By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 2, 2008
Somewhere amid the squadron of umbrellas that filled Good Counsel's football stadium, the key members of Jelani Jenkins's supporting cast watched the product of their work in all his glory. This, they said, was the plan executed to perfection. There was Jenkins, dressed in navy and gold, No. 3, the linebacker with the neck roll trotting calmly to the sideline as his teammates burst onto the field in an array of mid-air shoulder bumps, hand slaps and primal screams.
That game, last Friday against an overmatched Paul VI Catholic team, was his only concern. Jenkins's off-the-field team had streamlined nearly every aspect of his life so that whichever unfortunate soul carrying the ball in a Paul VI jersey was the sole object of his attention.
Not coaches from the nearly three dozen division I-A universities that have offered Jenkins a scholarship. Not recruiting analysts from the Web sites that have ranked the 6-foot-1, 220-pound All-Met among the top 10 high school football players in the class of 2009. Not strangers from cyberspace who just want Jenkins to know that their school is the one for him.
Tonight, Good Counsel hosts DeMatha in a sold-out game at its campus in Olney that will be televised on ESPN2. The game will introduce Jenkins to a national audience for the first time, but it will not distract him from his college decision.
He will make that choice on his own schedule, not that of his pursuers. And he will make it with the guidance of a family that has worked for the past 16 years to raise Jenkins in a nurturing, in some ways secluded, environment. The foundation Jenkins's supporters have laid will not be shaken, despite an immense volume and variety of attention none of them saw coming.
"We want him to be presented in the right light," said Stephanie Hall, Jenkins's mother. "That is real important to us."
They each have roles, Hall said. She and her husband, Ernest, funnel the flood of information-seekers away from Jenkins, so that he may be better suited to maintain his 3.9 GPA and live as normal a life as a well-known, 16-year-old high school senior can live.
Her oldest son, Shomari Jenkins, said he is the voice in Jelani's ear. If a college coach is feeding Jelani a line, Shomari will make sure his younger brother knows it.
And then there's Jelani's father, Maurice Jenkins, the finely dressed entrepreneur whose background as both an artist and architect best qualifies him to manage the whole process. He leaned against the fence surrounding Good Counsel's field 20 minutes before kickoff against Paul VI and watched his son run through pregame drills.
Minutes earlier, he had met with coaches from Notre Dame and Maryland who had come to watch Jelani. Hours earlier, he had spoken to UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel on the phone. Days earlier, he had chatted with a coach from Michigan, one of a handful of recruiters he said he's in touch with about once a week.
Most teams see Jelani as a weak-side linebacker in college, a player who can help contain opposing spread offenses. After viewing Oregon State's upset over then-No. 1 Southern California the night before, Maurice said he better understood that line of thinking.
"I can see why Jelani is such a commodity," he said. "It's that lateral speed. A lot of linebackers are that Butkus type, where if you get within five yards of me, I'll knock your head off. But what teams are looking for is that sideline-to-sideline speed, that kind Jelani's got."
* * *
As Jelani scrolled up and down the screen of the Gateway laptop in his mother's bedroom, Stephanie and Ernest Hall sat on the mattress behind him and peered over his shoulder. On this mid-July day, Jelani showed his mother and stepfather, for the first time, the extended reach of modern-day recruiting.
From the inbox of Jelani's Facebook account, he opened a half dozen of the 50 or so messages he had received in the past eight months from people he had never met, people who attended the same schools that were pining for his services on the gridiron. It was a slow progression, Jelani said. A friend request here and there, a message every now and then.
But after Rivals.com listed Jelani as the No. 9 recruit in the country this past March, the highly coveted linebacker discovered he had more friends than he knew what to do with.
"It was weird because you don't start getting that [attention] until you get in the rankings, so I knew not to show them even any attention because I knew they didn't want to be my friend; they just wanted me to go to their school," Jelani said. "I know it shouldn't be like that where they can use something for some other reason that's not the real reason why. I mean, it doesn't bother me. I feel blessed to have [the attention], but I don't use it to tell any random people from their school where I'm going to go."
Jelani said he used to accept every friend request that came his way. Now, he checks to see the friends he has in common with each person who makes a request. If it's just a bunch of highly touted recruits, then he clicks "decline." In all, Jelani estimated he has received 70 random friend requests since December 2007.
"I'm really just learning today, to be honest, that Jelani is getting so much activity on this Facebook," Ernest said. "It's something I never even thought about, you know? So we really haven't had an opportunity to help him manage that. He's been managing that part by himself."
This, the team said, was not part of the plan. When the recruitment mail started pouring in during the fall of Jelani's junior year, the team devised a way to prevent the process from dominating Jelani's daily life. What was important to read? What could be tossed aside? At first, those decisions were left to Stephanie, but she was working on a doctorate in organizational leadership at the time, so she released the responsibility to Maurice.
