Jermaine Vessell is a gamer. In more ways than one.
“I play all kinds of video games,” Vessell said. “When it comes to football, the Madden games are my favorite.”
The Catholic High defensive end did his flesh-and-blood impression of a video game figure in the Bears’ pulsating 42-35 victory over St. Augustine in the Division I quarterfinal round last week.
Vessell recorded 3½ sacks, two tackles for loss and forced a fumble last week, helping the top-seeded Bears (11-0) advance. Catholic hosts No. 5 St. Paul’s (8-2) in a semifinal game set for 7 p.m. Friday at Memorial Stadium.
At 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, Vessell is not the kind of lineman recruiters see as eye candy. He got an email recently from Kennesaw State saying it planned to “look” at his film.
Although he may be in a recruiter’s rear-view mirror, Vessell’s speed off the edge sets him apart as a playmaker. It also makes him the perfect complement to the Bears’ other linemen, including tackles Wes Woodward and Josh Johnson, along with fellow end Jordan Toaston.
“What those guys do makes it easy for me to do my job, which is to find the football and make a tackle,” Vessell said. “They put a lot of pressure on the offense. When the play comes my way, my job is to finish it.”
There was a time when Vessell wasn’t sure what direction his prep career would take. He thought basketball might be his sport. He played football as a freshman, and then got cut from the basketball team.
Instead of sitting around, Vessell returned to wrestling, a sport he dabbled in as a child. He placed sixth for the Bears at 195 pounds at the LHSAA state meet last spring.
“It has been fun watching Jermaine get back into the sport,” Catholic wrestling coach Tommy Prochaska said. “He’s very coachable, and I love his demeanor. You can never tell whether he is up or down. He is very steady.
“Getting football guys to come out and do another physical sport is not easy. When guys like Jermaine do, they add new energy into the wrestling room.”
Vessell’s role in football did not come together until his junior year. When a player who was ahead of Vessell on the depth chart opted to transfer to another school, former Catholic coach Gabe Fertitta — now on staff at the University of Louisville — pulled the junior into his office.
Fertitta told Vessell he had the chance to be a difference-maker for the defense. Vessell earned a starting role in 2020 and continues to improve.
“As a defensive unit, you always need to have that one guy who is always the consistent one who is your bedrock and part of the foundation,” Catholic defensive line coach Tom Bove said. “That is what he (Vessell) has been for us all year.
“He is hungry to learn more. Last week I saw him reach that next level. It was like a lightbulb went off in his head. And the technique he uses (to bend around the corner) is not something every college lineman can do. He has gotten better every single week.”
For Vessell and his teammates, last week’s challenge from St. Augustine was a reminder of how fragile a playoff season can be. The test from a physical St. Paul’s team will be different. Vessell vows to be ready.
“We’re a family, and in the locker room (at halftime last week) we locked arms together,” Vessell said. “We were not ready for it to end then. Or now.”