by Greg Bishop - New York Times
The Carolina Panthers selected Kris Jenkins in the second round of the N.F.L. 2001 draft. He was on four Pro Bowl teams and named All-Pro three times in seven seasons with them. In 2002 and 2003, he was a dominant player on the Panthers’ defensive line, helping them reach the Super Bowl for the first time.
The 6-foot-4 Jenkins, who was 360 pounds in his playing days, made tens of millions of dollars in salary over his 10-year career with the Panthers and then with the Jets. A series of major operations (one shoulder, three knee) forced him to retire. In his final two seasons, 2009 and 2010, he played seven games. He intended to return in 2011 after the Jets released him but ultimately decided to move into broadcasting. He works for the New York-based SNY cable channel, among other outlets.
Jenkins, 32, lives with his wife, Tashia, and his three sons. He does Pilates and takes herbs and roots to recover from injuries sustained on the field. In the future, he said, he wants to host a football camp for linemen, covering everything from finances to proper technique. He also hopes to return to the University of Maryland to complete his degree in kinesiology. Here are excerpts from recent interviews with Jenkins, who said he wanted to share the often untold stories of life as a professional football player. GREG BISHOP
N.F.L. fans, people outside, they have no clue what goes on. This isn’t like playing Madden. This isn’t like being the popular kid in high school. When you do those things in the real world, and it don’t work out, you still have your health. The thing about football is you’re directly playing with your life, the quality of it and the longevity of it. The stakes are up there.
You ever been in a car crash? Done bumper cars? You know when that hit catches you off guard and jolts you, and you’re like, what the hell? Football is like that. But 10 times worse. It’s hell.
I got my first N.F.L. concussion against Green Bay, my rookie year. I jumped, and my feet got clipped, and I hit the ground face-first. Bang! No shoulders. No chest. Nothing. Just my face hit. I got up, and I had the punch-drunk feeling, seeing starbursts and feeling giddy. I knew where I was. I knew what was going on. I also knew I had my bell rung. I made tackles back to back, and I remember one coach saying, the way he’s playing right now, the concussion probably did him some good. I played the whole game.
The debate about concussions wasn’t there yet. I’ve had more than 10, including college and the pros. Nobody cared. And that’s the thing. We play football.
I remember one game, at Carolina, my second year. We played Arizona, and the double team weighed 780 pounds combined. They just kept double-teaming me, hoping I would fold and cave in. I didn’t. But that was probably the most painful day I had.
From the double teams, over the years, I wore the left side of my body down. I was past hurt. I was at the point of numb. Like my body was shutting down nervous systems, so I didn’t have to deal with pain.
The numbness started at the very beginning. I couldn’t feel part of both arms. I couldn’t feel part of both legs. It was worse on the left. I’m just starting to get feeling back in my left side. Look, football is no joke.
But I’m going to say this much: somebody has to be the grunt. That’s why there’s no better position on the field than interior defensive line. Forget quarterbacks or specialists. They’ve got it easy. If we don’t come to play, nobody else on defense can do their job. We’ve got the toughest job on the field. We don’t care about our facial hair. We play a grimy position.
Piles, oh, my God, they’re brutal. I’ve had my ankles twisted. I’ve been bit. I’ve done stuff. I’ve tried to break guys’ elbows, pinching people, twisting ankles, trying to bend up their arms, pop an elbow out. Why? I had to fight back.
Mentally, we’re conditioned to be tough. We’re conditioned to feel no pain. The only injury I ever felt while playing was when one of my knees tore. That’s the only time I felt pain and was like, O.K., that hurt.
But Mondays, you wake up, and it’s hard to get out of bed. It hurts wherever you got hit. I remember one time getting hit by Edgerrin James. He put his head in my chest. I woke up, and I couldn’t even move, because it felt like my chest was going to collapse. It was sore for days. All you want to do is get the blood circulating.
Hot tub. Cold tub. Hot tub. Cold tub.
The brain fog? It still hasn’t stopped. It feels like you’re punch-drunk, like someone hit you over the head. It’s like you knock yourself stupid. When you have to concentrate on things, then it becomes an issue. My head gets foggy to the point where I really can’t function. Then I get acupuncture. I get massage treatments.
