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All on the Line

Football is more than just a game for A&M's Jermaine Eluemunor.

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London's Wembley Stadium is one of the most iconic venues in the world. The second-largest stadium in Europe with a capacity of 90,000, Wembley regularly hosts England's premier athletic and concert events underneath its trademark arch that rises nearly 450 feet above the ground.

England's national soccer team plays many of its home matches inside the spectacular stadium, and it has also hosted the Olympics, the UEFA Champions League finals, English Premier League soccer, as well as a number of concerts by artists such as Madonna, AC/DC, U2 and Metallica.

Nine years ago, the famous facility welcomed an event that would eventually have significant ramifications for the Texas A&M football team.

On Oct. 28, 2007, Wembley Stadium for the first time played host to a National Football League game. The contest, which was the first regular season NFL game ever played outside North America, pitted the Miami Dolphins against the New York Giants. On a rainy London day, New York eventually prevailed with a sloppy, 13-10 victory over the winless Dolphins. Back in America, the game went largely unnoticed as the NFL's television deal left the game blacked out in much of the country. For most professional football fans, the contest was little more than a footnote on a season that culminated in a Giants' victory in the Super Bowl.

For Texas A&M football fans, the game likely didn't register even a slight blip on the radar. The Aggies were one day removed from a tough, 19-11 loss to No. 9 Kansas during a season that would eventually end with an appearance in the Alamo Bowl.

In London, the game received mixed reviews. While a near-capacity crowd was on hand to see its first in-person glimpse of American football, observers inside Wembley Stadium witnessed an offensive stalemate. New York quarterback Eli Manning passed for just 59 yards, and the two teams combined for only five trips inside the red zone. Newspaper accounts even mentioned that some fans booed toward the end of the game as the Giants took a knee to run out the clock and seal the win.

While fans of fast-paced football in America would wrinkle their nose at the box score, at least one fan in England was instantly enamored.

Jermaine Eluemunor, whose family lived in London, couldn't take his eyes off the television. The rain-soaked game that appeared sloppy to most was mesmerizing to the 12-year-old Eluemunor. He loved the physicality, the hitting and the hard-nosed aspect of the sport.

 

Across the Pond

Jermaine Eluemunor, called "London" by his teammates and coaches, has gone from a boy who could only watch football on television to a man who has become a starter on a top-10 college football team. Eluemunor started the season at right tackle for the Aggies, and coach Kevin Sumlin said the senior lineman is one of the strongest players on the team.

And soon, Eluemunor was even asking his parents if they could move to the United States so he could play competitively.

Like most in England, Jermaine's father, John, had long been infatuated with a different brand of football.

"In London, I loved soccer so much, so I always wanted him to play that," recalled John recently. "He played a little bit, but wasn't too interested. Then he tried rugby for a while, but he kept asking about football. So he would ask me many times if we could move to the United States. He's one of the reasons we moved here. He just wanted to play football."

So, in May 2009 when Jermaine was 14 years old, his father finally agreed to take a monumental leap of faith and move to the United States. It was a decision that was difficult on the close-knit Eluemunor family. John and Jermaine moved first, leaving behind Jermaine's mother and siblings. Once they arrived in America, the two moved in with John's sister while they attempted to find their footing in a new country. While Jermaine enrolled in high school and began playing football, John worked multiple jobs in order to save money to rent the family's first apartment.

Jermaine entered Morris Knolls High School in Denville, N.J., and immediately immersed himself into finding new friends, passing his classes and learning a sport he had previously only seen on television and the internet.

"It was difficult," said John. "We didn't have a place of our own. And Jermaine has always been a bit of a mommy's boy, so you can imagine at 14 years old how tough it was to break off from his mother."

Eluemunor worked hard on the gridiron, but struggled to find a permanent place on the field. Not only was he competing against others who had played a lifetime of football, but Eluemunor was also a year younger than most of his classmates. That left a steep learning curve to overcome, both physically and emotionally.

He attacked his deficiencies the only way he knew how: with an unyielding work ethic.

