Jeremy Gallon fueled by family

First in family to go to college, junior wide receiver emerges as playmaker

Updated: December 26, 2012, 11:11 AM ET
By Michael Rothstein | WolverineNation

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The Gallons created a three-car caravan to the Orlando International Airport that summer day in 2009.

For the first time, a Gallon would head to college, an emotional experience beginning with a 45-minute drive to the airport and the start of a new life for Jeremy Gallon.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Gallon
Jesse Johnson/US PresswireJeremy Gallon earned All-Big Ten honorable mention honors this season.
"Every mile got tougher and tougher," Gallon said. "My dad & I've never seen my dad cry. Ever. Got to the airport, and every step it got tougher and tougher for him. He let it go, started bawling.

"I did, too."

The Gallons, 15 in all including extended family, joined for one final group hug. Jeremy had been accepted to Michigan, and this was how he would depart to follow his dream.

He moved through the security line, looking back at his parents. He didn't know what it would be like on his own, whether he'd fit in, how it would all work. No one in his family could guide him.

As he disappeared through the line, the remaining Gallons stood around, climbed back in their cars and drove home to Apopka, Fla., where they spent the night watching Jeremy's high school highlights.

With Gallon's eyes bloodshot, nose sniffling as he reached his seat on the flight, the woman next to him asked, "What's wrong?"

Gallon was leaving behind everything he knew to become a receiver for the Wolverines. He didn't know how else to handle it, even if he knew it was a positive.

"We were sad to see him go, sad to see him leave," said Christopher Gallon, his father. "But we knew he was going to do something better with his life."

Escaping Apopka

Rick Darlington, the Apopka High coach, had seen kids like Gallon before -- athletically talented enough for college but struggling or worse academically.

Darlington would drive Gallon home after practices in his beat-up Jeep, dropping him off last. Before he would go inside, Darlington preached the importance of academics and being a "good guy."

Fed up one day in his sophomore year, Gallon asked Darlington why he pushed him. The answer was the first critical change in Gallon's path. Darlington responded: "You can go to college for this. You can do good things with this."

Gallon said he saw negativity all around him, from "drugs, gangs, whatever," to friends he grew up with being arrested or killed.

"I wasn't even thinking about college until my coach stressed it," Gallon said. "I never thought I would get this far."

Gallon said his first letter came from nearby UCF. Interest from other schools followed. Most schools spoke of what Gallon could do with football.

Michigan offered something different. Then-Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez discussed athletics but stressed academics. Considering Christopher's goal was Gallon graduating from high school, college was a shock.

Reaching college became a singular goal. As Gallon excelled on the field, it still wasn't a guarantee academically. Gallon retook classes from his freshman and sophomore years during his senior year. He took the ACT multiple times, and Darlington was persistent about studying -- both for classes and the ACT his final two seasons.

Plus, Michigan kept on top of him as much as the coaches were allowed.

"[Michigan] would always come and talk to me about school. The other schools would come and talk to me about football," Gallon said. "It was a big difference. I'm not just going to go to a school for football. I want to graduate from a college.

"Just felt like a right decision."

His parents wanted him to get out of state, away from Apopka and all the issues surrounding it. Michigan offered a shot. When he received word he qualified weeks before Michigan started fall camp his freshman year, his hope became reality.

Staying focused

Gallon's parents watched games, throwing tailgate parties under a tent with hot wings and pizza in the yard of their Apopka home, but they didn't see their redshirting son.

Soon after his freshman season, Gallon received a surprise visit from his mom. Then, when Gallon ran out of the Michigan Stadium tunnel for the spring game after his freshman year, there was another surprise in the stands -- Christopher, wearing Gallon's Apopka jersey.

"That was my moment, right there," Christopher said. "He couldn't believe it. He was in shock. If someone had thrown the ball to him, it would have hit him in the head. He had this big old grin on his face, that 'I can't believe my dad is here.' One of those Kodak moments."

For his entire freshman season -- and most of his redshirt freshman year -- whenever anyone asked about his motivation, he responded his family. In nightly conversations with his parents and his brothers, he worried.

He understood his family's issues in Apopka. He worried about how they were living. Life back home weighed on him constantly.

"Coming up, I lost a couple of friends to violence," Gallon said. "My friends, most of the ones that didn't play football with me, are either in jail or dead."

Toward the end of Gallon's redshirt freshman year, his family members could tell his concern when he constantly asked whether they needed anything. They told him to stop and focus on himself.

"I told him, 'Don't worry about what is down here, concentrate on what is up there,'" said his mother, Karen. "'We're going to make it. Concentrate on school and on football because Mom and Dad and your family are going to be all right.'"

Gallon bought it. Off-the-field concerns settled. He didn't know his on-the-field concerns were about to change.

Heck of a coach

In January 2011, Michigan fired Rodriguez. In hiring coach Brady Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges, the Wolverines scrapped the spread-option offense that fit Gallon's talents in favor of a pro-style offense favoring bigger receivers.

At 5-foot-8, Gallon wondered where he fit.

"I was afraid of what they would think of me," Gallon said.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Gallon
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesJeremy Gallon quickly built an excellent relationship with position coach Jeff Hecklinski.
Gallon wasn't the only one. When he returned to Apopka for spring break that year, he called Darlington and asked whether he could come by.

Darlington thought Gallon wanted to transfer. Ten minutes into the conversation, with no mention of transferring, Darlington asked Gallon, "Is everything OK?"

"He's like, 'Yeah, Coach, we're getting ready for spring,'" Darlington said. "I was like, 'You don't want to transfer? You're happy with the staff? He was like, 'Coach, everything is great.'

"I was totally surprised and pleased that he hadn't gotten swept aside or overlooked."

Gallon's concerns had been lifted by a budding relationship with his position coach, Jeff Hecklinski. In a time of transition, Hecklinski and Gallon bonded, and the receiver opened up about everything.

His fears. His family. His doubts.

"Jeremy has grown up in a tough lifestyle," Hecklinski said. "To his credit, he has gotten himself to this point and been able to survive doing things the right way. He knows I'm here for him, care about him and that he can close the door and talk to me and it is confidential.

"I'm here for him, and he knows that."

Throughout that spring, Gallon started catching balls, making plays he didn't think he could. He grasped the offense well. Still, he didn't know if he would play.

And then, one moment in a wide receiver meeting the week before Hoke and his team made their debut, Hecklinski clued him in. The assistant worked his way through the Wolverines' receiving corps, player by player, outlining what he felt each could accomplish.

When he got to Gallon, Hecklinski told his young charge that he could make big plays. That would be expected of him.

"I thought he was just going to skip over me and go to Drew [Dileo]," Gallon said. "He pointed at me, and I was like, 'Man.' He put his trust in me.

"Coach Heck, ever since then, I refuse to let that man down."

The coach made Gallon see himself as the player he would become. The player has responded this season with 40 receptions for 684 yards and two touchdowns, earning All-Big Ten honorable mention.

Now, almost four years after flying from Florida, he has become a focal point of the offense. He is on track to be the first Gallon to graduate from college and is contemplating a master's degree.

For the first time in his life, Jeremy Gallon knows exactly where he is going.

Michael Rothstein | email

ESPN Detroit Lions reporter