We know it’s going to hurt. We know because pain in football is consistent over time. You’re still hurting in the off-season. You’re hurting when the next season starts.
I saw [the former Panthers linebacker] Dan Morgan go through the head injuries. If anybody I played with hit harder than me, it was Morgan. That man was a monster.
Unfortunately, he paid the price.
I mean, guys play hurt, but it’s a choice. They do a pretty good job now, with all the scrutiny around concussions. On the line, it’s still painful. By the end of the year, half an offensive line might be getting shots, draining fluid from their knees. Most stay away from cortisone now, because it’s degenerative.
Everything gets off center. Bulging disk. Herniated disk. For linemen, it starts in the lower back. Throws everything off.
I can’t blame anybody for my death. I made the choice to play football. I made the choice to walk through the concussions. I could have stopped. I could have said, my head hurts. It was my choice, as a man. We consider football a gladiator sport because we understand you’re going to get hurt. You’re putting your life on the line. You might not die now, like in an old Roman arena, but 5, 10 years down the road, you could. You know that.
I wouldn’t change anything.
During my career, I kept my mouth shut. This now, speaking out, it’s about telling you my life. There’s no agenda, no vendetta. This is what football’s really like.
When I was a little kid, I got picked on. I didn’t start hitting my growth spurts until high school. I was the smallest kid in my class in junior high. When you get bullied, you either cower and shy away from the world, or you go ballistic. I didn’t get to the point where I felt like shooting people. But I fought back once I could.
I’m going to be absolutely honest with you. When I stepped into the game, I was an idiot. The issues they had with me in Carolina, some were misconstrued, some were blown out of proportion, some were spot-on. I didn’t have an issue with the game. I had an issue with trying to figure out how to live in the real world while I’m playing.
When we come into the N.F.L., we’re idiots. Because you’ve been groomed from childhood to think the rules don’t apply to you.
So this is what happens. You’re going to be warned. The first warning is the first meeting you have with an agent, when you realize this is real. My choices count at this point. I’m going to be prostituting myself for the next 18 years of my life.
That’s the first warning. The next one is that good old combine.
That’s when you realize, when you march in that room half naked, I’m a number now. They’ve changed the recruiting process to a percentage.
That’s what you are.
The third warning is when you get that contract. Most of the language in there is standardized. The gist of it is, stay in line, or else.
Your last warning is in training camp because there’s no learning curve. That’s when you realize that it all ties in together, and it will be that way as long as you’re playing.
I went through so much in Carolina, it was ridiculous. People checking up on us in clubs. Concerns with the locker room. John Fox was our coach. He was a big cliché guy. He’d say, do as I say, not as I do.
That didn’t make sense to me.
On New York and Ryan
I loved New York. I loved playing there. I loved the spotlight. I was fine in New York, but I also played for Eric Mangini. We started 8-3, Brett Favre, all of that. Everybody told Mangini, stop with the long practices, you’re killing us. You practice too hard. We’re on turf.
I’ve got a bulging disk in my back. That was when my whole career started going down.
People don’t understand this, but the most important person in the building for a lineman is a strength coach.
Rex Ryan is a trendsetter. Rex grew up in the game. His dad was a coach. He picked up on it. Players like Rex. They respond to coaches like Rex. They want a coach who knows what it feels like.
Violence and Madness
Roger Goodell said something to me that always stuck in my head: We’re ambassadors for the game.
O.K., well, if we’re ambassadors for the game, then we should be able to have a voice. We should be able to stand up and say, I’m union, I’m proud of that. Where I grew up near Detroit, people were proud to be in unions. They had a voice.
What you hear from guys like Ray Lewis, James Harrison, what they’re saying is we’re well aware what we’re signing up for. The violence, we love it. The madness, we love it. We love measuring ourselves in it.
Those guys express themselves with their pads. You soften the game, you’re taking away their freedom of expression. Nobody wants to see flag football, and now, you might as well give guys flags, tell them to hug afterward, all that.
