Crack, snapple, and pop. That it is all you hear on the football field as Ronald Jenkins, known to his friends and teammates as RJ, drives his shoulder into the waistline of the ball carrier for the opposing team. With a huge thud that sounds like a body breaking in half, they both hit the turf.
As the whistle blows in the background, signaling the end of the play, Jenkins gets up and proceeds to dance, not even acknowledging his handiwork. He returns to the line of scrimmage, and stares down the quarterback on the opposing team. Jenkins pounces off the line scrimmage, and sheds a blocker with ease. He is so fast he’s like the superhero “The Flash.” First he’s at the line of scrimmage, and then in the quarterback’s blindside. He delivers a devastating spear to the quarterback, one that you would see in professional wrestling—but this is high school football.
Jenkins is a senior at Skyline High School, where he is a varsity starter for the Titans. He has dreams of playing his sport at the college level. He has his eyes set on Howard University, which competes in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, which is full of historically black colleges and universities located in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern states. They are a part of the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), which is also known as Division 1AA football.
He is also keeping a close eye on the Division 1AA powerhouse Eastern Washington, which competes in the Big Sky Conference. Eastern Washington finished 7-4 overall, and 6-2 in their conference, ranking at number three in the Big Sky this year.
But before he can play for a college team, Jenkins has to finish his career as a high school scholar athlete. “It is a lot of adversity. First, I have to make sure I take care of my education, or else I can’t play football,” said Jenkins. “And after that, I have to make sure I know the plays for football.”
In order to continue playing on the team, Jenkins must maintain a grade point average of 2.0 or higher. This requirement has to be met by all high school athletes within the Oakland Athletic League, which is monitored by not only the school, but the school district. “It’s a great deal of work, but that is what it will take to be successful in football, and as a student athlete,” said Jenkins.
Jenkins plays both sides of the field for Skyline. On the offensive side of the field, he is a tight end, contributing to key blocks, and clutch catches down the field. Jenkins also plays defensive end. That job is to maintain outside containment, and pressure the quarterbacks on the opposing team.
Jenkins is originally from East Oakland. He grew up in what he describes as the “Deep East in the 80’s.” He said growing up in his neighborhood was challenging due to its violence and drug problems. “Playing football with my friends in the street, was the only positive thing that came out of growing up in my neighborhood,” said Jenkins.
Despite football being his first love, it wasn’t the first sport he played. “I played basketball at Montera Middle School, but I didn’t really want to play basketball. I was just doing it for my parents. Football has always been my true passion,” said Jenkins.
He said his older brother inspired him to be a scholar athlete. His brother was a standout free safety for the McClymonds Warriors, and earned an athletic scholarship to a Division 1 powerhouse. “He used to come home from his games when I was 5 years old, and I use to try on his pads. I wanted to play really bad,” said Jenkins.
But despite being a star athlete in high school, Jenkins recalls his brother having some issues that held him back from being great. “He became involved in a lot bad activity,” said Jenkins. “I decided that I wasn’t going to take that route, but I wanted to take the same football path that he inspired me to take.”
Although he grew up wanting to play it, football hasn’t always been easy for Jenkins. He started playing at the age of 6 for the East Bay Warriors, a Pop Warner football team in Oakland. They work with youth ranging from ages 5 to 15, and help them develop football skills before entering high school.
“First year I played football, it gave me hell, and I wanted quit,” he said. He described it as being physically challenging, and the conditioning gave him a reality check of how much work it is to be a football player. “But my dad didn’t want to me to quit, so I just tried it again a second year. I ended up scoring hella touchdowns with the East Bay Warriors, and I started liking it,” he said.
Eventually, he said, “I latched on to it and started to love it. I had the opportunity to travel to different schools within the area. You do things that you really don’t get to do in most other sports, like you get to be physical, and tackle people down to the ground.”
