TAMPA (FOX 13) - Jermaine Eskridge, 15, is ranked as one of the best high school wide receivers in the country.
At 6 feet, 3 inches, 195 pounds, he was number 21 on Alonso High School’s varsity football team as a freshman and number six on Jefferson High School’s team as a sophomore. But he hasn’t been able to wear that jersey on the field because of anonymous text messages that surfaced just days before the season was set to start, throwing his eligibility into question.
The text messages, dated May 16, purport to be from a University of Southern California recruiter named Craig Meyers asking for Eskridge’s address. Eskridge, who had transferred to Jefferson about a month earlier, replied with his Alonso address.
"He was so excited but he was worried: 'Coach, I couldn't remember my new address so I sent him my old one,’” said current coach Jeremy Earle, who said they didn’t think too much of it at the time. Eskridge would still be able to receive whatever information the recruiter was going to send.
The mail never came. It wasn’t a USC recruiter who contacted him. There’s no one named Craig Meyers at USC, recruiters can’t text message 15-year-olds, and phone calls to the number with a 619 area code aren’t answered.
It seems that the only people who know who contacted Eskridge and took screenshots are his former football coaches -- who refused to say where they came from, according to Alonso principal Kenneth Hart.
"That’s a decision they made,” Hart said in an interview with FOX 13. “I told them, ‘I’m not going to force you, but be prepared to answer questions.’”
Hart sent the text messages to the Hillsborough County District. “We felt it was necessary to share the information we had,” he said.
Eskridge’s mother, Keshia Ravnell, says one of the reasons she moved to the Jefferson school boundaries was so her son would be closer to where she receives dialysis three times a week. The procedures don’t finish up until late in the evening, and being close to the school meant Jermaine could be dropped off at the clinic after practice.
When finding an affordable, long-term rental within school boundaries proved difficult, she applied for an emergency hardship, which would allow her to find a rental outside the school boundaries, but keep him close to where she receives medical treatment.
The school district approved it.
So she was surprised to hear from district athletic director Lanness Robinson, telling her he’d received text messages from Alonso that made him question her story.
“You can’t say, just because he gave his old address means we were still staying there,” she said, adding that he never played in the spring. Now that he has a hardship exemption, his address shouldn’t matter. She says she’s had tense conversations with Robinson, trying to understand what the investigation is about. “Are you saying I lied about being on dialysis?”
Robinson, who did not respond to an interview request, decided to send the case to the Florida High School Athletic Association, effectively shutting him out of the first half of his season so far.
The FHSSA couldn’t comment on the investigation, but said they’ve now cleared him to play junior varsity while the investigation continues.
“No one can give him a concrete answer as to why he has to sit out,” Earle said.
It’s not clear whether anyone is investigating who sent the fraudulent text messages to Eskridge in the first place.
Alonso assistant Coach Greg Callahan did not respond to an interview request. State business records show he also helps run the business CALIPREPS.NET – “California’s Top Football Recruiting Source," according to the website.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, Callahan was reprimanded by Hart earlier this year for his role in making another player’s transfer difficult. “Does anyone have loyalty any longer?” he tweeted on March 17, according to the article.
Alonso head coach Brian Emanuel referred questions to Hart.
Hart says he never asked his coaches if they were the ones who sent them to 15-year-old Eskridge.
Eskridge’s mother has her own message for whoever sent the texts to her son.
“For you to do a child like that – how would you feel if the shoe was on the other foot, if you had a child and someone did your child like that?” she said.
Eskridge has already verbally committed to play for Kentucky. Her oldest son plays for Delaware.
“I can’t afford college, so he needs a scholarship,” she said. “If he’s not on the field playing, the scholarship is in jeopardy.”
Eskridge battles discouragement, but shows up each day to practice, hoping this Friday’s game is the one he’ll get to play.
"I had to think about it like, I won't be going to college without this,” he said. “It just hit me: Get back on the field and get hungry."