TAMPA — Minutes before he plays Armwood in Friday’s Class 6A region semifinal at Lyle Flagg Field, Hillsborough junior three-way player Jeremiah Green will retreat to the nearest goal post. The crowd noise will dwindle into quiet as he bows his head and says a prayer.
He knows at some point during his biggest game of the season, his eyes will find the dozen family members in the visiting stands rooting for him.
But just as it’s been every glance before, someone will be missing.
Green plays beyond the limitations of his 5-foot-8, 150-pound frame. From his safety position, he unleashes fierce hits. As the Terriers’ backup tailback, he carries tacklers on his back. Before facing Sickles last month, he begged Terriers coach Earl Garcia to let him play even though an abscessed tooth made his cheek so swollen coaches didn’t think his helmet would fit.
“It looked like Ali-Frazier,” Garcia said. “Like he had gotten beaten up. But Jeremiah is one of the toughest kids I’ve been around. He doesn’t have a second gear.”
That’s because Green’s drive forward is guided by the parents he lost five years ago — just six months apart.
He was 11 when his father, Alfonso Williams, died at age 57 of kidney failure in May 2006. His father, a Vietnam veteran, battled several health issues as he got older. But shock came a month later, when Green’s mother, Sheila Williams, 44, was diagnosed with breast cancer, which killed her five years ago this month.
Since then, Green has been raised by his older sister, Shawnte, the fourth of eight siblings. She was 19 when her parents died and had just graduated from Hillsborough.
“I think it affects me now more because I’m older,” Green said. “Now I look into the stands and they’re not there, but I always picture them looking at me and looking down at me. I look up into the stands and see my sister and that’s it. Everyone wants to see their mommy and daddy.”
Green said football became more of a release in the absence of his parents. But his sister said it’s been motivation.
“When you’re out there, you just feel free,” Green said. “Everything goes out of your head.”
“After our parents passed, everything changed about Jeremiah, how he plays, how he runs,” Shawnte said. “He plays so much harder. I can tell.”
Now, Green is one of the main reasons Hillsborough (9-2) has its first nine-win season since 2007. A state medalist in the long jump and triple jump as a sophomore, he is one of the fastest players on the field. He also owns a 3.3 GPA, Garcia said.
He’s been battling injuries throughout the year. The abscessed tooth forced him into the hospital the night before the Sickles game. He had previously been nursing an ankle injury. And he missed most of the first meeting with Armwood, a 38-16 Hillsborough loss, after injuring his ankle on the game’s first play.
Garcia has limited Green’s snaps on offense because of the injuries — he has just 50 carries but averages 10.7 yards — but he turned to Green in last week’s 29-23 region quarterfinal win over Largo, in which he ran for 122 yards on 11 carries, including a winning 78-yard touchdown run.
“It was time for a spark,” Garcia said. “So we inserted him and he came through like we knew he would.”
After that critical touchdown run against Largo, he looked to the sky, a ritual after every score.
“I think they’re smiling down on him,” Shawnte said. “After everything he’s been through, he’s been such a good kid. He’s never been any problem at all. He’s still humble. I know my mom and daddy are proud of him.”