Jermaine Whitehead

Former Cleveland Browns defensive back and Amanda Elzy High standout Jermaine Whitehead is introduced before an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019, in Cleveland. The Rams won 20-13. (AP Photo/David Dermer)

A little over a year after being released by the Cleveland Browns following an outburst on social media, former Amanda Elzy High School and Auburn University star Jermaine Whitehead reflects back on his journey to the NFL, looks ahead to his future outside of football and reveals what lessons he’s passing down to the next generation of Greenwood athletes.

Many people remember you as a highly recruited prospect out of Amanda Elzy, but they might not know you were also a valedictorian. Growing up in Greenwood, who were your main influences helping to keep your focus in the right direction?

My mother was my main focus. She wanted the best for me and motivated me to want to be the best kid I could be, for her. I wanted to help change our situation through my choice of sport or becoming something dignified like a businessman, or anything that I could think of. I always wanted to make her proud. I kind of did what I could to do that.

I was a very competitive guy. I knew I had to be also good with school so I ended up being the valedictorian of my high school class. I wanted to get that opportunity to go to the next level and understood that a lot of guys from our area missed that opportunity because of grades and other things as well.

At the time, it was about getting to a school with great exposure. I wanted to go somewhere where I could go in and play early. I knew I wanted to play in the SEC, so I thought Auburn was a program that represented academics and sport as well.

Do you have a favorite highlight from your time at Auburn?

There are many. My favorite highlight was my freshman year, I caught an interception and ran it back for a pick six. Man, it just eliminated so much doubt in my mind about being six hours away from home and having to grow up real fast. Not ever knowing anybody in this position who I could talk to about going to college, going to practice, going to the weight room, balancing school, balancing friendships and being able to become a great athlete as well — it was a big learning curve. When I made that play, it opened me up to what I could do with my life.

What was the biggest adjustment going from small-town Greenwood to playing in front of 80,000-plus fans at Auburn?

The bigger the atmosphere, the better it is for me. There are people who will tell you my biggest high school game was against Greenwood. We probably sold out the stadium in the rain. I love the big games. So that was one of my reasons for wanting to play in the SEC.

Amanda Elzy alum Jermaine Whitehead was one of the most highly recruited players in Mississippi and picked Auburn University among several Div…

The biggest learning curve for me was mainly just culture shock — being around people from different places, having different outlooks on life. That’s when I kind of learned to be quiet and listen a lot more. I only knew Greenwood — I didn’t travel much as a kid. Football was my way out. So I tried to learn a lot by understanding my surroundings.

Do you still keep up with the local sports scene in Greenwood?

I keep up with all the local sports in the county. It’s mainly because of the people. The kids, I love to hear their stories and watch them go through that age in life where football is the pinnacle. I see the other side of that now and I understand what that is so I’m definitely rooting for all of them.

Any rising stars you offer advice to today?

I don’t want to miss anybody because I open the door for everybody who reaches out to me. I love Booker T. and his little brother, Kobe Chambers. I talked to Korey Robertson when he was coming through, Sammie Epps when he was coming through. I talk to D.J. Smith now.

Do you feel for some of these young athletes growing up now with limited recreation opportunities during the pandemic?

I want to start off by saying Greenwood is a great place to grow up with great people and great food. We’re in a different time than when I grew up. Recreation has been cut and kids are doing other things that are causing harm to our community. I feel for them. I apologize. It shouldn’t be that way. All these kids grew up together. The city’s so small, they’re probably kin to each other in some type of way. It just hurts my soul to know that’s the temperature in the city right now. I support the Bullpups, I support the Raiders, I support all the local baseball teams that are still pushing to get kids competitive in sports instead of the street level. And it starts from the top. I hope we get that structure back.

What are you up to now? Still focused on an NFL comeback or looking more at life outside of football?

My foot is still in the NFL door. In my mind, I have something to prove about my character and the guy who I am. I’ve been in a lot of locker rooms, and I don’t think anybody really can say I’m a bad guy. I just have my moments that are a little louder than everybody else’s. I just understand that life is kind of about being able to take yourself outside (the moment) and just realize every situation is only a moment. Life is much bigger. Big learning lesson. Growing up, I had to make the most of every moment so I always wanted to step up. There was so much intention on winning. I had to step back from that a bit.

I’m doing about four hours of training a day. Mainly staying in shape, moving around, a little bit of weights. Just making sure I can be in shape to run because that’s what that level is about. It’s not really about the strength as much as how long can you run and how long can you endure. So that’s been my main focus talking with my agent. We’re getting a few things lined up but the pandemic has held me kind of hostage. I’m still willing to walk through that door, though.

I think it was just a year I had to take off, relax and get back to who I really am.

Can you credit anything or anyone for keeping you grounded after you were released?

I really got back close with my family. I got to be around them a lot more. I spent holidays with them for the first time in forever. And that was a big thing, celebrating my grandma’s 88th birthday with her this year. I always miss her birthday. There’s a lot of things that mean more to me than football that I can take for granted at times, and I got to cherish them this year. So I’m in a happy place.

I come home to Greenwood a lot. I want those people there to see me. My family must see me. I try to shake as many hands, sign as many autographs and give as many hugs as I can give in that city.

What’s your first stop when you come back home to Greenwood?

Other than seeing my mom, I go to my dad’s store, Crosstown Grocery. He’s got the best hot food in the city, the best cold cuts in the city. It’s on Main Street. So I go in there and sit with my pops for about two, three hours, and that’s where I get to see a lot of the people who come in there and all the kids. He’s got a mural of me on his wall, so they ask, ‘Are you that guy up there?’ And it brightens their day to see me right there in front of them.

What do you see your future looking like after football?

I’m into a few other things off the field. I’m back in school, getting my Master’s degree in accounting from Syracuse University with the aspiration of becoming a certified public accountant (CPA) soon. I got other options that I do want to go ahead and start to fulfill. It’ll weigh out and I’ll pick which one is best at the proper time. But I’m definitely onto life after football as well.

I became a small business owner. I got into real estate, I got into the logistics industry, I got into clothing. I got into just, you know, a lot of different things that piqued my interest. A little bit of stocks. I’m trying to teach myself a little bit about everything. I’m learning from different guys in the league, being around different people and what they got going on. I started a cleaning service. So I got a little bit of everything going on.

Are any of those businesses based in Greenwood?

I do a little bit of real estate in Greenwood. I hire a lot of guys out of Greenwood as truck drivers for my logistics company. I market my clothes in Greenwood. I support all of the local clothing businesses like Snack's Tees, Black God clothing, Vibezz and many more. There are a lot that are doing really well. They definitely have my support.

You mentioned how your mindset has changed this past year. Do you have any new perspective on the social media outburst that put you out of the league in late 2019?

I hate that it affected my people more so than me. They had to see me sacrifice everything I worked for. That’s what I apologize for the most. My words were hurtful and I do apologize for those as well.

I’m in a situation where I got to be slow to move, slow to speak. Thinking about the big picture and understanding the outlook on everything. My apologies about that situation. I thank them all for still supporting me, because a lot of them do still support me and love me. Like I said, Greenwood has been a great, loving city.

• Contact Riley Overend at 581-7237 or roverend@gwcommonwealth.com. Follow @OverendOut on Twitter.

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