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. "I'm blessed.” • • • 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. Blankenship cared. "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. You're going to be unique. At the other position ... a dime a dozen.” Loyd's words hit home. Even though Gresham continued playing basketball — he started for three state tournament teams — his focus slowly but steadily shifted toward football. "He set me straight,” Gresham said of Loyd. "He'll set anybody straight. He's very straight forward.” Gresham took to Loyd's sincere care wrapped in brutal honesty. The coach became a confidant, a sounding board, a guiding force. "Everything that went on in my life,” Gresham said, "the first person I'd probably tell would be coach Loyd.” When football recruiters wanted to woo Gresham, they went through Loyd first. And when Gresham returned from his recruiting visits, Loyd's office was among his first stops. He told the coach that Southern Cal was too Hollywood for him and that Miami was nice but the beach scene wasn't his style. Oklahoma? "What impressed me,” Gresham told Loyd after his visit, "I went to coach Sumlin's house and I saw the way he interacted with his family.” Kevin Sumlin, who recently left OU for Houston, was Gresham's primary recruiter. "I like the way he treated his wife, and I liked the way he interacted with his kids,” Gresham said. "He's a good guy.” Loyd smiled as he recalled Gresham's words. "Here's a 17-year-old ... ,” he said, shaking his head. "It's very insightful. He's really a sincere young man with a good heart.” Loyd wasn't the only one who recognized it. • • • Steve and Sharie Blankenship saw more of Gresham the older he became.
Having high school kids around was nothing new for them. A former OU softball player, Sharie helped coach at Ardmore for years, and players were always coming and going from the house. Steve's involvement in youth sports also drew kids to their house.
But Gresham was different.
"I think Jermaine adopted us more than we adopted him,” Sharie Blankenship said.
She is quick to point out that Gresham isn't adopted legally. The Blankenships aren't his guardians either.
"We fill in the cracks,” she explained.
When Gresham was still in high school, Steve, the substitute teacher, would tutor him and Sharie, the school counselor, would encourage him. Now, they help Gresham with everything from scheduling dentist appointments and opening checking accounts to repairing his old-school Cutlass and buying him Christmas gifts.
Gresham even has a room at their house, where he spent much of his break before leaving for the Fiesta Bowl on Wednesday.
"They were always there for me, always willing to do anything for me,” Gresham said.
Some have questioned that willingness, including the NCAA. Earlier this year, it inquired about the relationship between Gresham and the Blankenships. Had they provided for him illegally? Had they broken NCAA rules?
Interviews were conducted. Affidavits were signed.
In the end, because the relationship dated back to Gresham's elementary and middle school days, the NCAA deemed it legal.
"Everybody says, ‘When he makes it big, he's gonna buy you ... ,” Steve said. "I say, ‘No, that's not what we did these things for these boys for.' We don't do things to get things back from him.”
Sharie said, "We never wanted anything from him.”
The Blankenships own a cattle ranch, drive nice cars and live in a spacious house. Try as they might, though, they couldn't convince Gresham that he didn't need to buy them anything for Christmas.
Sitting in her office at Ardmore High one morning before the holiday break, Sharie heard her cell phone beep.
"There's Jermaine,” she said.
She punched up the text message.
"I got your present today,” she said, reading it aloud.
"We truly love Jermaine,” she said.
• • •
Jermaine Gresham is more than proud to call Ardmore his hometown
He is lucky.
He knows as much. Perhaps there would've been a coach like Loyd had he lived elsewhere. Perhaps there would've been a couple like the Blankenships, too.
Then again, maybe not.
"It drives me at times,” Gresham said of his inner circle back in Ardmore. "I'm doing it for them. I'm not going to let nobody down from my hometown.”
It took a village to raise this child.
"I guess they got so much invested in me ... I can't let ‘em down.”
Oklahoma's Jermaine Gresham has a team-leading 11 touchdown receptions on 34 catches this season. The Sooners' sophomore tight end is a native of Ardmore. by CHRIS LANDSBERGER, THE OKLAHOMAN