In the NFL, the whispers begin when a player turns 30.
"You can say you don't pay attention, but you hear it," said Cullen Jenkins, 32, the Giants' new defensive tackle. "Once you hit 30, everyone starts talking about how you're getting older and missing a step. I see it as a challenge. My whole career, my whole life, has been about proving people wrong."
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Few players have traveled as far as Jenkins has in his journey to the Giants' defensive line. During the offseason, the team made the 6-2, 305-pound linemen their biggest free-agent splurge when they signed him to a three-year, $8-million contract in the hopes of fortifying a run defense that ranked 25th in the league last season.
Those are some pretty hefty expectations and cash for a player who 10 years ago doubted he ever would play a down of professional football.
In the fall of 2003, Jenkins was out of football, living with his mother-in-law and working for a landscaping company in Ypsilanti, Mich., to support his wife and two children.
At the same time his older brother, former Jets lineman Kris Jenkins, was having a breakout year in the trenches for the Carolina Panthers, Cullen was digging actual trenches in the frozen Michigan dirt after having been cut by the Green Bay Packers on the final day of training camp.
"He had pretty much given up," Kris, a television analyst for SNY last season, said in a phone interview last week. "I didn't find this out until later, but I was the reason Cullen gave it another shot. He saw me make it to the Pro Bowl and said, 'I can do this if Kris can.' He refused to be denied."
Cullen went off to play for NFL Europe in the spring of 2004, and in the fall of that year, he earned a roster spot with the Packers. This time he was in the right place at the right time. He blossomed into a starter and eventually became a defensive mainstay on a team that regularly went to the postseason and won Super Bowl XLV in the 2010-11 season.
Giants defensive line coach Robert Nunn coached Jenkins for three seasons in Green Bay and is impressed with his toughness and his versatility.
"I think he can go inside and outside and we can do some different things, which in turn will allow us to do different things with some of our other guys," Nunn said.
The Giants gave a glimpse of what those different things might be at a practice early last week when they used Jenkins at defensive end as part of a jumbo defensive package they will use against the run. The line featured Jenkins and either Mathias Kiwanuka or Justin Tuck at ends along with Shaun Rogers and Linval Joseph at tackle. Jenkins blew up at least two running plays from that position in the team drills.
"He is a very explosive guy, talented guy, has matured a lot," Nunn said. "He's a different guy than he was when he came to Green Bay. He's a guy who has gotten better and better as time has gone on. The passion he plays with and the toughness he brings, he's another guy who plays tough. On Sundays he's a tough guy. We need that in the room."
Raised outside of Detroit by a single father who took custody of the boys when Cullen was 10 years old, the Jenkins brothers had no choice but to be tough. Darome Jenkins, a former college football player at Eastern Michigan, juggled a number of odd jobs while going back to college to get his teaching degree.
"There were times we had to go to the community center for a shower because we didn't have water, and we ate a lot out of those government-subsidized welfare cans, but the one thing we always had was my father," Kris said. "Our father made it a point in his life, no matter what struggle he went through, that he was going to be there for us. And I think that helped give us both confidence when we went through hard times."
Cullen has the confidence that he can finish his career on a high note, which is why he chose to play with the Giants after spending the last two seasons on a disappointing and troubled Philadelphia team. Jenkins ranks fourth among NFL defensive tackles with 21 sacks since 2009, but last season in Philadelphia was a tough one as he registered only four sacks and 51 tackles.
He said his No. 1 goal is to get back to the Super Bowl with the Giants.
Said Jenkins, "It would mean a whole lot, especially with all the bouncing around I've done. I think about it a lot.''