It was his senior year of high school at Our Lady of Good Counsel in Maryland, and Kris Jenkins was in the starting lineup.
This one was a big one, so in practices leading up to it, Jenkins was “trying to do the most.” With so much at stake, he heightened his preparations.
But there was one issue.
“I can’t hit them octaves like most people can,” Jenkins told The Michigan Daily. “So (I thought) I was gonna mess that up.”
Nope, an octave isn’t a new-wave football term. Because Jenkins wasn’t prepping to make solo tackles for this big event. He was prepping for a vocal solo.
After years in the choir, he was ready to shine on a new stage like never before with a big-time solo. And he realized his struggles hitting those octaves in practice didn’t give him an out, because the show must go on. So Jenkins decided to handle it in the most Kris Jenkins way possible.
“Come concert I was like ‘screw it,’ I just sang it normally, and I killed it. I remember (my choir coach) was looking at me (with pride),” Jenkins said, imitating a tearful clap of approval. “… (My teammates) would be like ‘yea Kris!’ They’d be all geeked up.”
Turns out he didn’t need to hit all the tough octaves after all. Jenkins just needed to say ‘screw it’ and have fun doing it, and that’s exactly what he did. That’s exactly what he does, and that’s exactly what he’ll always do.
Because Kris Jenkins lives by a simple mindset: “make life fun.” Everything after that, from the choir to playing football follows suit.
With the amount of coaches who describe him as one, Kris Jenkins and “fun-loving guy” are practically synonyms. But that doesn’t mean he always had fun playing football. It actually started as quite the opposite.
He certainly had fun watching it when he experienced football for the first time. Seeing his dad and uncle playing on NFL fields at a young age piqued his interest right away. His earliest football memory is watching the two play against each other and going to the field and locker room after. He had a blast, even if his dad was grumpy after the loss. Playing looked fun, sure. But did it feel like fun?
Jenkins’ elementary-school football teammate on the Columbia Ravens, Zaid, made sure it didn’t. Zaid knew what Jenkins was yet to grasp at the time — that football is a contact sport.
“We did Oklahoma drills, and the coach kept lining us up against each other because (Zaid) kept kicking my ass,” Jenkins said. “The coach wanted to see if I had dog in me. We were like fourth or fifth rep, I’m like *sniffles* waaawaaaaa, tears just streaming down my face, crying, I’m like ‘you gonna do something’ waaaawaaaa.
“I keep going, he trucks me for the fifth time, I’m like waaawaaaa. I’m like, damn, it was a lot. They were really testing that dog in me. That was a rough day.”
Zaid had his way then, but he probably wouldn’t want to go up against Jenkins in Oklahoma drills now — he might end up crying the real tears Jenkins mimicked in the interview.
Given that Jenkins reenacted those tears in Schembechler Hall, of all places, on Tuesday, he clearly stuck with football, even if he didn’t see it as fun at first. Talking to his dad, Kris Jenkins Sr., helped. The 360-pound, former NFL pro-bowler told him he can either get knocked down or do the knocking.
“Because I know it’s not fun what you’re doing right now,” Kris Jr. recalled his dad telling him.
So Kris Jr. stayed with it, and his journey to making football as fun as life continued into middle school. There, he started making those first impressions that people don’t forget. Take the parking lot of the Mohoco Lions’ practice field as an example. It was the first day of practice for the middle school youth team, and Kris Sr. was standing next to a pickup truck.
As Mohoco Lions coach Tony Ashley remembers it, he was the size of the truck.
“What stood out to my mind first was how massive his father was,” Ashley told The Daily. “We saw him standing there and were like, ‘Oh my god that’s gotta be the biggest man I’ve ever seen. Where’s his son?’ ”
The son in question was not nearly as big, yet. Nor was he close to it as he began high school football, making first impressions a little different if he showed up on his own.
“At first I didn’t know he was Kris Jenkins Jr. He was just another one of the freshmen,” Good Counsel defensive coordinator Sal Gorgone told The Daily. “My first impression when I saw him was just this tall gangly-looking kid with glasses. … He was one of those kids who wore the goofy goggles under his helmet his freshman year.”
Kris Jr. eventually switched to contacts, as football is a little more fun when you look a little less “goofy.” But his free-spirited nature remained. He never got bogged down taking anything too seriously.
Football wasn’t even that serious for him at first. He showed all the potential in the world, even with the Lions in middle school. Ashley still remembers Kris Jr. splitting two larger blockers to destroy a double team, part of the reason he labels Kris Jr. “what coaches call ‘a dude.’ ” But that didn’t mean Kris Jr. instantly saw football as his top calling.
Hell, just a couple years before legions of Power Five offers were landing at his door, the fun guy was still just vibing to his own octave-bending beat.
“He didn’t show this passion for football (right away),” Good Counsel head coach Andy Stefanelli told The Daily. “He was just kind of a fun-loving, happy-go-lucky, kind-of-went-with-the-flow kind of kid. And we’re like, ‘well if he really wants to do this we might have something. But he might be a kid that doesn’t even want to play football.’ I mean his dad was like, ‘I don’t even know.’ ”
Sure enough, happy-go-lucky was a theme to start. But Kris Jr. had to figure out if that could translate to the field. Beaming with potential, he still had to make sure football was fun if he was going to go all in. Kris Jr. doesn’t go through the motions, and he certainly doesn’t pick activities that feel like a chore.
