The black pickup truck kept gaining speed behind him.
Then came the siren.
Jordan Jenkins thought it was all a joke, even as the flashing lights illuminated his car and the two officers exited their vehicle.
Jenkins, then a junior at the University of Georgia, was on his way home from college clad in Bulldogs gear. His football equipment was on the front seat, his schoolbooks in the back seat. And his car was pulled over on the side of a 45-mph road in Harris County, Georgia — just a few blocks from his parents’ home.
“I see two guys get out and I see ‘G.B.I.’ — Georgia Bureau of Investigations,” recalled Jenkins, a rookie outside linebacker for the Jets. “So I’m like, OK, it’s one of my friends because some of them are sheriffs and their parents are sheriffs. I’m thinking they’re playing a prank on me because they recognize the car.”
Jenkins said the officer who approached on the driver’s side suggested he was speeding. He acknowledged driving 50 mph.
“And then the one on the right said, ‘I think I smell marijuana in the car.’ And instantly, I’m like: ‘Are you kidding? This ain’t happening to me,’ ” Jenkins said.
He said he was patted down and his vehicle was searched. His belongings were strewn about. The officers found nothing and did not cite him for any offenses. But the humiliation was not over.
“The officers had the nerve to ask me how the Bulldogs are going to do this season,” Jenkins said, shaking his head.
Almost two years later, the exchange still angers him.
As the son of an Army veteran, the brother of a former Naval officer and the grandson of former military and police officers, Jenkins’ perspective on the country’s tense racial climate is more nuanced than one might expect of a 22-year-old.
“I’m from the South, so when I see a police officer, I always wave,” he said before acknowledging a stark reality for many young black men. “But if a police officer’s behind me, I always feel tense.”
Much of that apprehension stems from the racial tension that exists in America, but also from personal experience.
Jenkins clenched his jaw as he retold the story this past week. “I’m getting hot now just thinking about it because that’s so disrespectful to me,” he said after Wednesday’s practice. “I was mad at both officers because I did nothing wrong . . . I’ve never smoked weed in my life. I never would. My parents raised me better than that.”
Having grown up surrounded by law enforcement, he had no reason to be nervous around police. Not until that afternoon.
“I lose faith in people like that,” said the Jets’ third-round pick. “It just made me feel like I was less of a person at the time.”
His father, Ronald, a 22-year Army veteran, and his mother, Phyleshia, often worry about their son’s interactions with police.
“Let’s be real about it,” Ronald said in a phone interview. “ . . . Unless you are a black man, black woman — but especially a black man — you don’t understand what a person deals with when the police lights come on behind you.”
Added Phyleshia: “As a mother, even if Jordan wasn’t playing football, it’s a constant worry every time he gets behind the wheel of a car and goes out in today’s society as a young black man. The NFL does not protect him from being a black man. . . . It doesn’t have any bearing on your stature. It’s the color of your skin. That’s a constant worry for me.”
Both of them think often about their son’s 2014 encounter with the G.B.I. “For him to get stopped a few blocks from the house and they didn’t know who he was; to make him get out of his car — and once they find out who he is, it’s a different story, ‘Oh, I want an autograph then’ — I mean, come on,” Ronald said. “Being in the military, I stood for my country for 22 years. There’s a lot of great police officers out there — we have them in our family. But is it still a concern? Yes. I worry about him up there, I worry about him down here.
“ . . . I wish the world was a little more fair, put it that way. But in that circumstance, we all get nervous. I still get nervous. And I have a blue retired [military] ID card.”
The “NFL” label on the front of Jenkins’ jersey requires that he toe a particular line, that he represent “The Shield” and everything that comes with it. But the color of his skin provides the necessary context for his frustration, his apprehension, his angst.
With a calm demeanor and a soft voice, he speaks from a place of understanding. And also hurt.
“People think when you’re talking or tweeting about police officers, it’s all of them. But they’re not. They’re talking about disrespectful ones,” Jenkins said. “You’ll never hear me say, ‘[an expletive about] the police’ or ‘Blue Lives Matter’ doesn’t mean anything. Because I respect the police. I respect the military. Because my father’s in the military, my family’s in the police. I know what I’m talking about on both sides.”
