'I'm blessed:' Concordia player gets second chance

  • Article by: DENNIS BRACKIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 22, 2012 - 11:48 AM

After life on the streets and failure in school, Concordia-St. Paul football player Jermaine Clemon found "Mom and Dad," a stable life - and hope he wants to share.

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Jermaine Cemon ( center) with parents

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The call that would alter so many lives came on Feb. 28, 2007. It was early, around 9 a.m., Wendy Webb remembers.

Geneva Clemon was on the other end of the line, crying, saying she could no longer be responsible for her younger brother, Jermaine. Too much heartache. Too much worry, especially with five young children of her own to raise.

Jermaine Clemon was only 14, but he had already been in and out of juvenile detention centers, booted out of the public school system and immersed in the drugs and violence of the tough streets of inner city Racine, Wis.

"I said, 'I will be there in 10 minutes,'" Wendy Webb said.

Clemon remembers getting into Wendy's van, with his earthly belongings filling half a garbage bag, and thinking he did not want to be there. He had met Bob and Wendy Webb a year earlier at a Bible study, his attendance predicated on the free meal that was offered. The Webbs, he knew, were big on rules and religion.

Spend a couple of days with the Webbs, Clemon figured, and then he'd leave and get back to the street life he knew so well, the one he had been seemingly destined for since his father was killed on a Chicago street when he was 3 months old. His childhood was spent in places like the abandoned Chicago apartment he shared with his mother and siblings for almost two years, with no heat or electricity, save for an electric cord that stretched to a neighbor's garage. Many meals, Jermaine says, came from the dumpster behind a nearby White Castle.

A couple of days with the Webbs stretched to weeks, then months and years. The Webbs became legal guardians, and more important, the people Jermaine now calls "Mom and Dad'' with an ease that sounds as if they have held the titles forever.

"Dead or back in jail,'' he replies without hesitation when asked where he'd be today without the Webbs.

Instead, he is on course to become the first person in his biological family to graduate from college, already twice a member of the Dean's list in his third year at Concordia (St. Paul). At 6-4, 240 pounds, the redshirt sophomore tight end is also a core member of the school's football team.

"I'm blessed,'' Jermaine Clemon says, a phrase he repeats multiple times during an hour interview.

Wendy Webb vividly remembers the first time she met Jermaine Clemon. He was standing on a Racine street corner with his brother Jimmy, and cousin Eddie, both older than Jermaine. Wendy was driving an oversized van, picking up youngsters for Bible study.

The Webbs already had raised three children, who were adults and remained in California when their parents moved to Racine in 2004 to help build an inner city ministry through Calvary Chapel.

The day she saw Clemon and his two relatives board the van, Wendy says, was the only time she ever has been afraid driving the van.

"I figured, 'I'm going to have a knife in my neck before I get off this street,''' she says.

The boys became regulars at Bible study. Wendy and Bob already had built a relationship with Geneva, whose children began attending Bible study in 2005, and passed on word of the free meal to their older cousins.

A couple of months after Jermaine moved in, the Webbs also took in Jimmy and Eddie. Jimmy remained almost two years, Eddie, the oldest, for only several months. The Webbs gained guardianship for only Jermaine, in large part because of his youth.

"That's kind of mind-blowing to me, even now,'' Jermaine Clemon says. "For a family to take in three teenage kids at the same time?''

Clemon arrived at his new home with a 0.8 GPA after his freshman first semester at Racine Case High School, and already had been dispatched to the Mack Center, a school for troubled youth. Wendy almost immediately started pleading for Clemon to be readmitted to the public school system. Her campaign proved successful when Racine Horlick High administrators decided to take a chance.

"Jermaine was a very determined young man,'' Webb says. "He wanted a chance at life. ... He had no study skills. The world Jermaine grew up in, there was no time to study. He had a life of survival. We gave him a life of structure.''

The transition wasn't easy. Clemon admits he balked at the nightly homework sessions. And there was so much he didn't understand.

"When I first got there, I would get up at 1 in the morning and go lock the doors because I was so scared,'' he says. "It was just that mindset, that somebody was going to be coming and knock down the doors. ... And I thought it was the most absurd thing that they left their bicycles outside. I'm like, 'Aren't you going to take the bikes inside? Are you going to lock the doors?'"

Wendy says she has told Jermaine numerous times that "he is the most courageous person I ever met. When he was 15 years old, he walked away from everything he had ever known, and walked into a life where every interaction ws a risk.''

Clemon was taking college prep classes within a year of his arrival at Horlick. He worked his way onto the school's GPA honor roll for several semesters, and had a 3.4 GPA as a senior. He joined choir, and found he had a natural bass voice.

Success on the athletic fields came slower.

He never had played on a youth team of any kind -- "Never even crossed my mind,'' he says -- before going out for football as a sophomore.

He says his varsity football experience as a sophomore and junior consisted of one play. He was cut from the basketball team as a junior.

By his senior year, he was growing into his body, gaining speed and an understanding of sports he missed out on as a child.

He captained both the football and basketball teams as a senior. Several college football coaches watching highlight video sent by Horlick took an interest, none more so than Concordia's Ryan Williams.

Williams, Concordia's offensive coordinator at the time, was the first coach to make an in-person visit at Horlick.

"What sealed the deal is, they wanted me. They showed interest in me,'' Clemon says.

He was redshirted as a freshman, and became a regular contributor last season, making 19 catches for 237 yards. Williams said "there's no doubt'' that Clemon is a diamond in the rough, the sort of player Division II programs can only hope is missed by major colleges.

"He's got some special gifts. With his power, his athleticism and his intelligence, as he continues to mature, the sky's the limit,'' Williams said.

Clemon, like so many college players, dreams of playing in the NFL. But he knows the odds are so long against it that he calls it "my backup plan.''

Plan A, he says, is to complete college and find work as a special education teacher and high school football coach. Special education, he says, because he wants to take kids who have "gone through some tough things, and let them know, 'Hey, you have hope.'"

Providing hope has become something of a personal mission for Clemon. Despite all that the Webbs have meant, despite being "my mom and dad,'' he says he never wanted formal adoption and a change of his last name.

The name, he says, is a big part of what drives him today. Part of what makes him embrace academics, the weight room, even two-a-day practices.

"I just want the Clemon last name to be something more than just getting arrested, being involved with drugs or whatever the case may be,'' he says.

The quest often seems a lonely one. Among his biological family members, only Jimmy has seen him play an athletic event, and that was one football game last year at Upper Iowa.

"Bob and Wendy go to every game,'' he says. "But none of my biological family has ever seen me ...''

As he speaks, tears well in his eyes, then slowly trickle down his cheeks. If his Clemon family members could see him play just once, could just see for themselves how far he has come, that, he says, "would be the ultimate. I think that's why I work so hard,'' he says.

"It's more than just me. What I do is for my sisters and my brothers, my nieces and nephews. I'll break every bone in my body so I can succeed if I can give them hope.''

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