Tampa football player cleared of wrongdoing in eligibility case

A Tampa high school football player who is ranked as one of the best prep players in the country finally has his chance to hit the gridiron, after being sidelined for most of the season because of an investigation spurred by information provided by coaches at his former -- and now rival -- high school. 

After an eight-week inquiry, the Florida High School Athletic Association determined there was no “clear and convincing evidence” that 15-year-old Jermaine Eskridge had provided false information in order to start attending Jefferson High School last April.

Eskridge, who verbally committed to play for Kentucky over the summer, played his first game on Friday after missing nine games during the eligibility ruling. 

“It was different getting out there on Friday night lights because I ain't played football since last year,” Eskridge said. “It was enjoyment. I just got to run around a lot.”

The case was spurred by information provided by his former football coaches at rival Alonso High School, who said they received screenshots of text messages between Eskridge and someone posing as a college football recruiter that raised questions about whether he’d played by the rules when transferring. Alonso administrators sent them to the school district, which asked the Florida High School Athletic Association to look into it. 

Jefferson won Friday’s game, which sends the team to the playoffs. Eskridge will also play during the team’s last regular game on Friday.

Jefferson coach, Jeremy Earle, says Eskridge worked hard during practices, he said, but now they have to work to “knock the rust off” for games.   

“Being able to replicate game-type situations in practice is very, very difficult,” he said. “Those invaluable experiences are something he was really robbed of, so we're really trying to put it in fast-forward to get him ready for the second round.” 

Unanswered Questions

Eskridge’s mother says whoever sent him the text messages at the center of the investigation was attempting to entrap him with questions about why he transferred and where he was living

It’s still not clear who was behind the messages in the May conversation or how Eskridge’s former football coaches, Brian Emanuel and Greg Callahan, received them. It’s also not clear why they surfaced in August.

Eskridge was notified of the investigation days before the season started.

Alonso High School principal Kenneth Hart says there were some missteps with how the coaches handled the departures of other students -- Callahan reportedly vented about his misgivings about the transfers on social media, for instance – but says the school did nothing wrong by passing along the screenshots to Hillsborough County Athletic Director Lanness Robinson, who passed them along to the FHSAA. Robinson did not respond to an interview request. 

“We did our due diligence, nothing more than that. It wasn’t personal,” Hart told FOX 13. “I’m glad the kid can play.”

Hart says the coaches told him the screenshots came from a student but the coaches wouldn’t divulge the student’s name.

Asked whether he investigated whether his coaches were involved, he said, “There was no need to. I was satisfied with the information we received.”

Earle says the process seemed to disregard the child at the center of it.

“To make a young man have to forfeit games over something that can so easily be misconstrued and was obviously fabricated, false and made up was a little concerning, as it was taken as valid,” he said.