ST. PETERSBURG — Jerrell Young's story is mostly about the future of USF football, but today's St. Petersburg Bowl against Memphis will remind him more about his past.
The redshirt freshman safety, who leads the Bulls with 11 special teams tackles, returns home today, much like USF coach Jim Leavitt, who also grew up in St. Petersburg.
The 6-foot-2, 203-pound Gibbs High graduate will have about 50 fans on hand excited to have a truly local presence in the city's first bowl game.
"I'm so proud of that kid, and I think everybody in the community is proud," said Alvin Davis, Young's coach at Gibbs. "When I see him, I'm going to ask him for his autograph just so he knows what a role model he is for the kids there."
There was a time when Young, 21, was one of those kids, full of hope and potential.
When Tropicana Field hosted a tripleheader of high school games in 2004, Young was in the stands cheering his friends. When USF practiced at Tropicana Field in 2005 to prepare for games on the FieldTurf surfaces at Rutgers and Syracuse, Young stood on the warning track in rightfield watching his future teammates.
Young's path to USF wasn't an easy one, however. He didn't have the academic requirements to accept a scholarship after graduation and needed an extra year to raise his test scores. After getting approved by a special academic committee at USF, he redshirted his first season, giving him more time to focus on his grades and the transition to college. Now in his first season as a player, he has made a quick impression.
"He means a lot to me … just because I've seen him persevere," Leavitt said. "He was recruited by a lot of people, and he's never wavered. He's always wanted to come to South Florida. He had opportunities to go a lot of places, so I like that a lot."
So it will mean a little more to Young when he takes the field today as part of USF's kickoff coverage team — he had the tackle on the opening kickoff in USF's last game, at West Virginia.
"Little League coaches, high school coaches, friends of family, people in the neighborhood who saw me play sandlot football," Young said, rattling off the supporters he'll have watching.
He grew up in south St. Petersburg, off Fifth Avenue, not far from where he'll play today. He played in a church yard with friends who also earned scholarships: Leon Wright (Duke), Donald Bowens (N.C. State) and Jock Sanders (West Virginia).
"When we were always out there playing in the yard, when we were in high school, we'd play against the college boys," he said.
Now Young wants to use this game to thank the people in St. Petersburg who helped him get to USF: his parents, Leroy and Annie, who stood by him; coaches, such as Davis, who gave him positive reinforcement.
He thinks of Gloria Ellinwood, an interior designer who worked with his father and helped pay for his tutoring when the Youngs couldn't afford the academic assistance he needed.
Young's biggest contributions this season have come on special teams, but with safeties Carlton Williams, Louis Gachette and Danny Verpaele graduating, he is in good position to compete for a starting job in 2009.
He stepped in at safety during the fourth quarter against West Virginia, making three tackles on one drive to help give the Bulls a final shot at a go-ahead touchdown.
"Jerrell's one of the best athletes on our team. … He's taken it all in and is learning daily," Williams said. "He's very gifted, and he's going to be a safety to be talked about when it's his time. I'm looking forward to watching him play."
The baton gets passed today as the bowl game ends the careers of some players while ushering in younger ones who will step into big roles next year.
"I can say I've learned from the best," Young said. "They've shown me what it takes to be a big-time football player."
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com.