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Bucs' walking (just barely) inspiration

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 6, 2002


ATLANTA -- Inside Kerry Jenkins, there is something worth talking about.

It is there, beneath the flesh, you find something different about him, something rare. It is there you find the reason to swing your conversation to a nondescript player in a nondescript position on a nondescript unit.

No, it isn't the break in Kerry Jenkins' leg.

It's his bravery in his heart.

Four weeks in, and the Bucs have found themselves a warrior. Introducing Jenkins, a brawling, bloody-knuckles sort of player who thinks the pain of missing a game is worse than the pain of playing one on a broken leg.

For an offensive line seeking toughness, for a football team seeking resilience, it's a fine place to start.

Such is what Jenkins, dented and determined, has brought to his new team. When he played an entire game last week against Cincinnati with a broken leg -- Say it again: a broken leg -- Jenkins showed his team a tolerance of pain and a commitment to the locker room it has not seen.

The Bucs need this. Heck, the entire NFL needs this.

It is a league that has gone soft around the edges. One week, you hear Randy Moss say that he plays when he darn well feels like it. The next, you hear Warrick Dunn refer to a $10-million contract offer as a slap in the face. You see players miss one game, two games, with injuries no more severe than a stone in the shoe. It remains a violent game, but sometimes it seems to have lost some of its passion.

Then you hear Jenkins tell the doctors to wrap up his left leg.

He'll play.

A week before, against the Ravens, Jenkins injured the leg. He had fallen to the ground, and his quarterback was in danger, so he lifted his left leg. It's called a leg-whip, and it's as illegal as hot-footing the line judge. Jenkins paid his price. The doctors said two weeks, maybe a month. Jenkins said, in essence, "How much tape do you have?"

Jenkins could have sat out, and no one would have blamed him. The X-rays were on his side. Neither the money nor the respect would have lessened.

But there is a code among offensive linemen, by nature a hard and rugged lot, that says if you can, you swallow the pain and play. It isn't that linemen consider themselves bulletproof; it's that they think that with a little spackle and some touch-up paint, they should be able to play anyway. Outsiders never fully understand. Offensive linemen understand.

Perhaps that explains the quizzical look that comes over Jenkins when you ask him about playing on one leg. Jenkins shrugs a lot. He shakes his head some. He has this look on his face as if he expects you to believe that offensive linemen play all the time with broken legs.

Besides, his right leg? It isn't broken at all.

"It really wasn't a big deal," Jenkins said. "I'm a little embarrassed to talk about it. It's part of being a player. Everyone plays with pain."

Yes, everyone plays with pain.

But not with a left fibula that looks like a cracked mirror.

"He's a very bad man," teammate Warren Sapp said. "How many players play with a broken leg? One percent? Less than that. Maybe a half-percent. Oh, people play with broken fingers, maybe a broken hand. But down here? That's where the game is played."

Said tackle Lomas Brown: "I've been playing the game 18 years, and I've never seen that. I don't know if I would have done it."

Across the state, at his home in Orlando, someone else heard about Jenkins going above and beyond, and the old memories came pouring in. Jack Youngblood smiled.

"Kerry Jenkins can play on my team anytime," Youngblood said. "You're talking about someone who has the guts, the will, the desire to go and try to contribute. We need more guys like that in this league."

Perhaps you remember Youngblood, the Rams' Hall of Fame defensive end. In 1979, he snapped the same bone in the same leg when he fell across Dallas' Rayfield Wright. "It sounded like a .22," Youngblood said.

Youngblood returned to the game. He finished the game, then played in the NFC Championship against the Bucs and in the Super Bowl.

"It felt about like you'd imagine it would feel," Youngblood said. "It was a constant, stabbing pain. Have you ever had an ice pick jammed into your ankle, then played football for three hours? It felt like that."

Ah, but Youngblood's was broken in two. Jenkins' is only cracked.

"Hey, a broken bone is a broken bone," Youngblood said. "It hurts. If he tells you it doesn't hurt, he isn't telling the truth."

Jenkins admits there was pain. "But not that bad," he said. "It really wasn't that bad."

This is how tough guys are. You can cuss them, cuff them, cut them with a dull knife. They can endure everything but a pat on the back.

"I was watching a program on television the other night," offensive line coach Bill Muir is saying, "about Medal of Honor winners. The common thread wasn't bravery. Some of these guys got out of hospital beds, because they didn't want to lay there while their friends were getting shot at. It's the same mentality. If Kerry could play, he felt an obligation to play."

Where do you learn toughness? How do you learn to get around obstacles?

For Jenkins, you go back to a trailer park in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

He grew up there, the son of Ralph and Luenita Jenkins, neither of whom could speak or hear. Times were hard, and money was tight.

Still, there were lessons to be learned. From his father, Jenkins learned two things. Be humble, and be tough. Jenkins remembers having a bad finger as a Little League pitcher, and his father's lesson that his teammates were counting on him. Ralph Jenkins died when Kerry was a high school junior; Luenita and Kerry remain close.

"It was never a big deal for me that they couldn't talk or hear," Jenkins said. "It's just the way things were. They were my parents."

Jenkins went to LSU out of high school, but it didn't take, so he transferred to Troy State, where the offensive line coach was a crusty old soul named Wayne Bolt.

"Kerry is the toughest, meanest s.o.b. I've ever seen," Bolt said. "It came from the way he grew up."

Bolt will tell you about the game in Louisiana-Monroe when he had to peel Jenkins out of the stands. No, Jenkins said, it wasn't that bad. A fan was flicking burning cigarettes onto the team, and several players were ready to rumble, but the cops got there first. Bolt will tell you that when Jenkins showed up at Troy State, he couldn't bench 225 pounds even once. Wrong, Jenkins said. He could ... but not many times.

There is one story they agree upon, however.

The time Jenkins quit football.

His mother was going through a tough time, and there was the possibility of a job, so Jenkins went home. Bolt sent some other assistants after him, and they talked him into returning to school.

"Roman Oben and I were talking about this the other night," Jenkins said. "It's amazing how one decision can change your life. If I don't go back, I'm probably working in the mill somewhere right now."

Instead, Jenkins began to construct himself into a pretty fair offensive lineman. Oh, he didn't take the direct approach to the NFL. He wasn't drafted, and his tryout with the Bears fell short. But he landed on the Jets practice squad. Soon, Muir moved him from tackle to guard. Less than two weeks later, he started against the Bucs in a big Jets victory.

"He hasn't had the silver spoon," Muir said. "He doesn't have the pedigree. But he's earned his way. You can cover me up with guys like that."

Perhaps this is where it starts for the Bucs, with one player with one leg. Perhaps this is where the team gets tougher, more resolute. Already, you can see the respect for Jenkins grow.

Case in point: When the Bucs were in camp, Jenkins' girlfriend, Kate Herrera, broke her ring finger while walking the dog. The two have moved into a home recently, and when the Bucs left for Cincinnati last week, there still were a lot of boxes to be moved to the attic.

When Jenkins returned home from the game, the boxes were all put away.

"If you can play a game on a broken leg," Herrera told Jenkins, "then I can get the boxes to the attic."

Hey, it wasn't a big deal. No, it didn't hurt that much.

See? Already, the toughness is spreading.

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