Listed at 6 feet 3 inches tall and 322 pounds, it can seem like Ashland senior defensive tackle Jeris Pendleton is larger than life. He's one of the easiest players to spot on Saturdays when he steps on Fred Martinelli Field, and he's even easier to spot when he throws a 300-pound offensive lineman around like a rag doll. Perhaps no one has a better grasp on their place in life, however, than Pendleton.
"It's always in perspective for him," said Eagles' defensive line coach Jerome Riase. "He's never too up; he's never too down, because he's actually been through life. I don't care if we're 0-10; he'll realize that he's having a great opportunity by the fact that he's just not living life right now. College is kind of a reprieve from everyday living."
Pendleton grew up on the south side of Chicago, widely known as one of the roughest areas in the United States.
"He had to persevere through a lot," Riase said. "I've been to his home. It's a very decrepit area and there isn't a lot of progress. He told me once he didn't know one person that he grew up with that had ever been out of the south side of Chicago."
Pendleton said that growing up on the south side was much different from his current situation in Ashland. There were a lot of things, such as gangs and drugs, that would have been easy to get caught up in, but his family was instrumental in pushing him to graduate from high school, which he did in 2002.
After graduating from high school, Pendleton took a housekeeping job at a nursing home, at which he earned $6.50 an hour. He worked there for 2 1/2 years before moving on to do construction for 1 1/2 years. After that, Pendleton took a job as a security guard at a hospital, earning close to $10 an hour. By then, he had two kids with his fiancé Ashanti and was still struggling to make ends meet.
And then there was the promise that he made to himself upon graduating from high school that he would go to college when he turned 24.
"It was that year (2008) and I went to my junior college and talked to some people about enrolling and things of that nature and then I went through with the plan," Pendleton said.
Not only did Pendleton enroll at the school but he also decided to try to play football, something that he had not done since his senior year of high school.
"For a young man who, in his situation, to make a promise with himself to go back to college when he hit 24, and then to actually do it, a lot of people don't do that," Riase said. "I mean, he walked on at the junior college, he wasn't recruited. He got in the school, walked into a coach's office and said ‘Can I play football here?'"
Pendleton didn't just want to play at the junior college level. He had his sights set on earning a scholarship to play at a larger university somewhere. It wasn't long after he took the field at Joliet Junior College in Chicago that he started to turn the heads of college scouts.
"I was doing so good on the football field that I was attracting attention from different colleges," he said. "Every Division II school and several Division I schools. I didn't know that you had to graduate from a junior college to go to Division I, so that held me back from going to Division I."
Former Ashland assistant coach Mike Bath was the one who discovered Jeris. Bath came to Ashland from Miami (OH) University, where he recruited the Chicago area. He showed Pendleton's tape to coach Riase after the 2009 season.
"I remember where I was when I first watched his tape," Riase said. "I was sitting in my apartment on the floor. I popped it in, and I couldn't figure out why he was not gone yet. Meaning, when you say not gone, whenever you see a good player at Division II, OK, is he going to Miami of Ohio? Is he going to Bowling Green? Is he going to Toledo? Or bigger?
"I think he was 26 at the time. He had two kids. Wherever he goes to school the kids, the family, are going to have to come with him and then you start to think about all of the hoops and hurdles you're going to have to jump through to get the kid there."
Pendleton only visited one other school before settling on Ashland.
"It felt like Ashland was more like home and it wasn't that far away from home," Pendleton said. "It was a nice place to raise my kids and it was offering me a scholarship so that's what I was really looking for. I met coach Owens, coach Riase and coach Rose and I kind of felt like I could kind of fit into what they was trying to do as far as a football program. It seemed like they were some real good guys to be around; they knew what they waere doing."
Pendleton arrived on campus in the fall of 2010 and made an immediate impact on the field for the Eagles. In his first game against Bloomsburg, he had eight tackles. He went on to record 35 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles in 11 games last fall.
Perhaps his biggest contribution to the team was the perspective that he has on life. He is nine years older than some of the freshmen, the same age as some of the coaches and a father of two.
"You don't realize that he's 27 that often," Riase said. "He's got a young spirit, but he almost just sounds like an elder statesman."
You would be hard-pressed to find anyone on Ashland's roster more different from Pendleton than Jamie Meder. Meder, a sophomore from Valley Forge High School in Parma, Ohio, starts at defensive tackle alongside Pendleton and the two room together on the road. They have developed a bond out of sheer domination.
"Meder's younger than me but he's strong and he takes care of his business and I like that about him," Pendleton said. "You don't find too many freshmen like him."
Pendleton and Meder have combined for 38 total tackles, six tackles for-a-loss, a forced fumble and a blocked kick through three games this season.
Pendleton's football career wouldn't be possible without the help of his fiancé Ashanti and the support of those surrounding the football program and in the community. Between football, class and raising two kids, he balances more in a week than most college students do throughout a semester.
Pendleton says that he spends somewhere between 12 and 16 hours on campus each day between football and school. That means that, during the season at least, there is no time for him to work and earn money, which puts that burden on Ashanti. There are many times that they must rely on someone to watch the kids. Many of the coaches' wives, along with quarterback Taylor Housewright's mom and several neighbors, have stepped in to help out with babysitting.
"There's so much love down here," Pendleton said. "It's an uplifting spirit down here. I never thought I'd be in a small town like this but it's been quite an experience. It's been a good experience though. Ashland's been very good to me."
Although doing so much each day can get exhausting, Pendleton says that his kids give him the strength to carry on.
"How can I tell my kids to pursue their dreams if they found out that out of high school I didn't follow my dreams and live up to what I believed in?" he said.
In two years playing for the Eagles, Riase said that Pendleton has gone from being "as raw as a newborn baby" to being one the best inside defensive linemen that he has ever been around.
"A year ago, he was just a big kid, athletic, who could just plug a gap and make a few plays here and there," Riase said. "He's getting very close to being dominant right now and that's a credit to how hard he worked in the offseason and the fact that he's allowed himself to be coached. A lot of people don't do that."
Riase isn't the only one who has noticed the improvement. Pendleton is starting to attract the attention of NFL scouts. The director of player personnel for the Cincinnati Bengals came to Ashland for an interview. A scout from the Miami Dolphins came to talk to him and watched a practice. At the Hillsdale game, a scout from the Minnesota Vikings came and watched Pendleton, from the start of warm-ups until the end of the third overtime.
"To be honest, I didn't think I would get this far," he said. "I thought that I would get to college. I thought that I would be able to finish up to get a degree but I didn't think I would open up doors to have scouts looking at me again."
Even with all of the notoriety he has received, Pendleton says that his focus remains on the season and helping the team accomplish its goals of winning the GLIAC and competing in the NCAA playoffs. Anything extra would be a bonus.
"I hope that I do get the chance to play at the next level and hopefully get the chance to stay in the league for a couple of years and do what I love to do," he said. "If it doesn't work out that way, I'm very happy at what I did and what I accomplished."