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For the first seven years of his NFL career, Malcolm Jenkins was quietly committed to his charitable causes, running his own foundation, hosting football camps in New Jersey, feeding needy families in Columbus, Ohio, and mentoring high school students in New Orleans.
For the most part, he preferred to keep his endeavors private.
It wasn’t until he saw Colin Kaepernick take a knee to protest social injustice in 2016 that Jenkins realized he needed to not only raise his fist, which he did for a season and a half, but that it was even more important for him to raise his voice.
“It feels like the state of our country and where we are, it’s an emergency. There’s a need for people with influence and people with access to help to get involved,” Jenkins told USA TODAY Sports this week.
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In the 17 months since Jenkins first chose to raise his fist during the national anthem as a way to protest various forms of racial injustice, he has emerged as the most vocal leader of the players’ social movement, as he continues to balance work toward league-wide initiatives, his foundation’s efforts and his duties as a captain of the NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles.
The latter of those roles has come most naturally to Jenkins, but those who knew him growing up in Piscataway, N.J., aren’t surprised that the teenager who starred on three state championship teams managed to find a purpose bigger than just football.
“It was something that was there all along,” said Larry Lester, the track and field coach at Piscataway High.
Jenkins wasn’t particularly politically active as a teen, but his coaches remember him as a conscientious student and natural leader on the football and track teams, and a player who showed practice habits that were rare for a young athlete, even at a school loaded with future college athletes.
“That’s how he led. He was not afraid to express himself with the team, but I think they totally respected him because of his work ethic, not so much of what he said,” Piscataway High football coach Dan Higgins told USA TODAY Sports.
A quiet rookie
Even when he entered the NFL in 2009 as a first-round draft pick by the New Orleans Saints, Jenkins was not a vocal leader. He recalled this week how, when the Saints made their run to the Super Bowl title during his rookie season, he spent nearly all of Super Bowl week in his Miami hotel room, overwhelmed by the large stage.
It’s a marked contrast from Jenkins’ experience here in Minnesota with the Eagles, where he’s commanded a large crowd of reporters during his team’s four media sessions, and deftly moved between questions about his potential matchup against New England Patriots star tight end Rob Gronkowski and questions about the Players Coalition and his own political activism.
“For my entire career, from high school all the way through, everything has always been football, football and then you realize that life is much bigger than this game especially when you start thinking of life after football and what you want to leave behind. You can do that while you’re still on this stage,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins challenged himself to be a leader in the players’ movement as he took a deeper view at social issues that he realized had been around him his entire life. He looked at his own public school experience in Piscataway, a middle class town located near Rutgers University, and how different it was from the experiences of his cousins, who lived in a poorer area in northern New Jersey.
He watched as one of his brothers, who had been arrested for a marijuana offense as a teenager, had the criminal record follow him “like a scarlet letter as an adult,” Jenkins said, making it difficult to find jobs.
He began studying the American education system to learn about the disparities between communities nationwide, and researching the criminal justice system, paying particular attention to incarceration rates and criminal records. He visited with police officers and prison inmates, spoke to high school students and funded a summer program at Drexel University for inner city students to learn about science, technology, engineering, arts and math.
“My sense is that obviously he cares about the challenges facing urban youth, and I think he recognizes what a tremendous value and importance education has,” said Youngmoo Kim, the director of the ExCITe Center at Drexel, who has partnered with Jenkins’ foundation for the past two years.
When the football team at Woodrow Wilson High in Camden, N.J., located across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, knelt during the national anthem in 2016, Jenkins went to visit the players, not just to provide moral support, but to help provide a broader perspective on what the students were protesting.
“The biggest take away was for them to understand that this is serious business. The movement and mission, there is still a lot of work to be done,” Woodrow Wilson High coach Preston Brown told USA TODAY Sports. “As young people on the ground level, they have to continue to press forward about what they believe in. He wanted them to know this isn’t a publicity stunt, it wasn’t about money. It was about finding active solutions.”
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And that was Jenkins’ own goal in founding the Players Coalition, a group of players from teams across the league who were committed to addressing social issues and turning protests into action, along with recently retired NFL receiver Anquan Boldin last fall.
For Jenkins, the roots of the coalition started with Kaepernick, who began his protest during the 2016 preseason. Jenkins chose to stand with a raised fist rather than a kneel, in hopes that the message behind his protest would not be misconstrued as being anti-military. He called the conversation around Kaepernick’s protest an “a-ha moment” for him that inspired him to speak out.
“That’s when I truly realized how much influence we have as athletes, and especially if we use our voices collectively,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins led a group of players into a meeting with a group of owners in New York City in mid-October and negotiated with owners and league executives on wide-scale plans for the league to provide financial support for players’ social justice initiatives, specifically in areas of criminal justice reform, police brutality and inequalities in the education system. The league committed $90 million over seven years, and offered assistance in connecting players with legislators and publicity for player causes.
Jenkins ended his protest in early December.
“These are things that are coming from behind this shield, something that’s been protected for years. Players have gotten that accomplished,” Jenkins said. “Although everyone is not going to agree, everybody has played a part of getting us to where we are. I’m proud to be a part of it, I’m proud be able to look at peers like Colin Kaepernick and all the things that they’ve sacrificed over the years because without that, and without the efforts of many, we wouldn’t be here.”
It hasn’t always been smooth. Several NFL players, including 49ers safety Eric Reid, splintered from the coalition late this season, in part because of Jenkins’ prominent role in dealing with the NFL and perceived exclusion of Kaepernick. The free agent quarterback has filed a collusion claim against the NFL, and has largely remained publicly silent in the past year. Kaepernick recently completed his commitment to donate $1 million to various charities.
Jenkins said he does not believe his relationship, or the coalition’s relationship, with Kaepernick is irreparably broken.
“We definitely have chosen not to necessarily work together or align ourselves as far as the coalition, but he’s doing some great work and he’s still donating his funds, and I’m sure at some point in time the coalition will be supporting him,” Jenkins said.
For now, Jenkins continues to embrace his chance to continue his activism while trying to win his second Super Bowl. He’s learned that the two passions don’t have to be separate. He even donated the two tickets he was given by the NFL for being the Eagles’ nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award to Kempis Songster, a 45-year-old man who was released from a Pennsylvania prison last month after serving 30 years for a murder conviction as a teenager.
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Jenkins met Songster at Graterford Prison last year.
“I wanted to send a message to him and to people like him that they’re not forgotten about. We’re all better than our worst mistakes. And I wanted to show people that we have to be able to understand each other in a better way, and sometimes those come with uncomfortable conversations,” Jenkins said. “But at the end of the day, myself and Kempis took two different roads in life, but here we are arriving at the same place, trying to do the same thing, and that’s healing and advancing our communities.”