Nike sneakers crunch on the gravel-strewn road, worn soles slapping against the still damp asphalt, echoing through the quiet morning air. A sharp inhale, quick exhale, repeat. The sky is baby blue — one reminiscent of fresh sheets at a cozy bed and breakfast — but the blinding sun is slowly creeping above the home bleachers of Mihalik-Thompson Stadium.

Jermaine Wynn Jr. knows he’s going to have a hard time moving around later, but he pushes through another grueling hill circuit. It’s kind of symbolic for Wynn; he’s so close yet so far away from the house he helped make famous around Division II football last season.

His shirt is drenched in sweat by now, a bead gliding down his forehead as he stands with his hands behind his head. His chest rises and falls rapidly, a quick inhale and exhale, followed by another and then another.

The hill is well-known, some might call it a mountain, but Jermaine sees it for what it’s worth: the opportunity to get better. He frequents the asphalt mountain at the base of Mihalik-Thompson three times a week when he’s in Slippery Rock. He says it’s the perfect way to work on his quickness and leg strength. Having watched Jermaine last season, one might wonder just what he’ll be able to do after a summer of training on the mountain.

Jermaine is back in Slippery Rock, staying at his off-campus apartment so he can focus his full attention on finishing his junior year. The promise that he made his mother years ago is within sight. He’s been back and forth from his home in Pittsburgh, but the chance to get back to Slippery Rock and grind was too great to pass.

Before he can start on his schoolwork, he needs to get a workout in. He says if he doesn’t work out before hitting the books, he’s unable to focus. It’s one of the little quirks that he’s found out about himself.

The morning workout is strictly speed and agility training. There are no weights involved — although it’s not like he can somehow get weights from somewhere.

After some food, Jermaine allows himself some time for leisure. Xbox One is the console of choice and Madden 20, NBA 2K20 and Call of Duty are his preferred games.

Pittsburgh born and bred, the Steelers are Jermaine’s team of choice. Through every Madden he’s ever played, it’s always been the Steelers. 2K is a different story. There is no favorite team, just one man.

“LeBron,” Jermaine said. “You don’t even have to say the Lakers. Just say LeBron.”

Playing video games with athletes at the peak of their athletic prowess provides some inspiration, with Jermaine returning to the grind for his second workout of the day that much harder. And this time, he’s using anything he can get his hands on.

Head athletic trainer Scott Morrison assigned Rock football with a quarantine workout, and Jermaine uses whatever he can get his hands on — everyday household items, old dumbbells and weights — to strengthen his body. Midway through April, Jermaine hit a personal best of 123 straight push-ups. He set a goal of 150 by the end of April.

Jermaine grabs a bite for dinner, and then he’s off to bed. That’s life for him now. The days kind of seem to blend together.

Thousands of cars crawl past the Union Trust Building on Fifth Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh every day. The beautiful gray brick building, designed with an intricately sculpted architecture that wouldn’t look out of place in Ancient Greece or Rome sits in the shadow of the UPMC and Highmark skyscrapers.

The exterior of the building is beautiful, but sitting on the intersection of Fifth and Grant Street, tucked away inside the Union Trust, Eddie V’s Prime Seafood is the real treasure.

No stranger to Pittsburgh, having walked the streets his whole life, Jermaine is very familiar with the high-end surf and turf restaurant. For a college student, entrees costing upwards of $45 as just takeout are usually unattainable. Thankfully Jermaine’s older sister, Jaquala, isn’t a college student.

On Jermaine’s 22nd birthday back in January, Jaquala treated him to dinner at Eddie V’s down on Grant. To his astonishment, she even let him pick his meal. After scanning the menu, he decided on an $80 meal.

As a 22-year-old student-athlete, Jermaine has a hard enough time juggling football and the rigorous schedule that comes with being a second-semester junior. The thought of having to take on two young kids would be a task that he admits would be too much to handle.

When Jermaine’s mother, Damitria, was forced to go away for two years to deal with some personal issues, Jaquala, who was only 20-years-old at the time, took in a 14-year-old Jermaine and their 10-year-old brother, Curtis, in order to keep the family together. To try to keep a little bit of normalcy in a tough time.

“I love my sister to death for that, and I wish I could just pay her back as much as I can,” Jermaine said. “That’s what I plan to do one day.”

Jermaine says Jaquala isn’t one for crazy or expensive gifts. Instead, he says he’ll remember that afternoon at Eddie V’s.

14-year-old Jermaine heard the bell ring, signaling the end of the school day. Well, the end of the school day for most of the students. Jermaine packed up his things and headed out to the parking lot to wait for Mrs. Costello.

