Wednesday, January 21, 2015

SPORTS STORY >> Eskridge tastes fruit of his labor

Leader sports editor

A tale of perseverance if ever there was one. Terrell Eskridge, a 2008 Jacksonville graduate, a point guard who had no scholarship offers out of high school and has been out of high school for almost seven years, signed a professional basketball contract last week to play for the Belmopan Red Taigaz (Tigers) of the Elite League in Central America.

Since the end of his junior year at Central Baptist College, Eskridge has had a single-minded goal of playing professional basketball somewhere.

He hired a personal trainer the summer before his senior year, worked himself into the best shape of his life, turned in a great senior season for coach Wes Sullivan at CBC, and tirelessly promoted himself throughout and after his senior year was finished.

But all that is just the end of his journey into professional athletics. The story is a long one, filled with rejection and disappointment, and marked by an iron-willed determination and belief in himself.

The journey started with a fortuitous, some might call it providential, event when Eskridge transferred from Little Rock Central to Jacksonville his junior year – fortuitous because the change in schools also meant a change of position on the basketball floor. It was also Jacksonville coach Vic Joyner’s first year at JHS, and he immediately recognized an ability that went unrecognized at Central.

“I had never played anything but forward before,” said Eskridge. “First day of tryouts at Jacksonville, coach Joyner told me I was going to play point guard. I said I’d never played point guard in my life. He said well you’re playing it now.”

Joyner said it was an easy decision, one he made within about three minutes of watching the 6-footer play.

“He could handle the ball and he had great court vision,” said Joyner. “He could see everything. He was also pretty vocal and the kids responded to him. He was a leader on the court. That’s about everything you need in a point guard, so that was an easy decision. He didn’t get to play on any of our really great teams, but he helped us turn things around. It was our first winning season in a few years and we built from there.”

Joyner also wasn’t too surprised to see his first JHS point guard make it to this level.

“He worked hard and he was easy to coach,” Joyner said. “We butted heads a few times early on. He had to learn to do things my way, but ultimately it was two pretty smooth years. He was always the kind that had a little drive in him that most people don’t have.”

Eskridge started for Joyner for two years, but garnered no scholarship offers. He went to work after high school and did not attend college in 2009. When his brother Cortrell got a scholarship offer from Navarro Jr. College in Texas during the 2008-2009 season, Terrell decided to enroll at Navarro in the spring semester of 2009 and try to work his way onto the team in order to play with his brother in the 2009-2010 season. But he got no scholarship offer and decided to come back to Arkansas and enroll at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, giving up on his basketball career.

HSU coaches wanted him to walk-on, but he chose not to.

“I’m glad I didn’t because there were a lot of guys they brought in as walk-ons, and they didn’t keep any of them,” Eskridge said. “So it really would’ve been a waste of time.”

It may also have again been the guiding hand of providence.

After a year at HSU, Eskridge was back home in Little Rock for the summer break in 2010, and began playing pick-up games at Arkansas Baptist. Many ABC players played in the games and Buffaloes’ coach Charles Ripley noticed Eskridge’s ability on the floor.

“Coach Rip just came up to me and said he thought I could play for his team and wanted me to come play for him,” Eskridge said.

Arkansas Baptist does not give scholarships, but Eskridge enrolled and became the starting point guard for the Buffaloes the next two seasons. From there, four years after graduating high school, Eskridge finally got his first basketball scholarship at CBC in Conway.

“That was a long time coming,” Eskridge said. “It wasn’t a full scholarship, but I was going to make it work because that was the first time someone offered me anything to play – like there was value in having me.”

Neither the team nor Eskridge, by his own account, had a very good year his junior season. After it was over, and chance run in and subsequent conversation with a person whose name he couldn’t even remember, sparked a sudden drive in Eskridge that now will lead him to Central America next week.

“I was talking to this guy at the gym and he said he had played overseas a couple of years,” Eskridge said. “I asked him how you get into something like that, and he just said you have to make highlight films and just promote yourself, get your name out there. So I thought well, let me go on and get serious about this if I want to do something with basketball.

“I hired a personal trainer and came back a whole lot stronger and in better shape. I did a lot of research on playing overseas, talked with people. Got stat sheets and learned how to make films. After every game I would get the film and make a highlight tape and put it out there on social media or wherever I could send it.”

He also got a new coach at CBC that year in Wes Sullivan, who heaped praise on his point guard.

“What people need to understand about Terrell is that he worked like no one you’ve ever seen,” said Sullivan. “And he stayed at it. He worked every morning, every night. He was in the gym every single day for hours at a time, just working.

“One of the things that so many other coaches, when we’d play teams at the higher levels, would always say is how impressed they were with my point guard. Teams couldn’t keep him out of the lane and couldn’t understand why. They’d say to me, ‘he doesn’t seem that quick, how does he keep getting in there? But he’d just keep getting in the lane, and keep getting in the lane. And he had such good vision; he made everyone out there better. It was a rebuilding year for us, first year with a new coach, and we struggled at times. But it would’ve been a disaster without him. He was that important to us. And whatever he accomplishes, people need to understand, he earned it all. This is a guy that went from not eligible, to eligible, to starting, to graduating and now getting a professional job. There’s just not enough I can say about him.”

It was a lot of work, but with very little return for a long time. Eskridge got many responses, but the positive ones were from college coaches who mistook him for a high school player and wanted to offer him scholarships.

He hired, and soon fired, an agent who he felt was just collecting pay and not working. Several scam artists from people supposedly representing leagues or teams, but who always seemed to need money up front solicited him. And he was simply told he wasn’t good enough by others.

But he kept trying.

“It was discouraging, but I took the rejection as motivation,” Eskridge said. “There are a lot of scams out there, I can’t even tell you. And I went to a couple of legit tryouts in Atlanta and Las Vegas, and nothing came of it.

“What really kept me going was I look back and I know I really didn’t try that hard in high school. When I didn’t get the scholarship offers I just thought well maybe I wasn’t good enough. But after coming all this way, I thought I should’ve tried harder back then. I didn’t want to just give up and go on wondering all over again if I should’ve tried harder.”

Then, back in early December, while struggling through one of many sleepless nights, the kinesiology major and full-time substitute teacher in the Conway school district, who had not posted or sent out a highlight film in weeks, decided to take one more crack at it. He began searching social media for leagues, and posted his on a couple of pages.

Soon after, Belmopan head coach Bernie Tarr contacted him, but he kept the conversation secret for a long time.

“We’d been talking since December, but I’d been scammed so many times, I didn’t want to say anything until I knew it was legit. Then last Friday, they actually sent me a contract. I fly down there either this weekend or early next week. The season starts in 21 days, so I’m still kind of in shock.”

Even with all the hard work, Eskridge knows getting this far doesn’t happen without some support to counter all the rejection. He got it primarily from three sources.

“My little brother Cortrell, coach Sullivan and my momma (Latonia Marion) are the three people who always believed in me. So I want to thank them.”