Team tennis

Tania Ganguli

It was the match the Jenkins family had been waiting for.

On March 22 Brenda and Jackie Jenkins, Sr., gathered their sevenyoungest children — one biological son, two adopted sons, threefoster sons and one foster daughter — and left College Park, Ga.,for Houston to watch Northwestern play Clemson in the RiceInvitational.

Their oldest son, Jackie Jr., was in his fourth year on the NUmen’s tennis team and their second son, Jarmaine, was finishing hisfirst season at Clemson.

“Jackie’d call Jarmaine every day and say, ‘You better getready,'” Brenda said. “Little Jackie told us, ‘No way will I letJarmaine beat me.'”

But Jackie Jr. never got the chance to prove himself becausetheir coaches refused to play the brothers against each other.

When the other seven Jenkins children arrived at the tournament,half wore Clemson orange and the other half wore NU purple, butBrenda wouldn’t choose one or the other. She painted one hand ofher nails purple and the other hand orange. And when both of hersons won their matches, she was pleased.

After Clemson upset NU, the Jenkins family went out to dinner.During the meal, Jarmaine made sure his big brother didn’t forgetthat the Wildcats had just lost to the less experienced,lower-ranked Tigers.

“Jarmaine kept saying, ‘I told you so, I told you we were gonnawin,'” Jackie Jr. said. “He still talks about it.”�

FAMILY TIES

Being together on the tennis court is nothing new for members ofthe Jenkins clan. Six of their nine children play tennis, and goingto matches together has been a Jenkins tradition.

Family has always been important to Brenda Jenkins. The Atlantanative grew up with four brothers and four sisters. Her father diedwhen she was young, and her mother raised all nine children alone.When her mother was hospitalized with severe burns, her grandmotherand aunt stepped in and kept the children together. Growing up witha family that persevered through such hardships inspired Brenda tocare for children who didn’t have the same stability and compassionin their lives.

When Jackie Jr. was a baby, Brenda read the newspaper at theday-care center she started so she wouldn’t have to leave her sonwith anyone else. Troubled by the number of children who didn’thave good homes, she decided to take action.

The Jenkins took in their first foster child, two-year-oldMarcus, 13 years ago. Marcus was hyperactive and had behavioralproblems that caused him to bounce from one foster family toanother until the Jenkins took him in.

“We wanted to try and help broken families,” Jackie Sr. said.”We were hoping the parents would get themselves together, but thatwasn’t that case. We wound up raising them.”

Jarmel and Latasha Parker, 14 and 13, were the fourth and fifthchildren to join the family. They presented a different challengefor the Jenkins — the brother and sister are legally blind. TheJenkins are still in touch with Jarmel and Latasha’s biologicalmother. Although they are hopeful that she will stabilize her lifeenough to raise her children, experience has taught them that itprobably won’t happen.

Raising nine children is a daunting task, no matter what thesituation. But the Jenkins faced the added hardship of raisingchildren who were abandoned or abused by their parents or bornaddicted to drugs. It took a while for Jackie Sr. to understand whysome of his children had more difficulty picking up on “normalthings in life,” and why some of them had behavioral problems.

The Jenkins say that one of the most satisfying things they dois save children from lives of crime and pain.

“A lot of people look at people on death row and say, ‘Kill him,he’s crazy,'” Jackie Sr. said. “They don’t realize that if you lookback at their lives, you can see why that happened.”

FATHER knows best

When Jackie Sr. was 20 years old, his uncle handed him a tennisracket. Until that point in his life, Jackie Sr. had playedfootball and basketball, but once his uncle introduced him totennis, Jackie Sr. “fell in love with it.”

He taught himself at first and then took a few lessons tosharpen his technique. Jackie Sr. mostly relied on his friendArthur Cash who gave him pointers and showed him how to hit well.Years later he joined the Atlanta Lawn Tennis Association (ALTA),an organization which promotes tennis in the Atlanta area.

The fact that Jackie Sr. was one of very few black players inthe ALTA struck him, but didn’t intimidate him at all. He raisedhis kids with the sport he loved, teaching most of them himselfuntil they were 12.

Jackie Jr.’s own days on the tennis court started early. When hewas three years old, his father would take him to the court whereJackie Jr. would sit in a stroller by the net and watch his fatherplay. In between sets, the toddler would chase after tennisballs.

“Jackie would grunt when I’d grunt,” Jackie Sr. said. “He washis daddy’s baby, he’d always copy his daddy.”

Tennis became a fun way for Jackie Sr. to babysit as his kidsplayed on the courts beside him. In addition to Jackie andJarmaine, 13-year-olds Terrance and Richard and 12-year-oldsJarmere and DeAngelo also play when they were growing up.

BROTHERLY LOVE

To set an example for the other kids, Jackie Jr. would come homefrom school and do his homework before going outside to play. Hisinfluence on his younger siblings extended to the tennis court –five of his brothers followed him into the sport.

As the family grew, Jackie Jr. took on more responsibility. Whenhis parents wanted a night out, he babysat his siblings. At timesJackie Jr. would drive eight children to school in the morningbefore he went to class because his parents were at work. But forJackie, the responsibility came with rewards.

“I was like ‘What’s goin on? We’re running out of room here,'”Jackie Jr. said. “But it was cool being the oldest and havingyounger kids to boss around.”�

Eighteen-year-old Jarmaine tried to find his own path throughbaseball and basketball, but that didn’t last long. After gettingin trouble for taking fire crackers to school, part of hispunishment at home was playing tennis with the rest of thefamily.

But as Jarmaine grew up, tennis became less of a punishment.Like the rest of his tennis-playing brothers, seeing his olderbrother travel the country fueled his desire to keep playing.

Between practices and matches for all their children, theJenkins almost spend more time on the tennis court than in theirhome. But there has always been one Jenkins who doesn’t play.

“If I played tennis, we wouldn’t have a home at all,” Brendasaid. “We’d have to buy a trailer and live on the tenniscourt.”