Jenkins believes that the East Bay Warriors pushed him at a young age to train hard, and stay conditioned. “East Bay Warriors is a program that will prepare its athletes for the next level of competition. But when I came to Skyline, the football program was at a lower level. This caused me to lose track of the East Bay Warriors taught me,” said Jenkins.
Jenkins recalls the football team being completely disorganized during his freshman year. “When I joined, the coaches didn’t care. They were handing out pads to everyone. People were playing without physicals. Honestly, it came to a point where we just started running our own plays,” he said.
In 2015, the team went 1-10 overall, having only beaten San Lorenzo High School that year. They went on to lose every single league game. Their closest game was with their rival Oakland High School, in which they lost 22-19. They were blown out in many games, and lost seven straight games to end their season.
But the school recently hired a new football coach, Joe Bates, who has been slowly working to turn around the school’s program. Jenkins remembers Bates revamping everything about the program. “When Bates came, he set up a weight program, and got us all lifting on regular basis. He made a conscious effort to contact colleges, have them come out here to look at us play. Before that, none of the other coaches bothered to contact colleges for us,” said Jenkins. “I really wish I could start over because I know I can be five times better! I know it!”
When Bates arrived in 2016, the team went 4-6 overall, an improvement from the previous season’s 1-10. They went 2-3 in league competition, gaining a victory over Madison Park Academy, and shutting out their rival, Oakland High School, 22-0. This improvement bumped their state ranking from 939 to 782 out of all California high school teams, 157 spots higher than they were the previous year.
Bates has been working with Jenkins for about two years, and over time he has seen Jenkins grow as athlete, both physically and mentally. “I’ve seen his confidence grow. When I first met him his sophomore year, he kind of just blended in with the crowd. He didn’t talk much,” said Bates. “But this year he is very vocal, and plays a humor role on the team. He helps keep the positive energy going.”
Bates believes that Jenkins’ main strengths on the football field come from playing tight end. “What sets RJ apart is that many people with his size can go out there and catch a ball, but he can also block,” said Bates. “His experience last year playing offensive tackle, when we needed him, probably helped that along. His ability to both run routes and block is something that takes him over the top.”
Bates describes Jenkins as an ideal athlete. “He is long, he is athletic, he uses his quickness, and has the ability to use his hands to create separation when running routes,” he said. “He is an athlete that you would want to recruit. He has the size and grades.”
Jenkins calls Bates his mentor, and says he is a great coach because he is able to identify what players need to improve. For Jenkins, that would be hitting the weight room. Bates believes that Jenkins can prepare for college by improving on essential power lifts, such as bench presses, power cleans, squats and deadlifts. “My coach gave me advice: If you’re feeling comfortable, you aren’t doing it right,” said Jenkins. “What that means is I have to get up early in morning, work them late nights, and do everything I can to make sure I am successful as a student athlete.”
Bates has been contacting colleges to come down to Skyline and speak with his senior football players, those who have both the grades and skill level to compete at the collegiate level. Jenkins says he’s grateful to his coach for his help, because he can’t afford college without getting a scholarship. “He gave me a chance and now he is the one pushing for scholarships for me. That is why I am getting looks, is because of him,” said Jenkins.
Bates describes Jenkins as a top-notch recruit, with Howard University, Black Hills University, UC Davis, and Sacramento State University all showing interest in possibly having Jenkins join their 2018 recruiting class. College offers are expected to be made in February, 2018.
Isiah Bur, is one of Jenkin’s close friends on the team, describes him as a hard worker. “When it comes to time to grind, he always gets his job done,” said Bur. “He has good cuts when he is running his routes, and uses great technique to shake off his defender.”
“He brings excitement and life to the team,” Bur continued. “When you stand next to him, he always has something funny or encouraging to say.”
Jenkins describes the Titans as a brotherhood. “That’s what makes me want to play football even more, because I know my brothers got my back. And when the unity is good, you go out on the field and you do anything for them,” he said.