Football isn’t all that fun if you don’t have your equipment, so that was another hurdle as Kris Jr. would often forget essentials like his jersey or cleats. His dad was on him about it too, and that wasn’t fun either. So Kris Sr. eventually enlisted Good Counsel defensive ends coach Ricardo Brown to help get things right.
Sometimes, simple solutions can lead to lots of fun.
“I said, ‘Look Kris (Jr.) this is what you do, you get one bag for your football stuff (and) one bag for your school stuff,’ ” Brown told The Daily. “That way you got two bags, you walk out of the house and you have everything. And I followed up with his dad like a month or two later and was like, ‘How’s he doing pops?’ And he goes, ‘He’s alright coach, he’s alright.’ ”
With a new system ensuring Kris Jr. was never cleatless, he started uncovering that love for the game first instilled watching his dad and uncle in the NFL. He got bigger and bigger — even when he’d cut weight for track in the spring, he’d put the weight right back on — and started showing that you can be serious about something while having fun doing it.
Getting a steak dinner at a local restaurant, Grill Marks, from Brown any time he scored a defensive touchdown — fun. Earning the nickname “The Mutant” through his weight-room antics — fun. Getting to the quarterback almost every time Brown put him in on varsity third downs as a sophomore — fun.
Even in the most serious situations, the fun demeanor that once scared coaches eventually became his greatest strength.
“I just remember times where it was a big game and everyone was all hyped up, and Kris would just be really chill,” Stefanelli said. “I’d come up to him like, ‘Kris man, are you good, are you ready — ‘I got you coach’ (he’d interrupt), and then he would go all out. … He was always ready, but you weren’t always sure he was ready because he was just very very chill. And it’s actually calming as a coach, when he said he was good, he was good.”
At Michigan, Kris Jr. has taken that to the next level. His festive attitude reverberates everywhere he walks. If he’s answering a fun question at a presser about being mic’d up in a game, he’ll answer it through his own lively laughter. If he’s heading to enjoy some “sweet buffalo tendies” after the presser, he’ll make sure the whole press pool knows about it. And if a teammate is heaping praise about him in that same presser, you might just turn and see Kris Jr. standing in the back, smiling while making a heart shape with his hands.
That’s who he is. He’s always like that. He’s always on. The people who spent most time with the “gangly kid with glasses” growing up know it, and the people who spend most time with the 305-pounder now know it too. The people who knew him in both phases — like defensive lineman Cam Goode, who played at league-rival high school St. John’s — especially see it.
St. John’s, 45 minutes from Kris Jr’s Good Counsel, used to key in on him at film. Now, Goode keys in on how Kris Jr. is as a person after being taken under his wing as a transfer from UCF two years ago.
“I haven’t seen anyone in my life with that type of motor,” Goode told The Daily. “He’s truly one of a kind. If he’s not a first round pick next year — nah f*** first round — if he’s not the first pick, there’s something f***ing wrong. Because he’s my first pick, any time.”
You don’t need to be around Kris Jenkins all day to see how much fun he has. Anyone who simply watched Michigan’s game against Bowling Green, for instance, could see it. Tackled two yards short of a pick-six, Jenkins was having a blast on national television.
“If you look at the replay, my eyes were just wide open,” Jenkins said. “The second I fell I’m looking at the goal line like ‘nooooooooo.’ ”
Returning an interception — fun. Even if it cost him a steak dinner from Brown.
“I’m gonna give it to him,” Brown said when asked about the interception. “As soon as we conclude I’m gonna text him, ‘If you just squatted a little bit more you could have fell into the endzone.’ ”
Those who coached him growing up saw that play coming from a mile, and years, away.
“It didn’t surprise me, but he should have scored,” Ashley said.
Scored or not, it was a jovial moment for a jovial guy. Football and fun blending together on a national stage, the epitome of who Kris Jenkins is.
It was around 7 p.m. in the halls of Good Counsel, and Stefanelli was walking through the building. It wasn’t 7 p.m. of a game night — for Steffanelli at least.
As the Good Counsel coach walked through the hall, he saw a familiar face in unfamiliar attire. There he was, Kris Jenkins Jr., standing in the hall with a few other students, dripped out in a tuxedo.
“I’m like “Kris man, what are you doing?’ ” Stefanelli recalled. “You look good man, what’s up?”
“Coach, I’m singing tonight.”
The “major force in the school choir” as Stefanelli puts it, was back at it again. Singing, being jolly, being boisterous and being himself, that’s who Kris is. An artist, a leader, a learner. These days, you can’t find him in any organized choir, but you can hear him singing if you know where to listen. It’s around the facility, around the field, even around the game with the band.
As many people see the demands of college football as a chore, Kris sees it differently. It’s upbeat; it’s energetic; it’s like your favorite song to dance to — it’s fun.
Because life is Kris Jenkins’ song, and football is his solo.