"That's something I learned from my dad," said Jermaine, who is now A&M's starting right tackle. "I saw how hard he was working for his family, day in and day out, and never complained whatsoever. There have been times in my life, and I still do this, where I question if this is really for me, but then I think about how hard my dad works for us, and that's something that keeps me going."

While he toiled on the football field at Morris Knolls, the school's wrestling coach quickly saw potential and invited Eluemunor to try out for the team.

As a junior, in his first year as a competitive wrestler, Eluemunor compiled a 17-13 record competing on the varsity squad. But he wanted more and even told his coach in the offseason that he would make the state finals the next season.

After an offseason of intense workouts, Eluemunor shined as a senior. He rolled to a 34-4 record and lived up to his promise of making it all the way to the New Jersey state finals.

The aggressiveness of the sport fit Eluemunor well. It also translated perfectly onto the football field.

"I loved how it was a one-on-one sport," Eluemunor recalled. "Either you're going to win or he's going to win. You both want the same thing, and that prepared me for the one-on-one aspect of football. (Wrestling) is a sport that makes you work really hard. You have to dedicate yourself to it in order to be good, and that year showed me that if I really dedicate myself, I can succeed. It helped make me a man of my word and commit to things I need to commit to."

Success didn't come so quickly on the football field. While Eluemunor's brute strength was impressive and he was a solid contributor for his high school team, he wasn't skilled enough to garner scholarship offers from any Division I schools.

Instead, he landed at Lackawanna College, located about 90 miles away from Denville in Scranton, Pa. A walk-on into a junior college program that produces a number of Division I signees each year, Eluemunor immediately stood out to coach Mark Duda. Year one at Lackawanna included more time on the practice field, but Eluemunor battled his way into the starting lineup by his sophomore year.

"If you watched him play when he was younger, you could see how explosive he is and how innately quick he is," recalled Duda recently in a telephone interview. "He was already a great athlete, but he was just lacking experience. (Playing offensive line) came to him pretty rapidly, and he was an excellent player for us by his second year. He could run, he could pull, he could jump...he had all the tools."

Big schools quickly noticed the burgeoning talent, and attention began pouring in. Recruiters from Florida State, Alabama, Ohio State, UCLA and many others scoured his film and began dishing out scholarship offers.

Former Texas A&M offensive coordinator Jake Spavital, who coached at West Virginia in 2011-12, remembered Eluemunor's name and made sure the Aggies were privy to the 6-foot-5, 300-pounder who was eventually tabbed as one of the top offensive line recruits in the country. Eluemunor briefly committed to both UCLA and Arkansas during the summer, but flipped to A&M coach Kevin Sumlin after visiting College Station for the Aggies' 56-24 victory against Vanderbilt late in October 2013.

"It was a crazy experience because I went from no one recruiting me to schools everywhere wanting me to come visit and play there," Eluemunor said. "You go from not knowing what the future holds to knowing that you have a lot of options from the best schools in the country.

"The fans (at A&M) were really welcoming to me with the howdies. I'm from the east coast so I didn't really know that term, but it wasn't long before I was saying it, too. I noticed how close everyone was...that family atmosphere was special."

That set the stage for Eluemunor to move from a school that consisted of 1,300 students and one classroom building to a campus exceeding 55,000 students with hundreds of buildings.

 

On the Block

So far this season, Eluemunor, who earned U.S. citizenship earlier this summer, has helped pave the way for an offense that ranks in the top 25 in several statistical categories. The 6-foot-4, 325-pound transfer from Lackawanna College in Scranton, Pa., dreams of continuing his football career after he graduates from A&M so he can help provide for his family.

Eluemunor arrived at A&M with three years to complete his two remaining years of eligibility, so Aggie coaches decided a redshirt season would be best. That left Eluemunor in a familiar position of trying to absorb more knowledge about the nuances of the game during 2014.

The following year, he saw action in all 13 games and even earned his first career start in the Music City Bowl against Louisville.

