Malcolm Jenkins looked around for a moment on Tuesday during one of the meetings he and four other NFL players had with members of Congress on the subject of race relations in this country, and it struck him that this has been sort of a different year for him, and that he might be different now as well.
"Sitting on Capitol Hill and I'm thinking, 'Yeah, if you had asked me in high school if I would be here saying the kind of stuff I'm saying, the answer would be no.' But it's funny how life works," Jenkins, the Eagles starting safety, said after practice on Wednesday.
Through those years at Piscataway High, through Ohio State and then seven previous seasons in the NFL, Jenkins was always respected, but he never turned himself into the nail that sticks up as he has this season. He added his voice, and the action of raising a fist during the national anthem, to the voices of others who have protested the state of race relations, and particularly recent confrontations between police and the African American community.
Agree or disagree with the politics of the matter, there's nothing easy about being the only one and that is what Jenkins chose. Since cornerback Ron Brooks was lost to injury, Jenkins is the lone protester before games. He always makes a point to shake hands with whatever color guard or military veterans are part of the pregame ceremony, but he also makes his own point.
This is all a departure for Jenkins, different from any other year in the NFL.
"Any other year in my life," he said. "I am [comfortable], as much as this is an unknown realm for me. I'm learning as I go. I'm reading, I'm listening. When I have any doubt, it's usually followed by reassurance that I'm doing the right thing, whether someone encouraging me or an opportunity to speak up. I understand that, whatever track this is, I'm on the right one."
The opportunity Tuesday was organized by Detroit wide receiver Anquon Bolden. The five players met with both Democratic and Republican members of Congress, including Keith Ellison, the representative from Minnesota in line to become the next Democratic National Committee chair.
"He was the most engaged talking about criminal justice reform, and the relations between community and police, as well as race relations. It was a really good conversation," Jenkins said. "I'm sure he's someone we'll continue to reach out to for advice and guidance. Overall, everything was supportive and you want to hear just that they're willing to work with us."
Jenkins has made his decisions, pursued his beliefs and spoken by his actions during the stress and pressure of an NFL season. He's been playing at an extremely high level as he and safety Rodney McLeod hold together the defensive backfield. Jenkins is second on the team (to McLeod) with 43 solo tackles and 61 total tackles. If he worried that his play had to back him up this season, it hasn't showed.
"Early, I did," Jenkins said. "Especially with the protest, because that's all that was happening then, you know there are people that are just waiting for you to not play well and say that you're distracted. It was on my mind early in the season, but as time went on, I'm pretty secure in my stances and that, regardless of what happens on the field, I know I'm doing the right thing. So, I don't think about it that much."
Neither do his teammates, although they have let him remain that vocal loner.
"Jenks is a guy who's very strong in his convictions, very strong in who he is as an individual, and it's hard to do that and be controversial," center Jason Kelce said. "He does a good job of keeping [politics] out of the locker room. Not everybody's going to agree with everybody else. In the football world, so many guys come from so many walks of life, that you have every single viewpoint in a locker room. As a football player, you try to leave that stuff at the door. But he is strong about what he believes in and he's like that as a teammate. He doesn't' accept anything but the best from every one of us, and that's what makes him a great leader."
Jenkins went to Washington on Tuesday, but was back at work on Wednesday. He said he and the whole team are focused on beating the Seattle Seahawks. That's his day job and he takes it very seriously, but he takes other things seriously as well. He wants to change the country for the better and, again, agree or disagree, that's difficult to criticize as a goal.
"It was an opportunity for us to be heard, but also an opportunity for us to listen and learn how the process works," Jenkins said. "It was a full day. We got a lot of information and left feeling pretty optimistic and well-informed."
This has been a journey for Malcolm Jenkins and some of it has surprised him. Stepping out has opened his eyes, even as he has tried to open the eyes of others. Nobody knows what happens next – particularly nobody in Washington – but Jenkins is sure that what has happened with him so far this year has been right.