In terms of football and real estate — but mostly football — Alex Jenkins has come a long way. England’s city of Bath and the Texas city of San Antonio are separated by some 4,877 miles, or roughly 15 hours on a plane.
“The only time I’d seen football before playing it was the odd YouTube clip, or highlights,” said Jenkins, a 6-6 junior defensive end with the University of the Incarnate Word’s Cardinals. “I didn’t know anything about the game when I first started playing the game.”
Which was about four years ago, give or take. At 19, the British-born Jenkins strapped on a football helmet for the first time. Last Saturday, big No. 99 proved critical in the margin of difference as Incarnate rallied for an 18-16 win over Texas A&M-Kingsville, blocking a 45-yard field-goal attempt late in the first half that kept the Cardinals within six.
Quick hops. Quick learner, too.
“Three years ago, he was not very good,” Incarnate Word defensive line coach Todd Ivicic said. “He was a big, strong guy, (but) he didn’t know if the football was stuffed full of feathers or had air in it. He was clueless. He was running the wrong way. The amount he has gained in the last couple years has been tremendous.”
Like all classic Texas football stories, Jenkins’ journey starts in the southern English town of Bristol, winds its way north to Scotland, stops in Virginia, then shoots over to the Lone Star State.
“I wanted a sport where I could hit somebody,” explained Jenkins, whose Cardinals (1-0) visit McNeese State Saturday night on ASN. (Find your local affiliate.) “I’d already played rugby. I wanted to try something new.”
At the age 12, a growth spurt shot him up to 6 feet. As a youth, he’d taken part in tryouts — they call them “trials” across the pond — with a number of big soccer clubs, including Chelsea. Nothing stuck.
Jenkins hooked up with former Philadelphia Eagles fullback Cecil Martin and played just about every position, including kick returner, with club sides in Bristol. But the first big break came at the Football University (FBU) camp at Stirling University in Scotland, where young Alex was first spotted — at 6-6, 275 pounds, he’s hard to miss — by Ted Cottrell, the longtime NFL defensive coordinator.
Cottrell, in turn, invited Jenkins to participate in FBU’s “Top Gun” event in Virginia in the summer of 2012, where he turned the hips of opposing offensive tackles and the heads of visiting scouts.
Jenkins says he wound up fielding at least eight scholarship offers — he took long looks at the University of Virginia and the University of Miami — after just eight months of taking up the sport.
“I thought, ‘I’d rather go to a small school, where they’ll look after me, rather than be at a big school and just be another number,’” Jenkins said. “It was quite overwhelming, honestly.
“I didn’t really know much about college football before any of this. I only learned about college football when I started Googling it and then I found out how big a deal it was.”
Ivicic admits that he didn’t know what the big deal was with Jenkins, at least at first. Cottrell and others had put calls to Incarnate head coach Larry Kennan, who’d shepherded the Cardinals into Division I. No stone is left unturned on the recruiting trail, but when the assistant coach heard Kennan was chasing a kid from England — England? — to play on the defensive line, he did a double take.
“Oh, my goodness,” Ivicic told Kennan at the time. “We’re not going to do this, are we?”
“Yeah,” Kennan replied. “We are.”
“(Then) he flew in,” Ivicic says now, “and looked the part.”
Even if his teammates occasionally tease him about the accent, it’s not home, but it feels close enough: Incarnate Word is a private institution affiliated with the Catholic church with roughly 4,500 undergrads and a student-to-faculty ratio of 14-1.
“I preferred a small-school (environment) because I’m from a small town anyway,” Jenkins said. “And I knew that this team would look after me.”
Although the heat took some getting used to. So did the game. Jenkins had all the inherent physical gifts, but found himself cramming to try to keep up with peers who’d been playing this sport for decades.
“Like they say in England, as soon as you can walk, you kick a ball,” Jenkins said. “In America, as soon as you can walk, you throw a ball.”
In Jenkins’ family, they walk the walk. His father, Peter, is a martial arts instructor in the style of Jeet Kune Do, the fighting method taught and popularized by the late Bruce Lee. Cousin Scott Sinclair is a winger with English Premier League side Aston Villa.
“He’s the rawest athlete that I’ve ever dealt, especially for his size and speed and strength,” Ivicic said. “So it’s been a process. Alex really has a great desire to be successful.”
And the tools to be an absolute freak. Jenkins posted a video to YouTube in May 2014 that showed him nailing a vertical box jump of 57 inches.
Point of reference: Houston Texans star J.J. Watt hit the 61-inch mark this past April.
“I wanted to be a big fish in a small pond,” Jenkins said.
Above: ASN illustration via Google Maps; photo courtesy of UIWCardinals.com; video courtesy of YouTube