In the following months, Maurice crafted a three-page matrix that reduced the recruiting chaos surrounding his son into a simple diagram. The columns list each school in nearly every division I-A conference. Programs that offer Jelani a scholarship are highlighted in yellow, which include nine Atlantic Coast Conference schools, six schools each from the Big Ten, Big East and Southeastern conferences, as well as four from the Pacific-10 and a pair from the Big 12. Notre Dame, an independent, also is highlighted.
The rows separate categories, such as diversity, U.S. News & World Report academic rankings, number of NFL draft picks in the past five years and graduation rates. "It gives us a snapshot of the things that are important to us," Maurice said of the matrix.
On average, Maurice estimated he spends a couple of hours each day managing Jelani's recruitment. But organizing the offers was only one part of the plan. There also was the matter of all those phone calls that needed to be addressed. During the spring, it was not uncommon for Stephanie to come home each day to find four new messages left on the answering machine from coaches and recruiting analysts looking for a brief chat with Jelani.
When it got to the point that Jelani's cellphone voicemail box filled up on a regular basis because of many of those same people, the team stepped in again. Now, all suitors are told to call Maurice.
"Jelani never told me not to call him, but you get the impression they don't want him being bombarded with phone calls," said Rivals.com recruiting analyst Mike Farrell, who noted he has been following Jelani since the linebacker's sophomore year. "Without the parental influence that Jelani has, things tend to spin out of control a little bit, and that's not going to happen with Jelani."
* * *
Four African nation flags hang off the roof of Roots Activity Learning Center, a one-story red brick building at Sheridan and North Capitol streets NW. On the building's west side is a mural painted by the father of the predominantly black, private grade school's most popular graduate. When you mention Jelani Jenkins's name here, the students shriek with delight.
This is where Jelani grew into the confident, reserved young man he is today. This year there are 37 students enrolled in first through eighth grade at Roots. In 2005, Jelani was one of four kids in his graduating class. "He didn't talk much," said Ida Flemming, one of Jelani's former teachers who goes by the name Mama Nkechi. "He was very serious at a young age. He was born a man, very mature."
Until Jelani was 7 years old, the only children he knew were his fellow classmates at Roots. At the time, the Jenkins family lived in an Aspen Hill neighborhood where there weren't many kids with whom Jelani could play. Once Jelani began playing football for the Wheaton Boys & Girls Club, he was introduced to an entirely new and diverse world.
"That was when we met kids from Montgomery County, because even though we lived in Montgomery County, we didn't know kids from Montgomery County," Stephanie said. "We would just drive down to Roots, and that's where they did all their play and everything. They're kind of insulated in some ways at the school [Jelani] went to."
From seemingly the moment Jelani began playing football, Stephanie said, it became evident to everyone but her that her son had unique talent. By Jelani's eighth-grade year, Stephanie said, numerous high school coaches were recruiting her youngest son to play for their teams. Just as they would four years later, the Jenkins family went through a meticulous process in which the team discerned the best fit for Jelani.
It came down to two schools, DeMatha and Good Counsel. Ultimately, Maurice said, they chose Good Counsel because Coach Bob Milloy convinced the family of what a vital role Jelani would play in the construction of his team over the coming seasons.
* * *
With just less than five minutes remaining in the first half against Paul VI, Jelani took a handoff, churned through four arm-tackle attempts and bolted 73 yards for a touchdown. He showed little outward emotion upon entering the end zone, offering a few limp low fives on his way back to the sideline.
In addition to penetrating opposing offenses as a linebacker, Jelani serves as a threat on the opposite side of the ball. In fact, Maurice said, several recruiters have proposed the idea of playing Jelani both ways at the collegiate level. They've told Maurice they want to transform his son into a Heisman Trophy candidate. Maurice said he's not sure yet what he thinks of the idea, but he doesn't mind having it as an option.
Nearly three weeks ago, the family met and narrowed Jelani's college choices from 34 to 15. In the next few weeks, Maurice will draft letters to be sent to all the schools no longer up for consideration, thanking them for their interest. He will send the drafts to Stephanie, who will show them to Jelani before Maurice mails them. Within a month, the family will narrow its choices to five and begin taking official visits.
When it comes time to make the final choice, "it will be a team decision," Stephanie said. "Jelani's feelings will certainly weigh extremely heavily, but I think the team decision will be his decision because I think he's such a mature young man that he's going to make a decision based on what's best for him. But we're not going to let him make what we would consider a mistake because this is his life; this is his career."
College sports is big business, Maurice said, which is why he and the rest of Jelani's family are working so intently on protecting their young prospect as long as they can from any potential snares.
"We realize the opportunity we have right now, and we're just trying to take advantage of it," Jelani said. "We measure out everything and see everything. We want to make sure we make the perfect decision."