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.
“It's not like that movie,” said Stacy, referring to The Blind Side, the popular book-turned-movie that tells the story of Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman Michael Oher and the wealthy family that took him in during high school. “We're not rich by any means.
“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.