NORTH RICHLAND HILLS, Texas — Jeremiah Tshimanga stood proudly before a packed classroom at Richland High School on National Signing Day wearing an orange jacket with the Oklahoma State logo on the chest. The desks were filled and the walls lined with people as Jeremiah's football highlight reel projected onto the white board behind him.
He scanned the crowd. An elementary school principal. A Bible school teacher. Football teammates and their parents. Then, he pointed out each person and explained how they helped him escape a childhood once filled with pain and neglect.
Standing off to Jeremiah's right was Gene Wier, a 30-year coaching vet who helped develop Jeremiah into one of the top linebackers in Texas but first pushed him toward academics.
Sitting at a desk, front and center, was Amy Ashkinazy, a teammate's mother who offered Jeremiah a place to study and a home-cooked meal.
To Jeremiah's left was Michael Knobloch, the teammate-turned-brother whose mom and stepdad, Stacy and Richard Wade, permanently welcomed Jeremiah into their home more than two years ago.
When Jeremiah reached his older brother, Patrick, he explained how they had gone to pick up their mother at her townhome in Watauga — a place she's lived with their two younger sisters for almost a year following a stint in a homeless shelter in southeast Fort Worth.
When they arrived, she was nowhere to be found.
“I don't know where she's at, honestly,” Jeremiah told the crowd as his head dropped slightly. “I was going to pick her up. A little frustrating. I don't know what she's doing or…”
Jeremiah already knew his father would not be there. He abandoned the family about 10 years ago.
Signing ceremonies occur on the first Wednesday of February at high schools throughout the country. Families and coaches join to take photos. Cake is usually served.
Jeremiah had all of that, and yet, this was no normal ceremony. Members of the Richland community became his family. And there they all were, celebrating the man they helped raise officially becoming an OSU Cowboy.
“I believe certain things happen for a reason,” Jeremiah said. “I believe God's watching over me in every aspect of life. Some people might think I'm crazy when I say that, but it's true.
“I wouldn't be where I'm at today if it weren't for God putting certain people in my life for me to be here.”
"They made me feel like I was their son.”
Jeremiah usually went into his bedroom closet when his mother's cries woke him up in the middle of the night.
He was only a little boy then, but he knew what he'd see in the morning. He knew her bruises came from his abusive father.
Some nights, Jeremiah watched helplessly as his mother prayed on his bed before the beating started.
“Stuff like that will ruin you for the rest of your life if you let it,” Jeremiah said.
And when his father left the family when Jeremiah was a third grader, the tough times weren't over. He spent years living in conditions no child deserves.
Sometimes, he was with his two younger sisters in foster care. Other times, he slept on a mat by himself at a Salvation Army Center.
He spent some nights outside a Toyota Corolla keeping lookout while the rest of the family slept inside.
“Fourth grade through sophomore year, I didn't really go to bed,” he said. “I would be crying just thinking about certain things — my mom and not being with her, my dad and how he left, my family being split up and certain people not being there.”
In all, Jeremiah stayed in six shelters and five foster homes. He attended three elementary schools and five middle schools.
Before Jeremiah started high school, his family moved into a trailer a couple miles away from Richland High School in suburban Fort Worth.
Jeremiah and Michael met on the football field shortly after.
At first, Michael looked at Jeremiah's size — he now measures 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds — as competition on the defensive side of the ball. But Michael also noticed Jeremiah usually walked to and from school and practice — and was usually late.
Michael asked his mom, Stacy, if she could start giving Jeremiah rides. The two players bonded over the radio when Michael immediately turned it to the hip-hop station. They talked about girls and school and football during those trips. A friendship quickly developed.
Then one weekend, Jeremiah needed a place to stay — on his 16th birthday. Stacy went out and bought a football-shaped cake and presents and surprised Jeremiah after practice.
It was the first time he'd ever had a birthday party.
“I was acting like a 10-year-old kid again,” Jeremiah said.
A few months later, Jeremiah was back at Stacy and Richard's home, carrying everything he owned. He again needed a place to stay. For good.
His family was going back to a homeless shelter, and Child Protective Services was going to put Jeremiah in a boys' home or the Salvation Army.
“It's like having a baby dropped off at your doorstep,” Richard said.
Stacy and Richard, who were not yet married at the time, agreed that night to take him in. But shortly after, Jeremiah's older brother Patrick showed up at the house to take Jeremiah to the shelter.
The brothers argued. Jeremiah did not want to go.
He wanted to stop crying instead of sleeping. He wanted to stop switching schools.
And he wanted to keep playing football, something Patrick — a 6-foot-7, 300-pound specimen — had given up to help take care of the family.
But Stacy and Richard told Jeremiah to go with his brother. A couple hours later, though, Jeremiah returned.
His mom had given him permission to stay with Michael's family.
“I'm going to stay at Richland, get a scholarship and go somewhere to do something with my life,” Jeremiah told himself.
Jeremiah permanently took the upstairs guest bedroom, decorating it with football posters and materials from the schools that had started recruiting him.
Immediately, he was treated like a son.
Michael gave Jeremiah his cell phone, which he has used ever since. He was part of family gatherings during the holidays. They all took a trip to Lake Whitney near the metroplex, which was Jeremiah's first time seeing a large body of water. Stacy and Richard escorted Jeremiah then stood by his side on Senior Night.
“I didn't get settled in and happy until I was (living with Michael's family),” Jeremiah said.
Walk in their home, and one of the first things you'll see is framed photos of Jeremiah and Michael on a table just inside the door. They now call themselves brothers.