For Jermaine Gabriel, football was his salvation

Little Jermaine Gabriel owned only one pair of jeans, and he would sometimes wear them with a Bugs Bunny sweater and the purple collared shirt his mother liked. Then he would trundle out the door for a new day of elementary school in northwest Toronto, where he would often fight not only with students, but with adults.

His older sister also had childhood anger, but in her the internal combustion powered a striver. Not him, the brawler. One day, his mother received a call from Chalkfarm Public School, near Jane and Wilson, to say he had finally crossed the line and thrown a pencil at his teacher. He was in Grade 4.

“Can you get expelled from elementary school?” Gabriel, now 26, recently asked with a smile inside a busy North York restaurant.

Diamond studs sparkled from each ear. On his right hand, a diamond-encrusted pinky ring glittered off the table, a birthday gift to himself after he signed a three-year contract with the Toronto Argonauts in February. That deal is believed to make him among the highest-paid safeties in the Canadian Football League.

Gabriel was not angry, at least, not over lunch. In football, he uncovered an outlet for the frustration he felt as the son of a single mother juggling a job and three children. He saw what the other children had, and knew what he did not. His father appeared in his life only as a passing mirage.

Football evolved into a destination, a glowing end point on a map Gabriel would wander Canada trying to navigate. In small-town Quebec, he fell into deepening poverty, without enough to eat. In Halifax, he took a job cleaning tables in a mall food court. In Calgary, he heaved gravel through dusty basements in between practices with a team on the edge of the sport’s scouting radar.

There was no financial help from home, no university degree, no backup plan.

“You know he wanted it,” said Roberto Allen, his former minor football coach. “He wanted to make it so bad, and there’s some kind of inner strength pushing this kid.”

“I know the wheels are always turning, but he never says anything,” said Dawn Walker, Gabriel’s mother. “So you never know what he’s coming up with.”

They had a special item on the menu at the townhouse in Lennoxville, Que., on the days when the financial assistance from the government had fallen short, or when the football coach at Bishop’s University had not been able to provide a food voucher for the local grocery store.

“You’re just trying to figure out ways to eat the next meal,” said Marcus Lam-Peters, a friend and long-time teammate who shared an off-campus home with Gabriel. “There were a lot of syrup sandwiches.”

Syrup sandwiches?

“You just have bread, and you get syrup, and that’s where you get your flavour,” he explained. “Toasted bread. Put some syrup on it, stick the two slices together. Or if you’re really trying save it, you fold the one slice in half, and there you go; you’ve got your sandwich.”

They liked Aunt Jemima maple syrup, he said, pausing a moment to reconsider: “I don’t even know if we were having that fancy syrup then.”

Nobody at home was in a position to help.

Dawn Walker moved to Canada from Jamaica in 1975, landing in Montreal and eventually enrolling to study education at McGill University. She ran track, specializing in sprints, but left school without her degree, moving to Toronto in 1989 when Jasmine, her eldest, was six months old.

Jermaine was born the following year, followed by his younger sister, Melody. His father was not present, surfacing for a trip to the mall and vanishing almost as quickly.

“His relationship with his dad wasn’t what it was supposed to be, and sometimes I think Jermaine’s expectation would be one thing, and he didn’t live up to it,” said Walker. “It would get him really, really angry.”

“Every day, it would seem like he was in the office,” said Jasmine, now 27. “And I’d be so upset, because I felt like it looked bad on me that my little brother was in the office all the time.”

A teacher once told him children arrive in the world when a husband and wife love each other. Gabriel, the quiet, sensitive child with pulsing undercurrents of resentment, asked his mother to explain.

“He comes up to me and he says, ‘But mom, you’re not married, so how am I here?’ ” she said. “I really had to sit him down and tell him about the birds and the bees and show him that’s not really the right way to go: ‘Because here, we are a family.’ ”

Not long after Gabriel was accused of throwing the pencil in class, Walker, who worked in the cafeteria of a private school in the city, sent her eldest children away. Jermaine and Jasmine were dispatched to Quebec, to live with their grandmother near Montreal.