Both starters on the right side of A&M's offensive line graduated last year, and A&M coaches initially slotted Eluemunor in as the 2016 team's starting right guard before shifting him to right tackle during preseason practices. Eluemunor flourished in the position, earning the start at tackle for A&M's season-opener against UCLA.

For a player who had spent his entire football career attempting to play at the highest level, the moment was surreal. It also provided a great lesson.

"It shows that hard work pays off, even if there are times you think it won't," Eluemunor said. "I've always had people tell me I can't do this or can't do that. I could have easily quit playing football, but I love football. I love playing, and it gave me the opportunity to come to America. I have always believed in myself and always had my family backing me up. To see how far I have come from not even getting recruited out of high school to being the starting right tackle at one of the top SEC schools, it shows that you can do whatever you want if you put your mind to it. Nothing is too big."

Not only was his start against UCLA memorable because of the spine-tingling 31-24 overtime victory, but it was made more special by the fact that his family was able to travel to College Station to attend their first major college football game. Typically, the Eluemunor family is only together once or twice a year, but the trip to Aggieland provided plenty of memorable moments.

"We are so proud of him," said John Eluemunor. "I was very nervous watching the game, but being inside the stadium was awesome. I used to work in Wembley Stadium and have seen 80,000 people, but I've never seen anything like being in a crowd of 100,000. It was electric. We will never forget it."

The family's milestones haven't occurred only around the football field, however. Earlier this year, Jermaine obtained his dual citizenship. As a result, his mother, Sarah, was also able to obtain a green card to live permanently in the United States. It allows her to work legally, something that helped ease the financial burden of having just one working parent.

The immigration process is often lengthy and expensive, but it allowed Jermaine an opportunity to help support his parents. On a couple of occasions, in a display of maturity and love for family, he sent a portion of his cost of attendance stipend back home to help his parents with bills while Sarah was unable to work.

"My dad was working two jobs, and I was worried about my family because they are my backbone," Eluemunor said. "I didn't want him to have to worry so I tried taking some stress off his back. He's my dad, and he always wants to help me, but I look at it as it's my turn to look after them. That's one thing football is helping me do."

Football may provide a chance for Eluemunor to help his family for many more years to come. Considering the Aggie senior has earned a starting role for an SEC team just eight years after playing for the first time, the ceiling is high.

"He's found a home at right tackle," Sumlin said. "He had his pick of where he could go (for college), so he's certainly talented. As one pro scout told me, 'No. 72 doesn't make it look that hard.' He is very athletic for a 330-pound guy. He may not be a prototypical tackle, but he is one of the strongest guys on the team and bench presses up around 500 pounds, and he is still pretty nimble. He's really just getting going."

That could be a scary thought for opposing defenses tasked with slowing down an offense that finished September ranked in the top 25 in total offense (9th), rushing offense (10th) and scoring (16th). Under the tutelage of offensive line coach Jim Turner, the A&M offensive line has paved the way for a rushing attack that averaged 269 yards per game in the first month of the season.

Meanwhile, the Eluemunor family's move to the United States continues to provide Jermaine a chance to achieve dreams that would not have been possible in London. His winding road from Morris Knolls High School to Lackawanna College to Texas A&M is one that few have experienced.

"I promised my parents I was going to make it," Eluemunor said. "Coming to a new country with nothing, you really have to want something to be successful. When we came here, me and my dad, we didn't have anything. In my mind, I have to make it because they took a risk coming here with all the struggles we have been through.

"To see me come to A&M and graduate in December and get my ring this fall, it just goes to show that football has been a big factor in my life. It's helped create a better life for me and my family. It's making a man out of me, and it's really turning me into the person I want to be. It's more than a game to me. It has really changed my life."

 

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2016 October

"We want Texas A&M to have the best programs across the board and have programs we can all be proud of.

It's a real pleasure for us to do this, because I think back about all the support Aggies have given me. No one accomplishes everything in life by themselves, and A&M and the Aggie network have definitely been there for me throughout my life."

Jack and Michele Lafield