'Never too late': Corey Jenkins goes back to school

After pro careers in baseball and football, Jenkins, 33, returns for his USC degree

jperson @thestate.comMarch 21, 2010 

  • Corey Jenkins bio

    HIGH SCHOOL: Graduated from Dreher in 1995 . . . was an All-State quarterback as a senior. . . Threw for 3,400 yards and 45 touchdowns and rushed for 2,800 yards and 36 touchdowns.

    PROFESSIONAL BASEBALL: Signed with USC coming out of high school (1995) but opted for career in professional baseball after he was a first-round draft pick by the Boston Red Sox . . . Spent four years playing baseball, with the Red Sox and White Sox organizations, before coming back to football in 1999.

    JUNIOR COLLEGE: In 1999 and 2000, he was a two-time Junior College All-America selection at Garden City (Kan.) . . . Rushed for 816 yards and 10 touchdowns and threw for 932 yards and eight TDs his final season at Garden City and led team to 10-0 record and No. 1 ranking.

    USC: In 2001, he was a backup at quarterback to Phil Petty and also played some on special teams. . . . In 2002, Jenkins started nine games at quarterback before playing his final two games at free safety. . . Was more of a runner than a passer, leading USC in rushing his senior season.

    PRO FOOTBALL: Played parts of four seasons (2003-2006) with the Miami Dolphins, Chicago Bears and Carolina Panthers. . . . Played one season (2007) in the Canadian Football League.

After parallel parking his Lincoln Navigator in front of the USC library on a recent Monday, Corey Jenkins crosses Greene Street headed for his 9 o'clock nutrition class.

Unlike most students, Jenkins likes early-morning classes. There are fewer people on campus to notice the USC football sweatshirt, recognize Jenkins and ask him the "Didn't you used to be ... " question.

It's not that Jenkins is unfriendly or unapproachable. But at 33, he feels like the old man on campus and prefers keeping a low-profile.

Heck, he was old during his first stint at USC.

The ex-Gamecocks quarterback has had plenty of real-life schooling since graduating from Dreher High in 1995. Jenkins has the distinction of having been drafted in two sports, although his first-round, baseball signing bonus was squandered by a crooked Columbia sports agency.

Jenkins lost a house and a car when the Summit Management Group drained his account and much of his $575,000 signing bonus from the Boston Red Sox.

After topping out at Double-A in baseball, Jenkins attended junior college, started at quarterback for his hometown Gamecocks, was drafted by the Miami Dolphins as a defensive player, and spent a couple of years in the work force after his NFL career ended.

And in nine months and 21 credit hours, Jenkins should have something else to add to his resume - a college degree.

Jenkins returned to USC this semester through an NCAA program that pays for former Division I athletes to complete their degrees. He is taking 12 hours this semester, and plans to finish the requirements for his Liberal Arts degree in December.

Though he is older than all of his classmates and it has been nearly eight years since he studied for a final, Jenkins is glad to be back on campus.

"I always knew I wanted to go back and finish. Going back to school is a must, graduating is a must," Jenkins said. "There are a lot of things people can do to you, take away from you. But a diploma is something they can't take away from you. Once you have that diploma, that's yours. That's something you can be really proud of."

One of Jenkins' former USC teammates also is working to finish his degree. Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Sheldon Brown is doing an internship with the Eagles' marketing department to complete his degree requirements.

After his football career was over, Jenkins worked for the Department of Commerce's dropout prevention program encouraging high school students to stay in school. Rachael Jenkins pointed out to her son the irony in his message.

"If you live it, then you can speak it. When he's going around to the children to say it is important for you to finish and get a degree to better your life, he got halfway," Rachael Jenkins said. "That's important to me for him to be a man of your word, basically. So I'm real excited that he's back in school."

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After a short walk to the Health Sciences Building, Jenkins slips in the back door and takes a seat in the next-to-last row in the small lecture room where his nutrition class meets. He arrives five minutes early and takes out his notebook and a green highlight marker while other students open newspapers or knock out text-messages after filing in.

Kara Montgomery, who teaches the class, arrives in a bubbly mood after walking to campus from an auto repair shop. Montgomery, who knew Jenkins when she worked as an academic advisor in the athletics department, spots him as she passes out papers.

"Someone from Swansea wanted me to give you the smack-down. They beat you twice when you were at Dreher," she tells Jenkins. "His name is Jesse and he works at Firestone."

Jenkins smiles and says, "That's a long time ago."

Jenkins was a three-sport star at Dreher who was the 24th pick in the 1995 baseball draft. With his signing-bonus money, Jenkins bought an SUV for himself and a car and a house for his mother.

He entrusted his money to the two men behind Summit - James Brown and Darnell Jones, whom Jenkins described as well-dressed, "slick talkers" who preyed on young, black athletes from humble backgrounds.

Jenkins, who grew up in the impoverished Arthurtown neighborhood off Bluff Road, gave Brown and Jones power of attorney and went off to Fort Myers, Fla., to begin his minor-league career.

About three years later, Jenkins and his mother started receiving notices from the bank stating they were behind on their payments. Calls to Brown and Jones went unreturned.

By the time federal prosecutors were involved, most of Jenkins' money was gone and his credit was ruined.

"With me being 18 years old and my mom being a single mother, they just took advantage of the situation," Jenkins said. "Not just me but everybody."