The violence is what I remember. Like against Buffalo in 2009, when I had the game of my career. Or the time I slapped a lineman out of the way in Houston with one arm. Winning, the physical part, the mayhem, finding the line between insanity and sanity, that’s the exact reason why you play. That’s the reason fans like football in the first place.
A guy like James Harrison, he’s possessed, and that’s the guy you love to play with, love to watch. He doesn’t need to be babied.
Now the game is so profitable, the opportunities off the field are so tremendous, guys aren’t even maximizing football for what it was like in the first place, what you loved about it as a kid. Now, the game is about money. It’s not even about our health.
Guys now are always looking for the easy way out. Body hurts, take a painkiller. Sore knee, take a muscle relaxer. I get tired of seeing all these polished idiots. Chad Ochocinco. Terrell Owens. Go on Twitter and brag about how pretty your stomach muscles look. What happened to football?
Silence on Drugs
I never saw anyone take drugs, but you get a sense of the guys that you think are. My first years in the league, before they really started testing for masking agents and things like that, it seemed like more guys were on enhancers. Now, it’s about 20 percent, and I don’t think most guys are doing steroids. They’ve moved on. They were supposed to do the H.G.H. testing; they keep putting it off. I think that might be for the amount of people doing H.G.H. It might have been more than they thought.
Nobody is going to say anything in the locker room because it’s still a brotherhood. The guys don’t want to feel like you’re going to tell on somebody, even if they’re doing something wrong.
The N.F.L. is too big to fail. If that happened, it would be a slow death. It’s still the ultimate game. For us, it’s like legal prison rules. You have to protect your manhood, your well-being. You’re going to be challenged. You’re going to be tested.
There aren’t too many places a 400-pound guy with an attitude can go and beat the crap out of somebody and not get locked up for it. I have a violent streak. I have to fight it out of my system. We signed up for it. All of it. We’re not trying to be sane or rationale.
It’s not all from the league. Health is something that players are responsible for as well. I mean, there’s so much crap these guys are putting in their body. You’ve got creatine. You’ve got supplements.
Most of them aren’t hydrating properly. Mix that with alcohol.
For linemen, it’s the worst. You’re already going to be overweight and miserable while you’re playing. Everybody looks at it like, oh, I’m glad I’m fat. I’m not. I don’t want to be 400 pounds.
With a lot of teams, the methods of strength and conditioning across the N.F.L. are outdated. I’m a kinesiology major. Teams aren’t focused on core stability. You’re doing intense lifting, and you’re top-loading yourself. There’s no base. That’s why a lot of guys have knee problems, hip problems. Those are the things that get neglected, based on this outdated strength system.
Right now, it’s more important than ever for guys to take care of themselves off the field. The Patriots do it right. They have an acupuncturist on staff. They do Pilates. That’s one secret to their success: recovery.
You can do a lot off the field. You can lift. You can run. But that trauma, that rattling, that impact, there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Your body is going to naturally react. Your muscles will tighten up. Fluid builds.
The unfortunate thing is the timing of the off-season. You don’t have enough time. You get a month off, and you use that to mentally relax.
But your body is still tense from all that impact, from all that pain.
I don’t think the science is keeping up with the changes in the game.
We’re not on grass anymore. We’re on turf, which is disgusting for fat people. I hate turf. It’s the worst thing ever invented for a lineman.
Your knees absorb the impact. It’s being bounced up through your body through the concrete. Into your lower back. Into your lower spine.
People don’t want to put up with the gunk and the mud, but that was one of the best parts of the game. Playing in mud, when you can’t get a grip, when it’s disgusting. That’s football. The entertainment value was just fine back then.
The thing is, when guys retire, then stuff happens to their body; they’re coming back, screaming like we’re the martyrs in all this.
It’s almost like, well, you’re supposed to take care of yourself.
Players should focus more on recovery, but in the N.F.L., every herb is like a masking agent, or could result in a positive test. No one pays attention to alternative methods.
The first thing I did when I retired was I went to a health store. I believe in Eastern medicine. I literally bought a whole bunch of roots. My life is too important. My family is too important.
I want to get into public speaking, maybe put together a camp, for big guys, linemen in particular. Nobody prepares linemen for what will happen. Someone should.
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