Adoption helps Clemon turn corner
Positive influence of adopted family changes tight end's course
When the odds of life are stacked against you, hopes and dreams become secondary to survival.
For most of his childhood, Concordia-St. Paul sophomore tight end Jermaine Clemon grew up living to survive.
Clemon was born in Chicago where his father was murdered on the streets of the city just three months later. One of seven children in the family, Clemon lived a relatively normal childhood until the age of six years old. Then, drugs came into their family picture and things started going downhill.
"My mom started using drugs and there were a lot of things that contributed to hard living," Clemon said. "We lived on the south side of Chicago and we moved to the west side because things were cheaper, particularly drugs. Things were supposedly going to be better, but they weren't. We lived in an abandoned house and we didn't have heat, gas or lights -- none of that. We didn't have the essentials that we needed to live."
On a daily basis, Clemon and his siblings were forced to find their next meal because the house did not have a refrigerator. Several times, they scoured through the nearby White Castle's dumpster for food.
"It was hard to be a child because I was forced to grow up before I was an adult," Clemon said. "I couldn't go and play -- I had to think about where I was getting my next meal or were the police going to kick in our door that day."
At the age of 11, Clemon's mother decided she was not stable enough to take care of him, so he went to live with his older sister Geneva in the inner city of Racine, Wis.
"The living conditions were better at first, but life started to hit," Clemon said. "My sister had five kids of her own and we were living off one government check."
Clemon started getting in trouble. He rarely went to school and had no visions of the future.
"I was not living up to my potential in school," Clemon said. "I thought it was a waste of time. I either wouldn't go or smoke pot. At 12 years old, I started getting in trouble with the law and was back and forth in juvenile detention centers until I was about 14 or 15."
At the same time, Clemon was hungry and still always looking for his next meal.
"My nieces were going to a bible study given by Robert and Wendy Webb," Clemon said. "They would take inner city kids to a bible study and feed them a meal. That was my reliable meal for Tuesdays."
Wendy Webb remembers the first time Clemon attended the bible study with his brother and cousin. She was driving a 15-passenger van to pick up children for the weekly event.
"The first time I ever saw Jermaine, he and his brother and cousin were walking towards my van," Webb said. "It was the first time I was afraid and I had visited bad neighborhoods many times. I thought I would have a knife in my neck before I got off the street. That was my first impression."
While Clemon began attending the bible study so he could eat, the Webbs eventually got him to come out of his shell.
"When it started, I would just wear my hoodie over my head and not engage in the conversation," Clemon said. "As I continued to go, I found myself looking for more than just food and I started opening up."
The boys loved to come to the Webb's house, and would even spend the night sometimes.
"Our house was a different world and they wanted to be there," Webb said.
Despite the progress, Clemon continued to find trouble with the local authorities. Finally, on his 15th birthday, his sister kicked him out of the house because she was in jeopardy of losing her own children due to Clemon's actions. Clemon lived here and there for a couple of months, mostly crashing on friends' couches. In desperation, Geneva called Wendy Webb.
"I got a phone call from his sister, and she was crying and she said, 'I can't handle him anymore,'" Webb said. "He was getting into trouble. I told her I would be there in 10 minutes and I picked him up. We didn't know what was going to happen. We just knew at that moment he needed a roof over his head."
It was the night everything changed for Clemon.
"I was totally against it at first," Clemon said. "It was a whole new style of living than what I was used to. We had no rules or guidelines, but at Bob and Wendy's there were rules."
The Webbs took over guardianship of Clemon from his sister, got him good health care, and petitioned the local school system to have him transferred from the alternative learning center for children with behavioral problems to a public high school near their home.
Before Clemon began the new school he was basically failing, and in the second semester of his freshman year, he posted a 3.0 GPA.
"I guess I brainwashed myself into thinking I wasn't smart because I had such a low GPA, but Bob and Wendy were so encouraging," Clemon said. "They said when I did the work it was 100 percent. Wendy made me feel good about that."
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With the Webb's support, and a new-found faith in Christ, Clemon started taking college prep classes like Latin and AP Shakespeare. He joined three choirs, including a barbershop quartet that received a perfect score in a state competition his junior year. As a sophomore, he began playing high school basketball and football, despite never participating in an organized sport.
"He wanted a chance at life," Webb said. "For Jermaine, life is like a candy shop and he is filled with wonder."
Clemon immersed himself in learning and activities, posted a 3.4 GPA in his senior year and gave himself a chance to go to college despite never believing it was possible.
"Even in my senior year I didn't think I was going to college," Clemon said. "Wendy assured me one day that I was going to college."
Although Clemon only made the Racine Horlick H.S. varsity football team in his senior year, the six-foot-four, 240-pound natural athlete caught 51 passes for 682 yards and six touchdowns, impressing collegiate coaches, including Concordia-St. Paul head coach Ryan Williams.
"His personality and his potential as an athlete and football player stood out," Williams said. "You don't often meet someone like him who has the tools that is a hybrid of a receiver and a tight end. He's big enough to be a tight end, but athletic enough to catch a pass -- that's special. After we heard his story, we liked him even more."
At the same time Williams was recruiting Clemon, the movie "The Blind Side" came out - the true story of Michael Oher, a homeless and traumatized boy who became an All-America offensive lineman at Ole Miss and first round NFL draft pick with the help of a caring woman and her family.
When Williams learned of Clemon's life experience, he said there was a huge "oh wow" factor.
After redshirting in 2010, Clemon started seven games at tight end for the Golden Bears last year. In Concordia's season-opener against Mary, Clemon caught a 24-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter for the Golden Bears' first score of the season. The Webbs never miss a game.
"Over the last two years, he's continued to mature," Williams said. "The fun part is helping him develop as a man, and as a college football player."
Clemon is majoring in special education, and minoring in coaching at Concordia. He wants to help other children like the Webbs and his teachers and coaches helped him.
"Nowadays, you see how special education kids get pushed through the school system without being challenged," Clemon said. "My belief is that if you challenge them, they are really no different."
Clemon is the first person in his biological family to attend college, and strives to be a person who his nieces and nephews want to emulate.
"My family drives me," Clemon said. "I want them to know you can do it and you can be great at what you do. That's helped me get through the dog days of camp or studying for AP classes ... the thought of my family would pop into my head and I knew I would have to go 110 percent."
"He is a man of excellence," Webb said. "He loves excellence and that is what he strives for that in all of his endeavors. It is not good enough to just participate."