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Against All Odds

Though Undrafted, Ex-Hueneme Standout Jenkins Remains Undaunted in NFL Dream


SAN DIEGO — With one crushing hit from Rodney Harrison, one of the NFL's biggest bad boys, Ronney Jenkins realized he wasn't playing against Idaho State anymore.

On a beautiful afternoon last weekend at UC San Diego, where the San Diego Chargers were holding an intrasquad scrimmage, Jenkins took a handoff and charged up the middle before being greeted by Harrison, a hard-hitting strong safety who never met a running back he didn't want to wreck.

Jenkins, an undrafted free agent from Northern Arizona, was stopped cold.

"That might have been his welcome to the NFL," said Charger running backs coach Ollie Wilson, who noted that Jenkins shook off the blow, cleared his head and jumped back into the huddle.

The correct huddle, for the record.

Jenkins, small for an NFL running back at 5 feet 11 and 188 pounds, has drawn the Chargers' attention for other reasons, particularly for his speed.

Though the last month has been a learning process for Jenkins, who rushed for a national-record 619 yards in a game for Hueneme High in 1995, he has taken significant strides in trying to overcome the long odds that confront a player not taken in any of the seven rounds of the NFL draft.

Jenkins is listed as a fourth-string running back, but in a testament to his blazing speed, he is expected to return kickoffs in the Chargers' exhibition opener Saturday at San Francisco.

"He's very, very quick," Wilson said. "As we like to say, you couldn't touch him in a phone booth. He's got explosive speed and he gets from one place to another really quickly. That's an advantage in the NFL. This is a speed league."

Jenkins has always had the wheels, but he failed to put together a consistent college career and terminated it early by applying for the NFL draft after his junior season at Northern Arizona, a Division I-AA school that was the last place anyone expected Jenkins to end up.

After attracting college recruiters with his record-breaking performance against Rio Mesa--Washington and Nebraska called him at home that night, he said--Jenkins opted for Brigham Young, which offered a chance to play right away.

Jenkins started well at BYU, rushing for 733 yards and 11 touchdowns and earning Western Athletic Conference freshman of the year honors, but he was suspended for the 1997 season for violating the Mormon school's honor code by having premarital sex with a woman he would eventually marry.

He returned to action in 1998, again starting strong by rushing for 171 yards in an upset of Arizona State and tying a school record with five touchdowns against San Jose State. But he was expelled later in the season for violating the school honor code a second time for the same reason.

Rather than transfer to another Division I-A school and sit out the 1999 season as per NCAA guidelines, Jenkins opted to go to smaller Northern Arizona, where he could play right away. He rushed for 1,051 yards and seven touchdowns in a relatively disappointing season.

"I wasn't really happy being there and that kind of messed up my performance," Jenkins said. "I wasn't where I thought I should have been. I thought I should have been at BYU. As far as football goes, I was happy at BYU. Happy to practice, happy to play.

"I didn't feel like I broke any law [at BYU]. I had sex with a girl that I cared about. It wasn't like I did some off-the-wall things."

Declaring for the NFL draft was a no-brainer for Jenkins, who didn't want to spend another year in Flagstaff.

"I just didn't think there was more to do at college," Jenkins said. "I felt I was ready, even though I know it's a big step."

Jenkins' ability to return kicks might be his biggest asset in trying to make the Chargers, who must trim their roster from 87 players to 65 by Aug. 22 and to the regular-season limit of 53 by Aug. 27.

After that, five players may be re-signed to the practice squad, working out with the team and practicing during the week but not playing in games.

As Jenkins matures--he and his wife, to whom he is separated, have a 9-month-old daughter--he realizes the importance of the past, specifically the night of Nov. 10, 1995, when he broke a 21-year-old national high school record.

Jenkins could have added to his rushing total, but touchdowns of 65 and 45 yards were nullified because of penalties.

Jenkins scored seven touchdowns in the game, four coming on runs of 79 yards or longer, and catapulted himself into the national spotlight.

At the time, he was unconcerned with his achievement.

"I had other things on my mind, like recruiting and visiting colleges," he said. "I didn't really think about it that much. I knew it was big only because the newspapers wrote about it."

Working toward the next stage of his career, Jenkins has developed an appreciation for his record.

"That's a lot of yards in one game," he said. "People just don't do things like that. I didn't imagine doing that. I think it's all part of a plan God has for me."

Whether or not Jenkins makes the Chargers, one thing is certain. Despite his size, he's willing to absorb big hits.

"I'll pop right back up, unless someone's broken my legs," he said. "I can't worry about getting hit. I can't be scared to go over the middle."



* Ht/Wt: 5-11, 188

* Position: Tailback

* High school: Hueneme

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