Reconnecting with family

Reconnecting with family

February 7th, 2013 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - Lee Jenkins still has the pictures saved on his cellphone after nearly 15 years, ready to show-and-tell at a moment's notice.

Soon he'll have some updated shots to add to the collection.

Nearly three decades after his career as a University of Tennessee defensive back ended, Jenkins will watch his youngest son, Ryan, follow the same orange-bricked path.

The little 3-year-old boy posing with Volunteers star tailback Jamal Lewis and sitting in the lap of Hall of Fame title-winning coach Phillip Fulmer was among the new Vols faxing in their scholarship papers Wednesday. Ryan Jenkins is a receiver from Lassiter High School in Marietta, Ga.

"I can't say it was a dream come true," Lee Jenkins said, "because I never really dreamed about it. But the reality of him wearing the orange jersey, running through the 'T' - when I thought of one of my sons doing that, it just sent chills up and down my spine. I was really ecstatic about that, and I didn't even realize that I had feelings that strong until they offered him a scholarship.

"That's when I was like, 'Wow.' I started to remember all the things I did at the school and the memories I had. It got very sentimental."

It took some patience to reach that point.

In late January a year ago, Ryan attended Tennessee's junior day and eventually met with coach Derek Dooley, but no scholarship offer came. He went on to earn a four-star rating by 247sports and offers from Clemson, Louisville, Missouri, UCLA, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Oklahoma State, Washington and Wake Forest.

"It was a little surprising and disappointing," his father said, "but I understand the recruiting business, and sometimes unless you are a prototype receiver or quarterback, some people don't like 5-foot-11 slotbacks like Ryan. We didn't take it personal at all, but we were disappointed when we went up there for junior day and no offer came. He still had some great offers from other schools, so we didn't stay disappointed long."

Ryan committed in June to Clemson, where his older brother, Martin, plays defensive back.

The younger Jenkins took trips with his family to Vols games and practices "all the time" growing up, and his father served on the university's athletic board in the mid-1990s, yet Tennessee never recruited Ryan while Dooley was the coach.

"I really didn't have a problem with it," Ryan said. "If a coach doesn't want to offer me, that's fine."

Shortly after Dooley was dismissed in November, things changed. Derrick Ansley, the cornerbacks coach then still recruiting for the Vols, visited Ryan at Lassiter and hinted an offer might come. Three days after his hiring as head coach, Butch Jones did exactly that.

"I was kind of anticipating it," Ryan recalled. "I think it was early in the next week [when] I got a number and the caller ID was from Knoxville. I had a feeling it was Coach Jones, picked up the phone and he was just telling me about all the visions of the program and that he really wants me to wear the orange and all that.

"When I was young, I never really thought about when I was there at the games playing there one day. I just loved going and the atmosphere, but as I got older I liked Tennessee, but they never really recruited me that much until the new staff came. When I got that call from Butch Jones, it really opened up my eyes."

There was a comfort level with Clemson, however. Martin signed with the Tigers in 2010, and Lee's Tennessee career coincided with former Clemson defensive coordinator Kevin Steele's three years as a Vols graduate assistant and assistant coach. Lee Jenkins and his wife, Martica, could go to one location to see both sons play college football.

"Once Ryan committed to Clemson, we thought it was kind of neat to have both of my sons playing on the same team and being able to go to one place - me and my wife - to see the games for the next six years or so," said Lee, now the pastor of an upstart church in Roswell following a career as an investment adviser who used his Wall Street training to become an author and speaker on finances from the biblical perspective.

"It was certainly a very pleasant thought, but it was never our goal. There was only one school that could have pried us away from Clemson, and it was Tennessee. To be honest with you, it's the coaching staff, Butch Jones and the coaching staff, that made the difference for us, not necessarily my past history with the school."

Ryan echoed his father's sentiments on Tennessee's new coach.

"I wanted to play with my brother," he said, "but when I got that call from Butch Jones, I just had this feeling in my chest that Tennessee is me. I just had a feeling right when he called, even before a visit. I just had a good feeling about it.

"All these emotions started running through my head about Tennessee - memories and stuff."

His son's decision prompted Lee to buy himself, as Ryan put it, "a whole bunch of new gear - as if he didn't have enough already."

Though his past led him to this point, Ryan has his focus aimed toward his future with the Vols.

"I know Tennessee's been struggling in the past few years, so I just really want to get Tennessee back on top," he said. "I know Alabama's been doing their thing in the SEC. Same with Georgia and all those schools.

"I know it's a big goal, so other people in the media and whatnot might think it's crazy, but I really think we can be a dominant team in the SEC consistently. That's something I want to be a part of, and I really think Butch Jones is the man to do it. I'm trying to be a part of it."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.