The Panthers: Kris Jenkins Wakes Up

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The film sessions were the worst. Dim lights, droning coaches, horrible team — Kris Jenkins, rookie defensive tackle for the Carolina Panthers, just couldn’t stay awake. George Seifert, the Carolina head coach back in 2001, thought he knew why his second round draft pick seemed so damn lazy, why he slept 14 hours a day while his team lost 15 straight games. “He thought I was on drugs,” Jenkins recalls.

  The Panthers gave him a narcotics test, but the results turned up negative. A doctor finally diagnosed Jenkins with sleep apnea, a breathing disorder that distorts normal sleep patterns and sparks fatigue. Surgery corrected his condition, and the 6-foot-4, 335 pound Jenkins has been awake ever since, making two straight All-Pro teams. Several NFL general managers have named him the best lineman in the game, and ex-Cincinnati Bengals quarterback and CBS commentator Boomer Esiason simply calls Jenkins a “freak.” Some peers go even further. “Kris Jenkins is the dominant force in football,” says fellow Panther tackle Brentson Buckner.  

Containing this force remains New England’s most daunting challenge on Sunday. “You need at least one-and-a-half guys to block Jenkins,” says New England offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. “He’s explosive off the ball, and he reads snap counts real well. Lots of big guys get tired really quickly, but Jenkins plays hard every down. In my mind, that’s what makes him so special.” New England rookie center Dan Koppen and guard Russ Hochstein, whom Warren Sapp once famously said couldn’t block two middle-aged columnists from the Washington Post, will share Jenkins duty in Houston, but given the talent of fellow Carolina linemen Buckner, Julius Peppers and Michael Rucker, they can’t concern themselves with one player. Says Scarnecchia: “You can’t do anything special to stop Jenkins, because they’ve got three other guys that can wreck you.”  

Growing up in a rough neighborhood in Ypsilanti, MI, outside of Detroit, Jenkins had plenty of chances to wreck his own life. But his father, a middle school African-American studies and drama teacher, wouldn’t let that happen to his gangly, clumsy young son. “I couldn’t stand it when he’d wup me with those belts, those paddles,” Jenkins says. “Some people called it abusive. But being where I am now, I really appreciate his discipline. He taught me that the world isn’t a nice place, that there would be consequences for my actions.” Darome Jenkins, a single father, makes no apologies. “I’d rather put a belt to him as a child than watch the police put a belt to him later on.”    

Jenkins feared his father so much that after cutting out of class early the in ninth grade, he asked his younger brother, recent Green Bay Packers signee Cullen Jenkins, to punch him in the face so it looked like the principal sent him home after a schoolyard brawl. Cullen refused, then heard strange sounds emanating from the bathroom — Kris was right-hooking himself in the eye. Since he couldn’t fully mutilate his face, Jenkins came clean to his dad. “For once, he let Kris off easy,” Cullen says. “It was just too damn funny to get mad about.”        

Carolina isn't laughing at a New England offense Jenkins insists is underrated. “Our biggest concern is their running game,” he says. “People say they don’t have a strong running game, but after watching film the last couple of days, it’s a lot tougher than I had imagined. They do a lot of straight-on blocking, and then they’ll mix in some misdirection blocking. And in the passing game, they run a bunch of three-step drops, which makes it tough to get your hands up. It’s going to be a long sixty minutes.” Fortunately for Panthers, Jenkins no longer sleeps through long stretches.