WESLEY CHAPEL — For a moment, sitting in the metal bleachers, overlooking his old high school’s football field, Greg Jenkins allowed the memories to flood back.
It was a time when a frail high school kid dreamed of playing college football and then, maybe, in the National Football League.
Jenkins, 24, is living those dreams as a college graduate and member of the Oakland Raiders.
“It feels like I’m in a dream and I haven’t even woke up yet,” said Jenkins, a 2008 Wesley Chapel High School graduate who recently completed his first season with Oakland. “I was thinking about it the other day and I just thought, ‘Wow, I’m blessed. Fortunate.’ I worked hard for it.
“One percent of college athletes make it to the NFL and (when) you can say you’re one of those guys, that’s amazing.”
Jenkins signed a three-year contract with the Raiders in May 2013. He played in each of the team’s four preseason games and spent the first 12 weeks of the regular season on the practice squad.
That meant he could practice and train with the team, but he couldn’t play in games.
When a teammate went down with an injury, however, Jenkins, a wide receiver and special teams player, was signed to the active roster on Nov. 23. He played in the final six games of the season.
His biggest moment came on the opening kickoff of a Thanksgiving Day game against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium.
Jenkins snatched up a fumble and sprinted 23 yards for his first professional touchdown.
“It was a natural reaction,” Jenkins said. “Just scooped and scored. On the way there, I felt like I was moving in slow motion.”
He was so excited, he forgot to keep the ball as a memento.
The score came just 12 seconds into the game and was the fastest any opponent has scored against the Cowboys in their history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
It wasn’t an easy route to the NFL for Jenkins.
He grew up in a single-parent home, the youngest of four boys. He lived in a part of town where some kids saw a lot of things they shouldn’t see.
“Drugs, violence, alcohol,” said Jenkins, who grew up in the Lake George housing complex and later in a home off Douglas Drive. “Fights, shoot-outs, all crazy things in small Dade City.”
He let those sights mold him in a way that encouraged distancing himself from that lifestyle.
“When I was young, I had a mindset; I wasn’t going to be a product of my environment,” Jenkins said. “I always thought about the bigger picture and where I wanted to be and I always knew I couldn’t hang out with certain crowds and do certain things in order to get to where I wanted to be. I just never stopped dreaming. I was a big dreamer.”
So was his mother.
As a sixth-grader at Pasco Middle School in Dade City, Jenkins’ grade point average was 1.6, he said. Sharon Jenkins wanted no part of that academic performance.
She took Greg out of school in Dade City and placed him in Weightman Middle School in Wesley Chapel. From there he went on to Wesley Chapel High.
It was a move that righted his scholastic trajectory. Jenkins went from that 1.6 GPA to a 3.0.
Being a product of a single-parent environment, Jenkins craved a family setting and even sought it out.
He often visited homes of classmates, teammates and even coaches to get a feel for the husband-wife or father-child dynamic.
“I wasn’t raised around that, so just to be around a family, and they treated you like one of their own when you’re over there, it was like something I longed for my whole life,” he said. “When you’re not used to something, you don’t know how it feels, but when you’re around it, it’s like, ‘Is this how it’s supposed to be?’”
Back home, Sharon Jenkins was busy with her four boys — Jeremy, Tyre, Mario and Greg, the youngest.
She made sure they all were involved in athletics. It wasn’t easy on one paycheck, which sometimes was supplemented with help from family and friends, she said.
“A lot people say it was expensive, but I had four boys, and I kept them in some type of activity doing something,” Sharon Jenkins said. “There’s nothing else here for the kids to do. … You just have to keep them prayed up and keep them involved in something to keep their minds right.”
What once served as an outlet has blossomed into a career path for Greg Jenkins.
“It’s pretty much the same process as far as working hard and dedicating yourself to your craft,” Jenkins said, comparing the different levels of football in which he has participated. “Now, it’s not just a game. Now it’s a job, it’s an occupation. You really have to be more consistent and now you’re competing for a job every day.”
Part of getting through the notion of having to fight daily for a roster spot was Jenkins’ approach — each practice was game day.
