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WSU’s Jeremiah Allison pays it forward

PULLMAN – The story of how Jeremiah Allison overcame meager circumstances to become a community pillar is not a chronicle of his life, but rather an account of the adults who shaped him. That the Washington State linebacker gives – by helping to build homes through Habitat for Humanity, by teaching kids to read on his day off, by playing dominoes at the senior center – is due to the enormous efforts of his mentors. Above all others was his mother, who kept Allison and two siblings on the college track while constantly struggling, occasionally unsuccessfully, to keep a roof over the family’s head. It’s the story of Paul Knox, the head coach at Dorsey High in Los Angeles, whom Allison refers to as “Papa.” He has helped many of his players reach the NFL and demanded that all of them return to the inner city to give back to their community. And Dennis Simmons, the person most responsible for bringing Allison to Pullman, where he is now such a fixture in community projects that he is routinely nominated for national service awards given to athletes. Simmons kept him on the same path set out for him by his mother and high school coach. Simmons, now at Oklahoma after spending three years as WSU’s outside receivers coach, cornered Allison after the linebacker’s second career start last season, a win at Utah. “You know, Jeremiah, at first only 100 people knew your name,” Simmons told his protégé. “Now 1,000 people know your name. You’ve got to remain the same person you are with or without the fans because at the end of the day, you’ve got to do what you and your mom have envisioned since you were a child.” It was just one more lesson in a life that’s been full of them. Before the heart attack that sent her into a coma from which she would never stir, before Jeremiah Allison visited her every day after school, before he left for college and learned of her death just a couple weeks into his freshman season, Lucille Allison managed a football team. Dorsey High never lacked for talented players. Keyshawn Johnson played there. So did Rahim Moore and Stafon Johnson. The Dons routinely have the athletes to match up with elite programs such as Crenshaw and Narbonne, league rivals that have their own long lists of NFL alumni. But the organizational grunt work that pumps life into high school athletics was always scarce. Most players and their parents had bigger concerns than helping the high school pay for uniforms. But Lucille Allison was always around. She would sit on the bench and serve water to the players during games and supervise the equipment managers. She would hand out programs, help with fundraisers and always make sure Jeremiah knew that, though they didn’t have much, they could still always pitch in. “We didn’t always have a lot of parent support,” Knox said. “You’d get three or four or five parents who were really active and tried to mobilize some parents. Any time we had a parent there it was just a big bonus for us.” Now, Allison honors his mother’s memory with a big, bold necklace with a pendant reading “R.I.P. Mom” that can be read from 15 paces away. The chain was in lieu of a tattoo – Lucille Allison didn’t like tattoos, and Jeremiah still doesn’t have any ink. Dorsey High is struggling. The graduation rate of 64 percent is 20 percent lower than the Los Angeles metro area average. Between 87 and 94 percent of the students are on free or reduced-price lunch programs. According to a report by the Los Angeles Unified School District, Dorsey “is located in one of the more economically disadvantaged areas of the district” and a “substantial number of students … live in group homes or with foster families.” It is in this environment that Knox fostered a culture of philanthropy. “Our mission statement is that the program is destined to try to help young men become grown men, hopefully with a diploma and to go into the community and hopefully become role models,” Knox said. “The last tenet is come back to your community and serve people less fortunate as you. We talk about the obligation to our players to come back after they achieve some success in life,” he said. “That may be being a dad or an everyday, productive citizen. That’s what we want, and try to lift up some kids similar to them or kids that struggled similar to them and help them reach that level of manhood.” When he met a talented eighth-grader from South Central L.A. – a more dangerous part of town than most of his classmates grew up in – who insisted he would make straight A’s as a freshman, he knew he had someone who would buy in to his philosophy. Allison discovered that he had a passion for altruism, and joined his mother in gathering community support and funds for the football program. “I was blessed to be in a position to do it in my spare time,” Allison said. “Not only does it help me feel better about myself but it allows me to put a smile on another person’s face and it allows me to meet new people.” Allison’s philanthropic, athletic and academic exploits were noticed even outside the Dorsey community. Willard Love, Dorsey’s interim principal in 2010, once called the 11th-grader into his office to present him with a letter from the district superintendent, the first such letter he’d seen in more than three decades as an administrator. The sharp, strapping athlete that walked into his office impressed him. He was more impressed by his mother. “He came from a single-parent home. His mom was very instrumental in motivating him and getting him in the direction that he as a young black man needed,” Love said. “She was such an inspiration to Jeremiah and I think that inspiration carried over to the school community that was very challenged. She was a very special lady.” After Allison graduated (with a 4.31 GPA, thanks to his honors classes), Knox passed him off to Simmons, who formed such a strong bond with the linebacker during his recruitment that he chose to join the nascent program at WSU over scholarship offers from UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State. Simmons’ mother died not long before Allison’s, and when Allison flew back to California to attend his mother’s funeral he found Simmons waiting for him at the church. Simmons won’t be around for Allison’s senior year, but the two stay in contact, texting about every other day, Allison said. “He’ll text me out of nowhere and say, ‘Just checking on you,’” Allison said. “He’s a big-brother figure. he’s somebody I can call whenever I’m going through things.” Simmons also seems to have a penchant for producing lawyers. Kristoff Williams, an outside receiver for the Cougars last year, is a first-year law student at UC Berkeley and is helping Allison prepare for his law school entrance exams. Allison is on pace to get degrees in political science and criminal justice, as well as a minor in communications. After law school Allison says he will be in the courtroom as some sort of litigator, perhaps a prosecutor, but definitely doing something with people. “There are some amazing stories out there,” Allison said. “And you would never know if you didn’t get involved.”
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