Billy Jenkins would like his friends back at Howard University to know that he's a little embarrassed by that ugly scene at the end of the St. Louis Rams' victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneeers in the NFC championship game Sunday.
Jenkins, the Rams' starting strong safety, had taken an earful all game from Frank Middleton, the Bucs' 335-pound guard. So when the Bucs' final desperation pass on fourth and 23 was knocked out of the end zone in the final seconds to preserve an 11-6 victory, Jenkins--5 feet 10, 205 pounds--wanted to tell Middleton what he thought of his trash talk.
As he approached the Tampa Bay bench, Middleton grabbed Jenkins by the face mask and, according to Jenkins, wouldn't let go. When the players were finally separated, Jenkins said he was walking back toward his side of the field when quarterback Trent Dilfer, in street clothes, charged toward him and started screaming at him.
"Dilfer just came out of nowhere," Jenkins said. "He was running at me and being real aggressive and abusive. So I waved my hand at him, like I was saying 'bye, bye, it's over, you can go home now.' It kind of shocked me to see him come over there.
"I guess the guys on TV made a big deal about it. It was unfortunate that it came out so negative, because I'm not that kind of player. I had wanted to say something to that other guy [Middleton]. Talking is all part of football. I don't do it very much myself, but the stuff he [Middleton] was saying was uncalled for. I just regret the whole incident happened. I got caught up on the moment. That play meant we were going to the Super Bowl, and I was excited. We all were excited. That's all it was."
Jenkins is still excited. He has been with the Rams for three years after signing as an undrafted free agent in 1997. He started all 16 games for the NFC West champions this season and finished second in tackles.
Jenkins's road to the Super Bowl was not conventional. He played high school football in Albuquerque and was recruited mostly by colleges in the West. But he also was intrigued by Howard's reputation as one of the country's preeminent black universities.
When he visited the school's campus, "it just blew me away. I wanted a place to study my heritage and understand where I came from. It probably hurt me in the draft, but I wouldn't have traded the experience for anything. It was great being there. I learned so much, and not just football."
Jenkins was a walk-on his first season but eventually earned a scholarship. The Rams saw him in a workout at the University of Maryland and signed him almost immediately. Now he'll play in the Super Bowl.
"I'll play like I always play," he said. "I'm an aggressive guy, that's my style. It's like a war for me every game, and I consider myself a warrior out there. During a game, that's the only way you can be, or you'll get killed. I do my job. I don't talk very much. But it's an emotional game, too, and sometimes you just can't help it."