Costello would drive Jermaine down to the local elementary school after his school day was over so he could start his shift as a tutor for local kindergarten through fifth graders.

Living with Jaquala, Jermaine didn’t want to just sit by as his sister provided for Curtis and him. He took it upon himself to find ways to provide for her and the family. However, as a 14-year-old, there weren’t too many opportunities to make money. He found his outlet in tutoring kids in reading and comprehension.

“I worked five days a week, eight hours a day, and I think I can attribute me being good with kids to me working that job for as long as I did,” Jermaine said. “That taught me a lot of patience and how to deal with kids.”

With Damitria out of Jermaine’s life for two years in that period of his life, he says Costello made sure to accommodate and look out for him whenever she could. While he hasn’t been in touch with her in some time, maybe it’s time to see how she’s doing.

Jermaine didn’t want to just get by while living with his sister, he wanted to help her along the way.

There were less than two minutes remaining in Slippery Rock’s NCAA second-round contest with Shepherd University. The Rams had upset Indiana University (Pa.) in Indiana the previous week, setting up a rematch of the 2015 NCAA quarterfinals — a game that Slippery Rock lost 28-16.

Slippery Rock led Shepherd 51-30 on the back of an offensive onslaught, helped by 17 catches and 225 yards from Jermaine, toward the end of the contest. Former Rock wideout Greg Hopkins had set the program record with 17 receptions in a playoff game and Humboldt State wideout Chase Krivashei had set the Division II record with 18 catches. A three-yard slant from Wynn broke Hopkin’s record and tied Krivashei’s.

“[Breaking the record] felt awesome,” Jermaine said to The Rocket in December. “Looking back at high school, being under-recruited, not a lot of schools wanted me. Just to be on this stage, to play like that, and to help my team, it felt great.”

Jermaine caught 30 passes during the three-game march to the national semifinals, racking up 333 yards and four scores. As one part of the best wide receiving duo in Division II football, Jermaine caught 95 passes (second in single-season history) for 1,339 yards (third in single-season history) and 15 touchdowns (second in single-season history). In addition to game-breaking talent in the slot, Jermaine was an all-conference return man in 2019.

“You could say it’s pretty cool being one of the top players at Slippery Rock,” Jermaine says. “With how much weight we carry, when we’re doing well, the whole school morale is usually up. For me to be kind of a face of that is pretty cool.”

However, Jermaine isn’t just a football player — regardless of how much he lives and breathes the game.

“I also want to be known as someone who is involved in some other things,” Jermaine says. “I’ve spoken at a couple of events during my time at Slippery Rock, Black History events — when there was a whole thing going on about social justice, I showed up to that and spoke at that.”

Jermaine helped kick off Black History Month by speaking at the Office of Inclusive Excellence’s “How They See Us” event in February. He acknowledged that while his platform might not be huge, he wants to be able to use his voice to talk about what he’s feeling and bring to light what he thinks is right or wrong.

Originally attending Alderson Broaddus, a small, Division II school located among the scenic rolling hills of Phillipi, West Virginia, Jermaine transferred to Slippery Rock after his freshman year.

Navigating that transition from a school with just 1,000 students to one with almost 10,000 would be challenging enough, but for a first-generation college student– proudly the first of his immediate family to go to college– it was that much harder.

With no one to show him the way at first, Jermaine had a lot of figuring out to do. As he enters his fourth year of college in the fall, he’s come a long way. It’s gotten easier to navigate the rigors of balancing school and football.

Jermaine hasn’t been alone after all. Dr. Burkhart, a professor in the geography, geology and the environment department, has been a positive impact on him — and the whole of Rock football.

“What people probably don’t know is Dr. Burkhart is a huge Rock football fan,” Jermaine said. “Even in his lectures, he’ll mention something about Rock football, one of our team goals or something. Whenever I see him around or he comes up to the stadium, I always make sure I acknowledge him, start a small conversation with him because I always want to hear what he has to say.”

That bond between Jermaine and Burkhart began in a 101 level environmental geology class. To those unfamiliar with the course, it’s housed in a huge auditorium. Students are scattered across the auditorium, some transfixed by the passionate professor and others by their phones.

Burkhart is known for his loud, passionate lectures — which can sometimes rub students the wrong way. Not Jermaine.

“We just connected really well,” Jermaine said. “Everyone says his lectures are long or they’re misleading information, but if you really pay attention and try to grasp the information, he’s misunderstood. He’s a really good guy.”

“It’s always something different with Dr. B,” Jermaine said.