“I went from a predominantly black school, black area, to being the only black guy in the whole school,” Gabriel said. “Just like that.”

He did not speak a word of French. In the two years away, though, he made two critical discoveries: He fell in love with music, and he fell in love with a game the other children invited him to play at recess.

He found football. His mother hated the new sport, saying Sundays were for church. She wanted him to be a mechanic. He wanted to play football.

“Jermaine did play the game very violently,” said Allen, who is president of the Toronto Thunder, a Scarborough-based minor football program, as well as director of amateur scouting for the Argos. “He’s a very nice, soft-spoken kid off the field, but when he’s on the field, it’s like he transforms into something. You can picture being a mother watching him play that way — you’re cringing.”

Gabriel was playing with the Thunder the last time he spoke with his father. He said his father paid part of the registration fee, just as Gabriel was entering high school.

He thought he saw his father inside a fitness gym at Cedarbrae Mall a few years ago, but he could not be sure.

“Which, to me, says that if it’s been that long and you’re not sure if it’s your dad or not,” said Jasmine, “it’s been a long time since you’ve seen him.”

It was the middle of winter in Halifax when Gabriel asked the mall cleaner for a job. The cleaner led him down to the basement, where someone else handed Gabriel an application and asked him a question: “Why do you want this job?”

“I need it,” Gabriel said.

He left Bishop’s after his second season, in 2010, and headed to Saint Mary’s University, in Halifax. He felt Saint Mary’s offered the kind of specialized coaching that would help prepare him for the professional game.

“I mean, he was a freak,” said Steve Sumarah, who was head coach. “You wanted him in your program. His speed was off the charts.”

His marks at Bishop’s were an issue. Gabriel was often hungry, which affected his focus, and he suggested his finances might also have hindered his academic performance.

“I never had one textbook — not one.”

He could not get into Saint Mary’s. To make matters worse, the school announced it was not going to renew Sumarah’s contract. Gabriel was stranded, cleaning tables in the local mall food court and waiting for an opening somewhere.

And then, a lifeline. A series of connections sent Gabriel back across the country to play for a junior football team in Calgary. The CFL does not draft junior football players, but it was another chance to play.

The Calgary Colts also found him a job, working for the team’s equipment manager, Tim Long, a football father who hired players at his family-run construction company. It was hard work, dealing mostly with concrete.

For $18 an hour, Gabriel would wheel loads of gravel through basements, careful not to tip them over in the mud. Long was careful not to work the players too hard whenever a difficult practice lay on the horizon, but it still made for long days.

“He’d get that look on his face like, ‘Aw, sh–, really? Not another day,’ ” Long said with a laugh. “But where most kids could see a week down the road? Honestly, I think Jermaine was looking years down the road, in his mind. He knew where he wanted to be.”

The Colts went 8-0 during the regular season, and Gabriel, who was in his final year of junior football eligibility, was named conference MVP. After the season, he attended a regional pre-draft workout in Edmonton, where he raised enough eyebrows to land an invitation to the main CFL combine in Toronto.

That spring, in 2013, the Argos took him in the second round. He was not big — five-foot-10, perhaps 190 pounds — but he was a fast and vicious tackler. He could read opposing offences, and whenever he made a mistake, he seemed to rebound on the very next snap.

“We’ve had him since he came here as a 22-year-old baby,” said Argos general manager Jim Barker. “And now, here he is, and he’s a 26-year-old man who is being counted on heavily to be a leader for this football team.”

His mother is still not a die-hard fan. She gets nervous when he plays. After all this time, she still does not understand how her little son hits people as ferociously as he does. She watches him play, but only sometimes.

“He was determined that he was going to do something with his life, one way or the other,” she said with a smile. “That unconventional route, I’m sure it’s no surprise to him.”

Must Read