The fabric of his family is rooted in the concept of serving one’s country. Jenkins’ 29-year-old brother, Marcel, served five years in the Navy. Phyleshia’s biological father served in the Air Force for 25 years and was a police officer in Shreveport, Louisiana. Her stepfather served in the military, as did Ronald’s father. One of Jenkins’ maternal uncles has been in the Houston police force for at least 30 years and two of his cousins have ties to the Natchitoches, Louisiana, police force.
Jenkins’ appreciation for the flag runs deep. So, too, does his respect for law enforcement. He said his preference is to stand for the national anthem because “I think of my family when I [see] the American flag” and “hearing the national anthem, that’s just something that inspires me to want to play.” But he also understands why professional athletes, college and youth players across the country have chosen different forms of protest against police brutality.
“The most ignorant thing I’ve ever seen somebody say was: If Colin Kaepernick doesn’t like his country, he needs to leave,” Jenkins said. “Why would you tell somebody to leave? Obviously, he doesn’t hate the country. He doesn’t like the state of the country. And he wouldn’t be doing what he’s doing if he didn’t love the country so much and wanted to move on and be better.”
Sensitivity and compassion are critical to bridging the gap between those on either side of the political, social and racial divides, he said. But Jenkins has found that “some people don’t want to understand” one another.
“There are situations where it doesn’t even matter about race,” he said. “If somebody made an error and killed your mom or killed your family member, you’d be agitated, you’d want justice as well.”
At least 45 NFL players from 13 teams “have knelt, sat or raised a fist during the national anthem,” according to ThinkProgress.org, which is tracking “The Kaepernick Effect.” And, according to the website, protests during the anthem have occurred “in at least 37 high schools, 17 colleges and two youth leagues in 30 states across the country.”
The Seattle Seahawks — who will face the Jets today at MetLife Stadium — began linking their arms during the anthem as a symbol of unity. And last week, cornerback Richard Sherman, receiver Doug Baldwin and defensive lineman Michael Bennett used their individual news conferences to address police brutality and the concerns of people of color. Baldwin, whose father was a Pensacola, Florida, police officer for 35 years, also called for the attorney general in all 50 states to review its policing policies.
Jenkins praised officers who remain committed to protecting and serving communities. “But there are other people who just bring disrespect to the badge,” he added. “Like a couple of guys I went to high school with, who were idiots always. We’d go on spring break or something and they’d just go out and try to punch a random person in the face and now they’re in a position of power.
“I feel like it should be harder to become a police officer so you won’t have any of those cases like that. Because it brings disrespect to my family as well.”
Taking stand has a price
But tackling those topics in a public forum has proved to be difficult for many NFL players, including Jenkins.
The 6-3, 259-pound edge rusher — who was drafted 83rd overall by the Jets for his high football I.Q. and his physicality — still is adjusting to the NFL learning curve and his role in Todd Bowles’ defense. He returned to the starting lineup last week with five tackles against the Chiefs after missing a month (including the first two regular-season games) because of a calf injury. But as he aims to become a steady playmaker on the field, he’s also trying to figure out how to best use his professional platform.
Jenkins, who was a risk management and insurance major at Georgia, said he engages his 23,000-plus followers on Twitter account in order to “spark debate” and keep conversations going. He was quick to point out that he doesn’t tweet one-sided articles, but rather “things I find relevant . . . just to get people to see some of the things going on in the country.”
But Ronald cautions his son about speaking too freely on social media. “Everybody’s entitled to their opinion — that’s why we live in America,” he said. “But it’s a no-win situation for you on Twitter or Facebook because you’re talking sometimes to faceless people.”
Athletes risk losing fan support, sponsorship deals and even roster spots for voicing their opinions. But for NFL players — who, on average, make considerably less money and have shorter careers than their professional counterparts — the price can seem even steeper.
Said Jenkins: “Some athletes aren’t happy with what’s going on, some athletes might want to speak out, some athletes might want to say something else, but they can’t.”
They can’t, he said, because “they need to protect themselves” financially.
While in college, he said he was told to “stay out of controversial matters.” But that was always a challenge.
“That just bites at my moral fiber because if I see something wrong, I was always taught you don’t sit idly by. You rectify it,” Jenkins said. “And that was one of the hardest things I had to deal with in college, just seeing injustices and seeing things I didn’t think were right, but I couldn’t say anything about it because I had to abide by the code of conduct. And that’s something you have to deal with as an NFL player. And people don’t realize that.”