ARDMORE — Jermaine Gresham lived a normal childhood.
Ask him, and he'll say nothing out of the ordinary.
Talk to those in his tight inner circle — mostly folks from the Oklahoma tight end's beloved hometown of Ardmore — and they'll recount an upbringing that was anything but typical. He slept most nights at houses that were not his own. He learned how to make a bed when he was in college because as a kid, he never had a bed. Clothes and shoes, backpacks and meals rarely came from blood relatives.
Gresham's parents provided him with love but had little else to give.
But like Gresham, there are details about his childhood that those closest to him refuse to divulge. The football coach, the substitute teacher and the school counselor know that the memories are still too fresh, still too painful for Gresham.
They will protect him at all costs.
Ironic, considering the Sooner sophomore hardly looks like he needs to be protected. He is a football force, entering the Fiesta Bowl with a team-leading 11 touchdown receptions despite having just 34 catches this season. In the mold of Tony Gonzales and Antonio Gates, the 6-foot-5, 263-pound Gresham is as big as a defensive end but as quick as a cover corner.
NFL types are already drooling.
Still, where he is and where he's going has everything to do with where he's been.
"The town took care of me,” said Gresham, who arrived in Phoenix with the Sooners on Wednesday. "I'm thankful for Ardmore.
• • •
Jermaine Gresham always felt a strong connection to Ardmore.
Walletta Gresham moved her family down Interstate 35 to Wichita Falls when her son was in elementary school. He played basketball there, even made some new friends, but it never felt like home. He was forever telling his mom that he wanted to go back to Ardmore.
"When we first came here ... he made himself sick,” Walletta said. "He said, ‘Mama, I just don't want to be here.'”
She decided to take him back to Ardmore for the summer to live with his father, Jerry Williamson.
That's when Gresham turned his sales pitch on his dad.
"Daddy, please, I don't want to go back,” he pleaded.
Walletta and Jerry finally relented, and Jermaine stayed in Ardmore.
"It bothered me at first,” said Walletta, a nurse's aide at a nursing home in Wichita Falls, "but he was with another parent, so I knew he was going to be all right.”
Not long after, Gresham first crossed paths with Steve Blankenship. The two were polar opposites, the lanky black kid and the bald white substitute teacher. They butted heads often.
"When I first met him, I couldn't stand him,” Blankenship said. "He was real loud in class, real braggadocios.”
Even though Blankenship was always on Gresham, something about the substitute struck the kid.
"Always talked to me,” Gresham said. "Always asked how I was doing.”
Blankenship long had a heart for youngsters in Ardmore, volunteering at day camps and coaching at the YMCA. Gresham picked up on that spirit, asking him for help on homework and eventually confiding in him.
But Gresham didn't tell him everything. One day when Blankenship gave Gresham a ride home, he couldn't believe what he saw. He went home to wife, Sharie, in stunned disbelief.
"Where his dad lives,” Sharie said, "is not anything to write home about.”
The Blankenships refuse to provide many details beyond that, other than the fact that Gresham slept on a couch with no pillow. There were many nights, though, that he stayed with friends. Gresham spent the night so often at his best friend's house that he had a room of his own there.
After that day at the house, the Blankenships started buying shoes and clothes, coats and backpacks for Gresham.
• • •
Mike Loyd figured he'd never have a chance to coach Jermaine Gresham.
After all, everybody told the football coach that Gresham would be the next Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett. He was dunking by the time he was in middle school and playing with elite teams on the summer basketball circuit. Even though Gresham played football, basketball was his focus.
"Didn't matter,” Loyd said. "I just liked him.”
Gresham spent many hours in Loyd's office, the Ardmore High football coach behind the desk that consumes nearly all of his tiny office and the kid in one of the black chairs that line the cinder block wall. They'd talk about all sorts of things.
Rarely was the topic football.
That changed one day during Gresham's freshman year.
"You're going to be a Division-I basketball prospect,” Loyd told him, "but you're going to be a wide receiver/tight end that's 6-6 or 6-7.