And for him, football is not just a game, but it can be a temporary escape from reality. Growing up in his neighborhood, Jenkins has experienced some hardships, including the loss of close friends. “I have lost a lifetime of friends to violence, but I try not to let that get to me. When I get on the field, that is a chance for me to release my anger, and let loose,” he said. “When I am on the field, I just think about different things. I don’t think about my outside life. I think about what I can do right then and there to help us win the game, whether that is making a play, or getting the crowd to cheer us on.”
This season Skyline continued their slow climb back towards the top of the Oakland Athletic League. They finished their season at an even 5-5 record, making the league playoffs for the first time since 2014. The Titans also dominated at home this past year. Their home record was 4-1, having beat Mills High, Albany High, Oakland High, and Castlemont, and only losing to Fremont High.
Despite having some frustrating seasons, Jenkins said he stays focused on his goals. He said he will constantly remind himself on the field to control his emotions, and not to jeopardize his team’s chances of coming away with a win. “I try my hardest to keep my head up, because I know I am mad. However, I have to stay there mentally for my brothers, because we hold that brotherhood, and I have to keep fighting hard for that,” said Jenkins.
Afterward, he said, he tries to find ways to recover from losses. “I don’t try to think of it as, ‘Oh, we just took a loss.’ I think of the bigger picture, and my future,” said Jenkins.
He knows he’ll need to train hard to play for a college team. “High school to college, that is a big step. I have to make sure I prepare physically, and be athletic,” said Jenkins.
During the off-season, Jenkins will take his coach’s advice and begin a weight lifting program. He wants to increase his size and strength to prepare for the bigger athletes he will be facing. He will begin to eat healthier, and increase his protein intake to help build lean muscle mass. His goal is to be 230 pounds with a strong frame to hold off defenders.
But getting a college scholarship, and joining a college team, is not a sure thing. According to NCAA statistics, men’s football is the number one sport among all high school athletes, attracting 1,083,308 players. However, only 73,660 actually receive an athletic scholarship to compete at the collegiate level. That is only 6.8 percent of high school football players across the nation.
Many of them are hoping to receive scholarships to Division 1 schools such as Clemson University, which won the NCAA National Championship earlier this year, or the 16-time NCAA national champions the Alabama Tide, who have won the championship 4 times in the last decade. But according to the NCAA, only 2.6 percent of the football players recruited to college play Division 1, 1.8 percent play Division 2, and 2.4 percent play Division 3.
From a study conducted in 2013 by the NCAA, only 1.6 percent of the football players that compete in college make it to the professional level to play in the National Football League (NFL). That means that less than one percent of high school football players will have the opportunity to play football for a living—only 8 out 10,000 football players in high school will have the opportunity to shake Roger Goodell’s hand.
If he gets signed to a college team, Jenkins plans to remain focused on his academics, and stay true to himself. “People have warned me about the temptations of college, such as parties and all that stuff. However, I just want to stay focused on school and football, because that’s what is important,” said Jenkins. Jenkins knows what he wants to bring to a team. “I’ll try to keep my teammates laughing and making their day better. I also want to offer my work ethic. I want the coaches to see that I am making an effort to improve.”
He doesn’t yet have a clear image of what he wants to do beyond college. He said he wants to remain focus on the present, and deal with one situation at a time. But he does know that his involvement with Skyline will not end after graduation. Jenkins said that he is looking forward to coming back as an alumnus, many years from now. “When I talk to other Titans and alumni who went to the school back in the day, they hold a lot of pride. They’re kind of disappointed in our seasons right now, because we have been losing, but they still hold a lot of pride. I plan on continuing with that by giving back, and coaching future Titans,” said Jenkins.
This story is part of a series. You can also read about two other Oakland student athletes:
Hannah Hoang is a junior and a volleyball player at Oakland Senior High School. Her goal is to play volleyball in college. Click here to read her story and see a video.
Benton Lu is a junior at Oakland Senior High School, and he is currently on the bowling team. Click here to read his story and see a video.