The two sides of Jeremi Powell
UF commit survived homelessness, but the resulting anger almost consumed him
LARGO, Fla. -- Jeremi Powell will sign a letter of intent on Wednesday morning to play football at the University of Florida.
Powell is listed as a 6-foot-2, 200-pound outside linebacker for the Fla./Pinellas Park High School Patriots, but he's not the one who had 19 sacks or caught a game-winning touchdown pass with 21 seconds remaining to beat St. Pete High School last season.
He's not the person pounding the turf when he's upset at missing a tackle or screaming at himself when he makes a mistake. He's not the player running across the field to make a bone-jarring tackle or the one with the quick burst off the line of scrimmage as a pass-rusher.
JP is the one who did all that. Powell just brought him to the game, then disappeared once it started. Sort of like Clark Kent and Superman, only Powell turns into his alter ego in the locker room and not a phone booth.
"JP's the football guy, and he's mean as hell," Powell said. "Jeremi is a nice guy. I'm always JP when I'm on the field.
"It's like a different mentality. It's like a different me."
But he's also loud, obnoxious and angry. Very, very angry. Try to destroy the guy he's lining up against angry. Scream at the opposing players angry. Yell at his teammates when they make a mistake angry. The kind of angry where you're not quite sure if he's operating on the same level as everybody else.
"He's an emotional kid, and when he's happy he's happy and when he's sad he's sad and when he's mad he's very mad, and he plays angry," Pinellas Park coach Ken Crawford said. "Without question. And I always knew he did, and those kind of guys are so noticeable, but over the past year or so I kind of understood more of where he gets a little bit of his anger and his fire."
The 19-year-old Powell's anger comes from a year-long stretch in which his family -- himself, his mother, two brothers and a sister -- was essentially homeless. They traveled the state and stayed with relatives in Miami, Gainesville, Live Oak, Clearwater and Largo. Sometimes they stayed a month. Sometimes more, sometimes less.
This was from the end of 1998 to the end of 1999, when Powell turned 8 years old. It was hard for him to adjust to life in a new school every few weeks. He'd be at a certain point in a subject in one school, but when he'd enroll at another he'd find they were miles past the school he just left. It wasn't exactly the best atmosphere for learning.
"It just sucked."
It wasn't much better wherever they were staying, either. Often, all five were staying in one room. During the summer months when Powell's mother, Kevra Grimmage, was out looking for work, Powell and his siblings would not have much to do. Warned by their mother to be respectful of the rules in other peoples' homes, the children would stay quietly in their room or go outside and play.
Lounging around watching television or playing video games was out of the question. So was snacking, which is pretty hard to avoid for four kids that ranged in age from 4-11 years old.
"You can't just go in the refrigerator when you want to go in the refrigerator when you're hungry," Powell said. "Just got to wait for your mom to come back and make you something or hopefully she comes back with something because you don't want to go in that refrigerator and grab something that's not yours.
"We had an incident where we actually went in the refrigerator and grabbed something that wasn't ours, and the lady started flipping on us. But we were only kids. And it was a plum, man. It was a plum. One piece of fruit."
Grimmage and her children eventually ended up in Clearwater, where she left the kids with an aunt while she went to Largo to search for a place to stay and a job. She found both within two weeks and moved the family to the city where they have lived for the past 11 years.
"It just wasn't easy but I wasn't giving up," Grimmage said. "We were all together. We were a pack. We were not going to be separated.
"God was with us. God is good. I've always put God first and he can make things happen if we believe and trust in him. That's my motto. He's the one who carried us through when we were walking down the street and didn't know where we were going to go, rolling the little suitcases on wheels."
Though his home life had stabilized, the seeds of Powell's anger had taken root. He got into fights, did poorly in school, and started hanging out with the wrong people. He had trouble controlling his emotions and quickly got angry for the smallest reason.
