up. All I saw was a kid with a chance, a shot."
And so Eskridge came to live with the Earles from May 2017 until just before the start of his senior season. He was given his own bedroom. He'd never had his own room in his life. A lot of nights, he'd slept on the floor of wherever he lived. At the Earles' Lutz home, he plastered his walls with letters and offers from colleges, his dreamscape.
His grades improved. He stopped skipping classes. His behavior improved. His life improved.
He had chores at the house. "He was a very good at vacuuming," said Danielle Earle. The Earles' young sons, Jaden and Julian, would hang on Eskridge as if he was a jungle gym. They love him.
"Jaden and Julian and Jermaine — it fit nicely, the J Boys," Danielle Earle said. "Jermaine was a member of the family. He was a manchild. A smile to light up the world."
But when word slipped out, it fell under the heading of a violation to the high school athletic association, whose rules don't permit a student-athlete to live with a staff member. The Earles appealed, but Jeremy Earle was suspended for three games and hit with a $5,000 fine.
"The rule is the rule, black and white," he said. "But I'd do it again. It was the human thing to do."
Eskridge was suspended from athletics for a year, wiping out his season senior, though it had already been lost to another broken arm — the same arm — in a preseason game.
Some colleges steered clear of him. His grades, his injuries, all the other troubles, that cycle. But schools still see four-star talent. Former Tampa Bay Bucs coach Greg Schiano recruited Eskridge for Ohio State. Eskridge dreams of Buckeye Saturdays. Maybe one day.
Donnie Woods recruited Eskridge to Iowa Western, one of the top juco programs in the nation, having won a national title in 2012. Woods, a former Jefferson player, is Iowa Western's offensive coordinator and offensive line coach. He says Eskridge still has a chance for play for a four-year school.
"We see Jermaine as being one of the top junior college receivers in the country," Woods said. "He's going to have a stage. We think he'll explode on the scene."
Jeremy Earle resigned as Jefferson coach after last season. He insists it had nothing to do with what happened with Eskridge. Earle left his position as driver's education teacher at the school last week to begin a job in sports equipment sales. He was in training for his new job Wednesday and couldn't be in the auditorium. But his heart was there. It was always was for Eskridge.
"He is going to make it," Jeremy Earle said. "If he can just get out of Tampa."
"A college education, paid for, that's the win," Danielle Earle said.
"I still got dreams," Eskridge said.
Signing completed, he waded into the crowd to find his moms, hugging both.
It's not always a straight line.