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Down The Seam

Posted Apr 28, 2010


Jermaine Gresham

This is the opposite of The Blind Side.

Call Jermaine Gresham’s story Down The Seam.

This screenplay is pretty straightforward. If the left tackle is supposed to protect the quarterback’s blind side from the pass rusher, then the tight end is the quarterback’s best friend as a life jacket in a baffling ocean of defenses.

Down The Seam.

Gresham, the first tight end ever drafted first by the Bengals, shows up Thursday with the rest in preparation for this weekend’s rookie camp. He arrives as the apple of his mother’s eye, with his father’s reserve and the thoughts of a little boy and girl crushed by the 1,000 miles between Cincinnati and Ardmore, Okla.

Gresham called his mom first last Thursday night from his now famous monk-like draft vigil in his Norman, Okla., apartment not far from the University of Oklahoma campus. Walletta Gresham was on the phone with Jermaine's dad, Jerry Williamson, when she saw Jermaine's number flashing through just after she saw the Bengals pick him.

"Cincinnati was at 21 and that’s who we thought was going to get him," she says. "Hard to believe that’s my baby. That’s when I told him he’s always been a light of my eye. He’s never been a troublemaker. He could have gone the wrong way, but he never did."

Then he called his dad and that must have been short conversation because neither wastes words. Walletta, who says she is the complete opposite, says Jerry once politely told a reporter doing a story on Jermaine, "I’ve got nothing to say."

Then came the call to Sharie and Steve Blankenship, the school counselor-teacher couple that Jermaine grew close to during his college days.

While some would like to portray their relationship similar to the one in The Blind Side (African-American player with white family), it doesn’t hold up. Gresham would be over at their house on a weekly basis when he was a senior in high school, but he lived with Jerry and always kept in touch with Walletta in Wichita Falls, about 90 minutes just across the Texas line.

Walletta, a certified nurse’s aide with a hearty laugh and quick sense of humor, made the move several years ago because the wages were better in Texas. When her son couldn’t stand it there for a year because he missed his friends, she sent Jermaine back to live with Jerry in Ardmore, where her mother and her sisters were also living.

"He told me that Bob Stoops wouldn’t be able to find him," she says of the Oklahoma head coach. "I told him, ‘Don’t worry, he’ll find you there,’ but he didn’t like it and Jerry and my family were still in (Ardmore)."

She has also become close with the Blankenships, talking with Sharie at least once a week and getting hilarious greeting cards from Steve with notes that make her laugh.

"Jermaine already has a mother and father. We love his family. We never took the parental role because they were already there. I like to say that Jermaine adopted us," says Sharie Blakenship. "We were there as a support system. But the one thing I will say is like the movie is that I protect Jermaine like he’s one of my own."

So does his high school head coach, Mike Loyd. Loyd is the guy that convinced Gresham about the time he was a sophomore in high school that 6-6 forwards in the NBA are a dime a dozen, but they are gold as NFL receivers. Loyd had a lot of chances to tell him because his office at the fieldhouse was like another home and Gresham hung around enjoying the company of the coaches.

"Just a huge heart," Loyd says. "You’re drawn to a kid like that. Big smile and would do anything for you."

Gresham brought the smile and the heart to his first Paul Brown Stadium appearance as a Bengal at last Friday’s news conference and offered the benediction of this draft. The two things you learn from his mother, coach and counselor are that he is intensely private and proud.

When asked what Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer will like most about him, he said, "I’m a big, moving target. I catch everything."

For a generation of fans who can’t remember Rodney Holman (he caught his 318th and last pass in 1992) or even Tony McGee (his 299th and last came in 2001), those words are the Who Dey version of “One small step for man, but…”

Loyd, an ‘80s quarterback who started one game for the Cardinals in the NFL and also had stints in the USFL and CFL, thinks back to the guys he played with like Doug Williams, Roy Green and Ottis Anderson, and says he believes “Jermaine is about the finest athlete I’ve ever been around.”

“Some of our coaches wanted to play him at tight end or defensive end,” Loyd says. “I wanted to let him have fun and catch the ball and I wanted to watch him do it. So I lined him up at wide receiver and we threw him hitches and posts, and go routes, and he had some unbelievable production for us.”

Gresham’s huge heart that everyone talks about has a good matchup with the one belonging to Parker, the seven-year-old son of the Blankenships. Parker was born without a piece of his heart and has already had two surgeries. When Sharie took her eight-year-old daughter Lauren to a cheerleading competition in Dallas a few days before the draft, she learned that Parker was getting rushed to the hospital with a 105-degree temperature.

“I called Jermaine to let him know and he said he was on his way to the hospital. He was going to drop everything,” Sharie says. “I told him not to do that. That I would let him know what was going on. Then he blew up my mom’s phone with texts and calls to find out what the doctors were saying.”

Parker is going to need another surgery and has been told one of the sports he can’t play is football. But he loves to throw a football to the guy he and his sister call “Big J.”

“He’s so great with our kids. They love him like a big brother,” Cherie says. “Last week Jermaine brought a football over to the house and they played catch. They’re devastated because they know Cincinnati is far away.”

Gresham may be quiet, shy, and prefer to keep things private. But Loyd says don’t be fooled. He has heard the rumblings that Gresham may have a hard time picking up a pro offense and says it is just not true. Gresham got an earful from his secondary coach/biology teacher about that one day when he kept reading about that.

“He told me he had an assignment where they had to identify all the muscles and bones in the human body and Jermaine Gresham got them all,” Loyd says. “The teacher told me he knows people that have gone to Harvard that couldn’t do that. But that shows you how he focuses. And he focuses on football.”

Sharie Blankenship helped take his grade-point average above a 3.0 and says, “If you tell him to do something, he’ll do it. He’ll figure it out. He’s very determined.”

And competitive. Sharie, a former All Big 8 softball pitcher for Oklahoma, shares that trait with Gresham and thinks that’s why they get along so well. It is also why she thinks he plays the game. It didn’t surprise her he closeted himself for the draft and watched it by himself.

“He doesn’t like the media attention. If you listen to him interviewed, he’s always praising the other players,” she says.

Gresham is the anti-Ocho. Sooners offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson still laughs about the day last August he was tapped for the Oklahoma contingent headed to Big 12 media day.

“Let them talk to Sam,” said Gresham of his quarterback Bradford. “I don’t have anything to say. Sam can do it.”

But then Stoops had to pull rank on him.

Walletta Gresham is also pulling rank. On her friends and neighbors. She lives not so far from Dallas.

“Now I’ve to get rid of all my Cowboys things,” she says.

  
 


 

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