Injury threatens Jenkins’ career–again

Tania Ganguli

The last time Derell Jenkins played quarterback an Iowa defender broke his left hand. The last time he played safety a Minnesota helmet broke his right wrist and fractured his spirit.

“It was going well, Coach was trusting me a lot, the Minnesota game I was playing a lot. I was legit, you know? I was decent,” Jenkins said shaking his head, his words getting caught in his throat. “People keep telling me everything happens for a reason. I’m trying to buy into that.”

While it’s not the first time this has happened to him, Jenkins said his first injury was much easier to handle. The quarterback sat out the first nine games his freshman year, waiting while redshirt freshman Brett Basanez held the starting spot. He saw his first game action in a few snaps against Indiana.

With his redshirt year squandered, Jenkins returned the next game against Iowa only to break his left hand.

But he still had three years left.

Coaches moved him from quarterback to running back in the spring of 2003. When he shifted to safety this spring, he loved it.

Gone were the reservations he had about the position when he was recruited. Other schools wanted Jenkins as a safety but he said he would wait as long as it took to get the chance to play quarterback.

Last spring, it didn’t matter to the junior that he wouldn’t have much time to learn his new position.

“Something about playing safety — I can’t explain it. I wish I could,” Jenkins said. “I’ll write a book about it someday.”

Fellow safety Dominique Price said Jenkins was learning fast, and coach Randy Walker saw improvement this fall. Jenkins saw more playing time with each game.

Then he broke his wrist.

Jenkins’ saga is a familiar story for the Wildcats. The team just graduated a safety who spent five injury-riddled years at NU, Louis Ayeni. Like Jenkins, Ayeni was considered one of the most athletic members of his recruiting class. Ayeni was recruited as a tailback, tried his hand at receiver and then became a safety his junior year.

Throughout his career Ayeni had nine surgeries and was out with a shoulder injury for most of his senior year. The Indianapolis Colts took a chance and signed him last spring but bought out his contract recently when he got injured again. The Minnesota native was in Minneapolis when Jenkins broke his wrist.

“I saw Lou right after the game, and he told me, ‘I’ve been through the same thing,'” Jenkins said. “He tells me to stay positive, encouraged, that everything is going to be OK.”

When Walker thought about the similarities between the two players, he took a breath and shook his head slightly.

“Lets hope it’s not like that,” he said. “He’s a young player, and we thought by the end he was really starting to make some strides, getting a lot of snaps in the secondary. I just hope that he heals back and has a great senior year.”

But while almost everyone else has accepted that Jenkins’ junior season is over, he isn’t ready to give up yet.

He had surgery the morning of Sept. 26, and spent the rest of the week mulling the prospect of spending the rest of the year in the stands. It’s one of the few topics that can erase his broad and ever-present smile — but rarely in front of his teammates.

“They expect me to be the guy that is not going to ever be down. No matter what, I’m always going to have a positive attitude, but this is hard,” Jenkins said. “I tried my best. I tried my best to fight through, but this is the hardest thing I ever had to deal with football-wise.”

Jenkins’ doctor visit Monday gave him hope that he could be back this season. He’s shooting for Hawaii on November 27th, the last game of the season.

With doctors anticipating the healing to take anywhere from six to 12 weeks, he might not even get that. But that doesn’t curb his determination.

“It took me a week to get up, but Saturday I decided to stop slopping around being sad,” Jenkins said. “This week I’ve been staying focused. I’m going to come back, I can feel it.”

Reach Tania Ganguli at [email protected].