“It drives me and it keeps me humble and grounded,” Jenkins said, “because any day it could be gone. You just have to not take anything for granted and live in the moment.”
Jenkins joins a small list of players from Pasco County to have played in regular season NFL games. It includes brothers Troy (Dallas, Arizona) and Darren Hambrick (Dallas), Clinton Hart (Philadelphia, San Diego, St. Louis), Logan Payne (Seattle), Ryan Pickett (St. Louis, Green Bay) and Ted Wilson (Washington).
Thus far, his work ethic has allowed him to share a locker room at football’s highest level with the likes of eight-time Pro Bowler and potential Hall of Fame cornerback Charles Woodson.
“It’s humbling seeing how hard those guys work,” Jenkins said. “It’s no mistake why they play this game and for so long.”
Elements of Jenkins’ approach of living in the moment, not taking things for granted and scrapping for his dreams are embodied in his mother.
Today marks a full calendar year since Sharon Jenkins was diagnosed with breast cancer. She has endured chemotherapy and radiation treatments in her quest to defeat the disease.
“He’s always had that (work ethic),” Sharon Jenkins said. “I guess I’m a go-getter. I’m a fighter. I don’t give up. I struggled with cancer ... I beat it.
“You just have to be a fighter, be a go-getter and not give up. Some people give up, but Greg has never given up.”
Another special moment will be added to the milestone day. Tonight, during halftime of the Wesley Chapel-Wiregrass Ranch basketball game, a ceremony will take place inside the Wesley Chapel High School basketball gym to retire Jenkins’ No. 2 football jersey.
It has been about nine years since a 160-pound sophomore took over the Wesley Chapel high offense under Coach John Castelamare. Jenkins showed talent and determination, which won over his no-nonsense coach.
“He was always well-respected,” Castelamare, now the head football coach at Academy at the Lakes, said. “His mom and his family did a fantastic job. With us, I never had to worry about a thing when he stepped on that field. All week he worked hard. Everything we asked of those guys, he did. He did fantastic. When he stepped on the field, he was a very, very positive athlete.
“We’d run audibles and I’d point to him, which meant he could run whatever he wants on that one play. ... I was confident in him in whatever decision we made.”
Castelamare even added a wrinkle to his beloved wing-T offense for Jenkins — the shotgun formation.
When Jenkins graduated from Wesley Chapel there were no big-name-school scholarships waiting.
Jenkins played two seasons at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College after accepting a preferred walk-on offer from the school. He led the Bulldogs to a 19-4 record in his tenure as quarterback and to consecutive Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges South Division titles.
After setting records at MGCCC he accepted a scholarship at Troy University in Alabama, but later transferred to Alabama State University where he started his final two years on the football squad and earned a degree in criminal justice with a concentration in juvenile justice.
“He was very coachable and he understood the game,” Castelamare said. “He understood what it took to win, even in basketball with (Wesley Chapel boys basketball Coach Doug Greseth). He did a great job over there; he was just a leader and the kids fed off of him.”
During the week of practice leading into the 2013 NFL Players Association Collegiate Bowl in Los Angeles, he caught the eye of former NFL coach and player, and current ESPN analyst, Herm Edwards.
“I love being around youth with talent that want to be coached,” Edwards said during an ESPNU telecast. “A lot of these kids, like we said earlier, a lot of people don’t know about them. I’m going to tell you something right now, that little No. 14 (Jenkins), the quarterback, I watched him in the Magic City Classic. … I watched this kid play quarterback and he was the MVP of the game. I said, ‘Boy, that guy’s pretty good.’ And now he’s on our (NFLPA) team and, well, he’s playing cornerback. We’re gonna put him at receiver, too, now. He’s a really good football player. Somebody’s going to get a really good football player. He’s confident.”
Still, staring out at the football field on which he once played, wearing all black, Nike Oakland Raiders gear, Jenkins realized he’s a long way from where he began.
“I really can’t put it into words,” Jenkins said. “It feels like I was just in high school yesterday. I graduated in 2008. It’s humbling putting it into perspective and looking out at the field.
“It’s a long journey. Long journey.”