Brown and Jones each pleaded guilty to one count of fraud in 2002 after prosecutors accused them of bilking their athletes out of roughly $1.6 million. Summit's client list included former Auburn and NFL tailback Stephen Davis, ex-major league baseball players Gookie Dawkins and Preston Wilson and former NBA and USC standout Jamie Watson.

Jenkins and his mother won a $442,000 award in a civil suit against Summit in 2000, but have never seen a penny from the judgment.

"We basically were wiped out," Rachael Jenkins said.

Football helped Jenkins get his finances in order.

Jenkins batted .206 for two organizations in five minor-league seasons before the White Sox released him in 1999. Jenkins, who sold soft drinks at Williams-Brice Stadium as a youth, wanted to play football for the Gamecocks.

But because the academic requirements had changed since Jenkins signed with USC in high school, he had to go to junior college. Jenkins was an All-American for two seasons at Garden City in Kansas before transferring to USC in 2001.

He backed up Phil Petty during the Gamecocks' second Outback Bowl season, and became a starter the following year at 26. Jenkins was a punishing runner who led the Gamecocks in rushing in 2002.

But he was not a polished passer, and would not have made the NFL as a quarterback. So Lou Holtz agreed to move Jenkins to free safety for the final two games in 2002 to showcase him for NFL scouts.

The Miami Dolphins saw enough of Jenkins to take him in the sixth round of the 2003 draft and sign him to a three-year deal. Though the signing bonus did not match his baseball bonus, it helped Jenkins get back on his feet.

He was much more selective in picking an agent and refused to give up power of attorney. Jenkins said his credit has been repaired and he is good shape financially.

"I saved just about everything. I was actually really, really careful with money at the time. Because when I did have it, I felt real good," said Jenkins, who rents a house in Forest Acres. "I put stuff away. ... I knew football wasn't going to last forever."

Jenkins played 16 games at linebacker his rookie season in Miami, but was waived the following year and picked up by Chicago. He was in the Carolina Panthers' camp in 2006, and spent the 2007 season with Winnipeg in the CFL.

He retired the following year after being cut by Montreal in training camp.

"I was there up until one hour before final cuts," Jenkins said. "I was kind of upset about football for a second. But at the same time there were certain things I had to do."

Jenkins returned to Columbia and worked in the Jobs for America's Graduates program. He mentored students in about 20 high schools - "letting them know that regardless of your background or race or whatever color you may be, anything's possible."

Including getting a college diploma.

"I would tell them, 'I'm going back to school, guys. It's never too late to go back,' " Jenkins said.

Jenkins said he always planned to finish his degree, but was not interested in taking classes through the Internet as some of his former teammates did. With his parents' encouragement - his father Robert Jenkins is retired and lives in Columbia - Jenkins began making plans to return to USC.

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After his nutrition class is over, Jenkins walks across the street to the Russell House for a breakfast of grits, sausage and bacon. The 6-foot-1 Jenkins is 240 pounds - about five pounds above his NFL playing weight - but with only 9 to 10 percent body fat.

Jenkins joins a group of current USC players in the dining area and shakes hands with strong safety Alonzo Winfield. Like a few of Jenkins' classmates, Winfield is familiar with Jenkins' background, but he did not know about his baseball career.

Jenkins said students occasionally will recognize him on campus and say hello - "of course, they might have been much younger when I played."

"It's not a bad thing," Jenkins said of the attention. "But I'm just one of those guys that I'm out there to do what I need to do and keep moving."

Jenkins said he is doing well this semester. In addition to the nutrition class, he is taking courses in philosophy, African-American studies and anthropology.

Though he sits in the back of her class, Montgomery said she knows Jenkins is paying attention because he makes frequent eye contact.

After classes, Jenkins works as a personal trainer at Gold's Gym in Irmo, where he is known for his friendly smile and challenging workouts.

"He's probably one of the best trainers there," said Tom Weeks, who lost 10 pounds his first two months training with Jenkins. "He knows how to put a 30-minute workout together. It's almost like an aerobics workout while you're doing weights. When you're done, you know you've been worked out."

Jenkins would like to stay in the fitness field when he finishes his degree, and talks about owning a gym someday. His mother believes he would be a great high school teacher and coach.

Jenkins is still involved in athletics. He coaches a Pop Warner football team with Davis, the former Auburn and NFL running back who met Jenkins through the Summit Group.

Last summer Jenkins joined his older brother Dee, who spent 13 years in the minor leagues, on a team in a men's baseball league in Hopkins. Jenkins led the team in batting average, home runs and RBIs.

"Considering I hadn't swung the bat for 11 years, that wasn't too bad," he said.

Jenkins filled in for Terry Cousin as the sideline reporter for the radio broadcast of USC's 34-17 victory against Clemson last season. It was the first time the Gamecocks beat Clemson at home since 2001, when Jenkins' 1-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter was the decisive score in USC's 20-15 win.

Being on the Williams-Brice sideline brought back memories for Jenkins.

"I would have loved to have been out there," he said. "I never had a chance to play defense at our home field."

Jenkins has experienced similar feelings as he has strolled through the Horseshoe or visited the Russell House this semester - never mind he is a little older than the other students scrambling for the coveted parking spots.

"I do feel sort of old on campus sometimes," Jenkins said. "But for the most part, school's school."

Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.

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