That worsened as he attended middle school, until finally his mother enrolled him in a program for at-risk kids in which they tour a jail and spend several hours locked inside. It's similar to the Scared Straight programs that cropped up across the country after the film of the same name premiered in 1978.
"It was the worst place I've ever been to in my life," Powell said. "We ate the jail food. We couldn't be eating when we wanted to be eating. I was so hungry but they gave us a dry, stale sandwich and just peanut butter on it and then some milk. That was it. Hot dogs and beans poured in a tray.
"When you have some guy in jail telling you he likes your jeans and if you were in jail he'd beat the hell out of you [it scares you]."
This time, though, Powell found something that got him focused on improving his academics, controlling his outbursts, and limiting his aggression to the football field: the Homecoming court.
Powell wanted to be a member of the Homecoming court, with the chance to be the school's Homecoming King, but school officials told him he wasn't eligible because of the trouble he had caused. That shocked him -- and it sent him a message that he needed to shape up immediately.
There wasn't an overnight change. Powell still got into trouble, but with help from several of the football coaches -- notably Crawford -- it waned. Crawford and his staff arrived at Pinellas Park the same year as Powell (2008) and immediately began fixing a program that hadn't had a winning season in more than five years. The first thing they wanted to establish was some stability, because the football program had been a revolving door of players and coaches.
One of the players the staff focused on was Powell. Crawford saw the talent, but he also saw the anger and the poor attitude.
"When I first got here he had a couple fights, and we were scared we were going to lose him," Crawford said. "But it was never something he provoked. People pushed him to the limit and backed him against the wall. At the time that's not where he needed to be. When his back was against the wall it was a bad place for whoever put him there."
Powell still got mad and sometimes wanted to fight, but he brought it to the football field instead. The more he did that, the better he played. And a funny thing started to happen: The meaner JP got, the less angry Powell got. The less angry Powell got, the more he was able to control his emotions.
His grades improved. He became someone the people around the school -- including teachers and administrators -- respected. That's when Powell realized that he needed JP, especially after scholarship offers started rolling in during his junior season. JP could get him to college -- and, Powell hoped, possibly the NFL -- so he had to turn him loose.
And if JP ever needed more fuel, he'd just think about all the elementary schools, the different homes, and the plum.
"It helps a lot, because when you're angry you just want to punch something," Powell said. "There's nothing to hit without breaking your hand, so just take it out on the field and hurt someone. From my past, everything just builds up. Sometimes I can just think about something and get real mad, upset myself on purpose just so I can do good.
"I just take everything personally. I try not to, but it helps me."
Sometimes, though, you have to take things that way. St. Petersburg High School isn't Pinellas Park's biggest rival, but the Patriots hadn't beaten the Green Devils in more than five years. The week before the teams met this season, Crawford said several St. Petersburg coaches made some comments questioning whether Powell was good enough to play at Florida. Powell hadn't done anything in his three previous games against the Green Devils, and they couldn't understand why Powell was a four-star recruit.
Crawford, knowing how JP would react, told Powell. Then he went one step further. He typed up the comments, printed copies, and plastered them all over the Pinellas Park locker room.
"I felt disrespected," Powell said. "I took that real personally. Real personally."
And when the game was over, Powell took one of those copies and brought it home with him. When he enrolls at Florida in July, he'll bring it with him and put it in his locker in Gainesville.
"I'm keeping it forever. I'll never forget that game in my life," he said. "Going to laminate it."
Grimmage would love to do the same thing with Powell's letter of intent. He'll be the first one in the family to attend college, which was something she wouldn't have even dreamed 10 years ago. Powell has gone from worrying about where to live to planning his future, which he hopes includes the NFL, although he wants to eventually become a paramedic.
"It's a blessing from God," Grimmage said. "I cannot stress it [enough]. He knows my heart. He knows my children's heart. He knows what we've been through. It's our time to shine. This is his time."
Michael DiRocco covers University of Florida sports for GatorNation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ESPNdirocco.
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