Janoris Jenkins had been kicked out. From his team, from his school, and quite possibly from his promising future.
The star cornerback for the Gators had just been dismissed from the University of Florida after a series of well-documented arrests and failed drug tests, of which he has since admitted, and he wasn’t sure exactly where he was headed next other than home to a town called Pahokee that goes by the nickname of “Muck City.” But it was that drive from Gainesville through his home state that played such a large role in setting him straight on a path to the NFL, to the St. Louis Rams and eventually to the Giants.
In that car for the fateful drive were Jenkins, his father William Jenkins, and the man who is Jenkins’ mentor, his metaphorical big brother, and one of the biggest influences in his life.
Sandy Cornelio, an Army recruiter who met Jenkins when he was in the 10th grade and tried to convince him to join the military because football was a pipe dream, laid it out clearly for the young man whose future in the sport was suddenly at stake.
If you don’t play football, Cornelio said he asked Jenkins on that long drive through the guts of Florida, what other goals and dreams do you have for your life?
He had gotten himself out of the Muck, and crawling back there was not an appealing option.
“We had a heart–to-heart talk, me, him and his father, and we broke it down for him,” Cornelio told Newsday in a phone interview on Wednesday. “Sitting there in the car he realized: ‘Football is what I want to do and I have the talent to do it. I just have to get my act straight.’ And that was it.”
Jenkins transferred to Division II North Alabama for his final year of college football. He was a second-round draft pick by the Rams in 2012, played four NFL seasons without any serious off-the-field incidents (he was benched one game his rookie year for violating team curfew), and essentially burned all of the red flags that teams were waving around him when he came into the league. On Wednesday, he agreed to a deal with the Giants to become the second highest-paid cornerback in the league with a five-year, $62.5 million contract that guarantees him $29 million. Only Darrelle Revis’ contract pays a cornerback more.
“He knew that he had everything in his hands, and he saw how easily it could be taken away,” Cornelio said. “It opened his eyes that he could be this great star at the university but if he had these transgressions it could be taken away.”
Jenkins answered many questions about those issues at the 2012 NFL Combine, where he was interrogated by teams who saw him as a first-round talent and a first-class risk. He told teams about how he failed one drug test at Florida and was arrested three times — once for a bar fight and twice for marijuana possession. He also was asked about his four children who, at the time, were all under the age of 3, with three different women.
“I was honest, straightforward,” Jenkins told reporters in Indianapolis that winter. “Told them I did it. I admitted to everything. I take full responsibility. I learned from it. It made me a stronger person. How to separate myself from certain guys, certain people. In order to be successful at the next level, I can’t do the things that I used to do.”
“He got caught up in the environment that was there,” Cornelio said of the University of Florida. “Rather than being a leader, he was being a follower. He learned from that, went to North Alabama, and left his transgressions there. Since he got to the NFL, he hasn’t had any issues.”
Cornelio has been with him through the turnaround. Now 34 and still an Army recruiter — he’s since been transferred from Florida to Temecula, California — Cornelio continues to play a large role in Jenkins’ life.
“Sandy was the guy that I leaned on when I got in trouble,” Jenkins told Newsday. “I didn’t go to my mom, I didn’t go to my homeboys. I took it to my dad and my mentor. Basically, before I let somebody lie to me or tell me what I want to hear, I want the truth. You know what I’m saying? I want the honesty and I know that with Sandy and my dad, that’s all they’re going to give me. They’re going to tell me when I’m wrong, when I’m right — ‘That’s not good’ — you know?”
After failing to talk Jenkins into military service — he now laughs at his pitch: “I told him ‘Everybody has a dream to make it to the NFL, but guess what, you’re not’ ” — he remained a trusted advisor. He drove Jenkins to football camps and helped him during the college recruiting process. He helped him select an agent coming out of college and change agents just prior to the draft.
“He brought a positive vibe around me, taught me how to understand that there’s more to life than just football and if anything happen and football is taken away from you, what are you going to do next? How are you going to respond?” Jenkins said. “I think he’s just somebody that God placed in my life, man, that I can just say I’m truly blessed to have.”
They continue to speak almost daily, including recently while Jenkins was going through his brief and lucrative free agency that brought him to the Giants. Despite being confident on the field, this new phase of his career does come with some trepidation.
“He’s excited,” Cornelio said. “It’s a big city for him. At the end of the day people have to understand that he’s from Pahokee and there are 6,000 people in Pahokee . . . I don’t want to say anxiety, but is there a little bit of nervousness? ‘I’m going to the Big Apple?’ Yeah. Anybody would. But he knows there are expectations and we have a plan built for him and we will help him get accustomed to the city.”
Jenkins still is a bit of a loose cannon. He’s been known to take to social media to document his activities and attitudes, including a recent takedown of the Rams’ offer to him to remain with the team.
The Rams surrounded him with as many mentoring types as they could, including, according to a Sports Illustrated’s MMQB.com article from 2013, Hall of Famer Aeneas Williams. Despite the structure, Jenkins posted an infamous selfie on Instagram in 2013 that showed him with a gold chain around his neck and gold jewelry over his teeth. The caption: “Strip club ready.”
But he has not run afoul of the law since he left Florida.
Any chance Jenkins reverts to his old ways with a big bank account in a big city full of ways to spend that kind of money?
“Not at all,” Cornelio said, vouching for him. “Janoris understands that you learn from your mistakes. He understands that going backwards is not an option. Do I think that getting a large amount of money is going to change him? No. Because he knows that he has to take it to the next stage in life and what he’s trying to accomplish in his life.”
And what is that?
“His drive and goal is always to be the best at his position,” Cornelio said. “If you don’t have goals in life, then why do it? Why play football if you are not trying to be the best? His goal is to be the best.”
He’s going to be paid that way by the Giants. Now he has to continue to live up to the contract, both on the field and off.
“Four years ago, five years ago, people didn’t expect me to last [four] years in the NFL, so I give big thanks to Sandy and my dad,” Jenkins said. “They showed me and stayed on me about just doing the right thing . . . I just went under those guys’ wings, man. I made it this far. I can just say I’m truly blessed.”