“He needed it. We didn't search out to do this. I'm still wondering why it all happened. Sometimes there's destiny and reasons for things.”
“He told me to trust him.”
Gene Wier has seen a situation like Jeremiah's before.
The former Richland head football coach once took in current Texas Tech offensive lineman Deveric Gallington when he needed a place to live while he was a student at Richland. So when Wier learned of Jeremiah's background while they visited during rides to school during his freshman year, he was not shocked.
Helping kids like Jeremiah is why he's an educator and coach, Wier said.
“My immediate thought in those situations is I don't like to create an atmosphere of sympathy versus an atmosphere of ‘How do I make things better?'” Wier said.
Weir was confident the football aspect of Jeremiah's future would take care of itself. Jeremiah had the athletic ability. Richland had the coaching staff.
What Jeremiah needed to concentrate on was his academics.
“He told me to trust him and never give up,” Jeremiah said of his coach. “He helped me lose a lot of ignorance and become more disciplined.”
Jeremiah got tutoring in multiple subjects. He took the ACT four times, raising his score in different areas each time. That all helped him graduate from Richland in December and enroll early at OSU.
And once he was stable at Stacy and Richard's house, Wier noticed Jeremiah could finally focus solely on accomplishing his goal of becoming a college football player.
Jeremiah grew into a force at linebacker for Richland. He was named to Texas Football Magazine's second team after recording 84 tackles, including 11 for loss, his senior season.
“He can create collisions,” Wier said with a chuckle.
Jeremiah had scholarship offers from more than 30 schools but stuck with OSU, where he had committed to last March. He'll start competing for playing time when spring practice begins next month.
“I remember when I was in fourth grade, I was thinking about stuff like this, and I didn't think it was going to happen,” Jeremiah said. “That first week of college, that Sunday, I woke up and I was just like, ‘I made it. I'm here.'
“Now I've just got to stick with it and not mess this up.”
“She's like an aunt to me.”
Jeremiah and Amy Ashkinazy first bonded when she decorated his locker the Sunday before his junior year started.
She is the Richland booster club president and the mother of Jeremiah's close friend, Kumani Armstead. Tshimanga started going over to Ashkinazy's house several times a week to do his homework. She knew he needed some structure, and he knew she would not let him slack.
“We were always together and became like family, being over (at her house) so much,” Jeremiah said.
Ashkinazy first learned the full story of Jeremiah's background while proofreading an essay he wrote about his life story for a local newspaper.
“I couldn't believe that after all the stuff he had gone through, that he wasn't this hardened, mad, angry person,” she said.
Because of her involvement with the booster club, Ashkinazy has seen first-hand the way the tight-knit Richland community will always help out a student in need. But it was especially easy to reach out to Jeremiah.
Despite his upbringing, he never turned down the wrong path.
He was energetic. He was positive. He was giving. He was motivated.
That all showed when Jeremiah recently attended at a party at Ashkinazy's house. After spending time with Jeremiah, one of Ashkinazy's friends bought him a new pair of glasses because he did not have insurance. Another gave him $100 to buy a new stereo.
Jeremiah's story also taught Kumani, an only child, about giving back to others. During a routine trip to the store to pick up some football gloves and a rib protector vest, Kumani told his mom that Jeremiah needed the equipment more than he did.
“You don't want to help him because you feel sorry for him,” Ashkinazy said. “You want to help him because you know he's appreciative of it. The smile that he gives you is almost enough thanks for everything.”
Ashkinazy is already planning on making the drive to Stillwater for the OSU spring game in April and anticipates organizing group trips for games next season. And she knows she and Jeremiah will continue to share a close relationship.
“He just got a piece of my heart,” Ashkinazy said. “I know regardless of where his life takes him, he will be in my life in some capacity.”
“There are a lot of kids out there who need help.”
As Jeremiah finished thanking everyone who came to his signing ceremony, he turned his attention to his former teammates.
He encouraged them to go to college. He talked about the fun, the independence, the responsibility and the opportunity OSU has already provided. He knows the younger Richland players still look up to him, especially those who have also had trouble at home.
He wants to keep helping kids in need throughout his life, ultimately as either a social worker or coach. Maybe he'll even adopt one day.
He hopes people will hear his story and want to make a similar impact.
“There are a lot of kids out there who need help and need a support system like I have,” Jeremiah said. “I feel like when parents have the time, or anybody has the time, just go out there and be there for somebody's child if they need anything or just need somebody to talk to.”
Jeremiah and his mom still talk every week and are working to develop a better relationship. He hopes she'll soon get to experience his new life in Stillwater, perhaps as early as the spring football game.
Jeremiah's father has also recently reached out for the first time since he left almost 10 years ago. Jeremiah thinks he will let his dad back in his life eventually, but it will take some time.
Jeremiah's success has never been about who wasn't there, though. It's always been about who was.
He and Michael, who is now at Tyler Junior College, still talk and text frequently. When he went home for the weekend last month, he stayed with Stacy and Richard. He also spent a night catching up with Ashkinazy, even though Kumani wasn't home.
And no matter where life takes Jeremiah Tshimanga, his Richland High family will continue to support him and embrace him just like it did on Signing Day.
He is one of their sons.
“He will always be special to a lot of different people that will follow him, either in football or just in life,” Ashkinazy said.