Jermaine is no stranger to loss in life. Six days before his first birthday, his father, Jermaine Sr., passed away suddenly. Jermaine’s older brother, Robert, stepped in as a father figure in his life.

Growing up, Robert used Jermaine as a way to live out his football life, not in a crazy, overbearing way, but in the way that an older brother wants to see his younger brother achieve his goals and reach his dreams.

A week before Jermaine’s first-ever camp at Woodland Hills, he was woefully unprepared. He didn’t have any of the gear or equipment for camp. As camp got closer and closer, Jermaine started getting nervous, as he couldn’t afford to buy cleats, pads or anything. Until he got a huge box of equipment from Robert.

“A few days before camp, my brother popped up and he brought me a box full of things; there were gloves, cleats, tape, everything I could want as a football player,” Jermaine said.

While Jermaine still wears the wristband in that box to this day, the cleats didn’t last that long. They barely lasted a month.

Thinking back to Jermaine’s little league days, Robert bought Jermaine a pair of Nike Landsharks. Fine cleats, sure, but they were outdated and not the cleats that he needed. So, while Jermaine acted like he loved the cleats, he returned them for a pair of low cuts that were more his style later.

Those cleats, and that gesture, ended up being one of the last impacts Robert had on his brother.

A week later, around the start of camp, Robert died in a car crash. For a young teenager already without his father, losing his older brother so suddenly was a crushing blow. Jermaine says that point in life is when a teenager needs that positive male role model in their life.

While Robert is no longer around physically, he’s never really left Jermaine. He’s always been that motivation, that overwhelming drive to succeed. Without Robert, Jermaine knows he wouldn’t be in the position that he’s in today.

The bond between a mother and son is something that can’t really be explained. It’s powerful, unconditional love, the kind that isn’t found anywhere else. For Jermaine, his mom truly is his heart.

“She made questionable decisions in her life, but not in one moment did she stop being the most loving and caring mother you could ask for,” Jermaine says.

Growing up, times weren’t always easy for Jermaine and his family, but Damitria always tried to make sure that he had not just what he needed but what he wanted, too. She tried her best to make Jermaine and all his siblings happy.

Like with the bond shared between Jermaine and Robert, his bond with his mother transcends football. As a teenager, Jermaine promised his mother he would be the first in the family to get a college degree. A mother’s love can serve as the strongest motivation possible, and Jermaine has strived to be the best possible version of himself — whether that’s on the football field or in the classroom.

Now that the finish line is within sight, the winding road that Jermaine has navigated to get to this point in his life — the ups and downs through childhood, playing football at Woodland Hills, starting at Alderson Broaddus and finishing at Slippery Rock — still doesn’t feel real. It still hasn’t hit him yet. But just being able to see the finish line is a success in its own right, and Jermaine isn’t close to being done yet.

If you ask a college student whether college sped by for them, nine out 10 will say it was the quickest four years of their lives. Jermaine feels like he’s been in college for 15 years now. It’s time for the last ride.

Even though the offseason has been thrown off course by the coronavirus pandemic, the culture and family built and fostered by SRU football coach Shawn Lutz and the rest of his staff have basically negated the impact of COVID-19.

While the team is kept apart physically, Zoom calls are aplenty. The offense meets, the whole team meets. It’s truly a brotherhood.

With the fall sports season postponed until after the new year for all PSAC student-athletes, the fall football season went down the drain — the chance of further record-breaking performances and national success with it. For now.

Although Jermaine might not play a game at Mihalik-Thompson Stadium until 2021, he’ll do so as a college graduate- the promise he made to his mom finally fulfilled. (Of course, there’s another goal, too.)

“That’s a goal right there,” Jermaine said. “[Henry Litwin, Cinque Sweeting and myself] all want to get 1,000 yards.”

Karl is a senior sport management major and communication minor entering his fifth semester on The Rocket staff. He will serve as the sports editor after previously serving as the assistant sports editor. During his time with The Rocket, he has covered every sport that SRU has to offer, and with the lack of sports this coming semester, he is looking forward to finding alternative ways to deliver sports news to the SRU community. After graduation, he hopes to work in the sports writing field.

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Karl Ludwig
Karl is a senior sport management major and communication minor entering his fifth semester on The Rocket staff. He will serve as the sports editor after previously serving as the assistant sports editor. During his time with The Rocket, he has covered every sport that SRU has to offer, and with the lack of sports this coming semester, he is looking forward to finding alternative ways to deliver sports news to the SRU community. After graduation, he hopes to work in the sports writing field.

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