Jerome, who was home to have surgery to repair a hernia, took a wide turn in his 2007 Ford Mustang while traveling on Wellington Road. He ran off the road, causing the car to flip, taking his life. The passenger, 20-year-old Justin Champion, who wore his seatbelt, survived.
But what didn’t die is the legacy of character and commitment the 21-year-old left behind in the hearts and minds of former teammates, family and coaches.
Jerome exhibited those qualities most at the 2006 state tournament in Huntsville when he upset the favorite to emerge as champion. Jerome, a sophomore at the time, was familiar with his opponent, Tallassee’s Josh Rigsby — the defending state champion in the 135-pound weight class who had already defeated Jerome multiple times throughout the season.
His older brother, Matt Jerome, said he and Alex had worked all week to put together a plan to tactically take Rigsby apart, utilizing a keen knowledge of his strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes. In the finals, Alex pulled off the plan without a hitch and won 14-6.
“We thought we’d lost that mach,” longtime Panthers’ assistant Joe McCarson said. “But he was not going to be denied. He went over and beyond what we expected of him. Physically, we knew he was just as good as that kid. Alex just had a bigger heart than that kid did.”
It was the first of three state championship squads Jerome, a 2008 graduate, was a part of.
Jerome’s fiery focus was often what separated him from his competition and made him an elite athlete. A loss wasn’t anything to languish over. Instead, it was a learning experience. Classmate and close friend Chris Smith said he and Alex Jerome were “like brothers.”
They practiced together, took classes together and ate supper together, he said.
“In practice, we’d always partner up,” said Smith. “Whenever he lost,
he’d never feel bad about. He’d always say, ‘I didn’t train hard enough. Let’s go back look at what I did wrong.’ He’d keep at it until he got it right.”
The Jeromes — their brother Brandon also wrestled — didn’t get a start in wrestling until they reached high school, McCarson said.
“We just loved it, it was all uphill from there,” Matt said.
Practice never really ended for the Jeromes. They just took it home, Matt said, always encouraging one another to work harder than everyone else in order to be the best.
“Alex didn’t fear anything or anybody,” Matt said. “Whatever it was, he was going to go for it and he was going to get it.”
He took the same mentality to the military.
“When he went to Iraq, he always said he was coming back,” Matt said. “And he did.”
Jerome had been home for roughly two weeks and was set to return to Ft. Lewis in Washington — where he was to be promoted to specialist on July 19.
When asked if there were anything he’d like those who didn’t know his younger brother to remember about him, Matt, 23, said: “He served his country the same way he wrestled. He gave it all he had,” he said.
Funeral services for Alex Jerome will be Wednesday at 10 a.m. at Anniston Memorial Funeral Home at 10 a.m. with the Rev. Tim Thomas officiating. Burial will follow in Forestlawn Gardens. The family will receive friend on Tuesday from 5-7 p.m.
Nick Birdsong covers prep sports for The Star. He can be reached at 235-3575.