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CLEARWATER — They gathered Wednesday night at Pete & Shorty’s in Clearwater, dined on sliders, devoured a cake.
There were hugs, kisses, tears, flashbulbs.
They laughed. A lot.
They came to celebrate a kid signing his scholarship papers to play college football.
But really, they were there to celebrate a journey.
When Jeremiah George, the Clearwater High linebacker who signed with Iowa State on Wednesday, was 4 years old, his daddy told him he was never going to make it. He was beating up kids for his friends, and that was going to get him nowhere.
To teach him a lesson, Ike George Sr. popped Jeremiah in the chest. “You want to fight, fight me,” he told him.
Jeremiah popped him back.
And so it began, this thing between father and son.
“I’m a tough love guy,” Ike said. It’s how he was raised. It’s how Jeremiah was going to be raised.
They had football, father and son. Dad played at Dunedin in the late 1980s, and Jeremiah was going to tear up the youth leagues with his speed and power.
They would always have football.
It wasn’t going to be enough.
Somewhere, he would need a soft touch, the kind only a mother can provide. But his was off fighting her own personal demons.
• • •
Shannon Sebek is a 37-year-old nurse at Morton Plant, but mostly she’d rather you know she is Jeremiah George’s best friend.
Biologically, there is no relation. Spiritually, their bond is unbreakable.
“She is my mother,” Jeremiah says, emphatically. “And she is my best friend.”
Jeremiah’s biological mother faded from the picture years ago. He hasn’t talked to her in four years.
Jeremiah was 4 when Sebek started dating his father.
She remembers him as a sweet, quiet boy. She wondered if he would ever talk.
Soon, though, they were attached, hanging out, dancing to Backstreet Boys videos and going to see movies together.
Ike and Sebek had a child, Ike Jr., but split up when Jeremiah was 9. Jeremiah went and lived with his dad. But when he was 12, his dad sent him back to Sebek.
“The best thing that ever happened to Jeremiah was going to live with Shannon,” Ike Sr. said. He and his son were butting heads, their competitive natures getting the best of each other.
His son needed his best friend, and Ike knew it.
• • •
No one has championed Jeremiah George more than Sebek, who has never missed one of his football games.
She has guided him through tough times, stayed on him when he struggled in school, and pushed him all the way to Ames, Iowa.
“She has been my comfort, my band-aid,” Jeremiah said. “She is wonderful.”
He has a 2.6 grade point average and a qualifying ACT score, but he is taking the test again Saturday.
“She wants me to be overqualified,” he said.
He says she is his soft pillow, and his dad is his hard pillow.
Either way, he knows he always has a place to lay his head.
“I have the best of both worlds,” he said.
• • •
Wednesday morning, Sebek had a dream that she was mad at Jeremiah, because he was packing to get on a plane for Ames and insisted on taking a shoebox of recruiting letters with him.
“I was telling him he didn’t need to take the letters, to leave them home,” she said.
When she woke up, she was crying.
“It was so sad,” she said. “Weird timing.”
Ike is proud to admit he was wrong about his son. He is going somewhere.
Beneath Ike’s tough exterior is a proud father who loves his son dearly. He told him so Wednesday, said it into a microphone loud enough for all 100 people there to hear it. He doesn’t say that often, and this time, his eyes watered, and they never do that.
“He almost cracked there; I mean, that was huge” Jeremiah said, proudly, then he tapped his chest.
“I felt him being proud of me.”
It was like he had finally reached the end of one journey, before he soon sets out on another one.
It was worth celebrating.
John C. Cotey can be reached at email@example.com