Deeper than the alliance of teammates courses the blood of family.
The bonds of true brotherhood can withstand extensive tumult and even lead to life’s most fulfilling rewards while navigating its uneasy pathways.
This has been true, particularly, for Arizona State wide receiver Ryan Jenkins.
Jenkins, a walk-on redshirt senior whose college career began at Tennessee, is the younger brother of Martin Jenkins, a former defensive back who played at Clemson from 2010-14. The two share a spirited relationship, one that enables each to influence the other in more ways than one.
Naturally though, Ryan, 22, has found Martin, 25, to be a welcomed resource considering his recent experience playing Division I football.
“I’m always calling him after every practice telling him what I did good, what I did bad,” Ryan said. “I’ll send him film clips so he can evaluate me, too. We have a great relationship.”
“Our relationship’s always been strong,” Martin said during a phone interview. “We’ve always had an extremely strong bond since we were kids, but I mean specifically (with) sports, it’s always been good.”
Perhaps that’s because football streamlines the Jenkins brothers’ DNA. Their father, Lee, played defensive back at Tennessee from 1979-82 before spending one season with the New York Giants, finishing his career soon after due to bouts with arthritis in his back and knee.
Ryan said his father unveiled a simple blueprint on how he too could achieve his goal of playing football at its highest level.
“My dad just told me to always outwork the next man,” he said. “There’s always somebody working, so you can always work harder.”
For much of Ryan’s life, the “next man” he was striving to outwork was Martin. The siblings are two years, nine months and seven days apart, representing the second and third children born to Lee and his wife, Martica, after their older sister, Kristin.
Martin says that as the youngest of the family, Ryan has constantly felt the need to prove himself.
“He’s always been the little brother, so he’s always had that little brother syndrome where it’s, ‘I have to beat you. You’re the big bro, I have to beat you,’” said Martin.
“We grew up competing all the time,” Ryan said. “But once we got older, it got a little too serious out there, so we had to chill out.”
The stage to appease their competitive spirits was set in high school. Martin blazed the trail, starring at Centennial High School (Ga.) where during his senior year alone he scored 12 touchdowns in five different ways (three receiving, three rushing, three interception returns, two punt returns, and one kickoff return).
It was during the same season that Ryan joined him at Centennial as a freshman. It was the only year they ever played organized football at the same school, but it was the only proof Martin needed to know for himself his younger brother possessed a determined mindset strong enough to carry him to the next level.
“He was the guy in probably eighth or ninth grade that would go to practice and do everything he was asked in practice, but after practice he would go up to the older high school receivers and ask pointers, and stay late and work at his craft,” Martin said of Ryan. “He was doing that at a young age, which showed me as an older brother like, ‘Okay, yeah, he’s serious about what he’s doing.’”
After the season, Martin moved on to college, selecting Clemson over Syracuse in 2010. A few years later, Ryan made a move himself, transferring from Centennial to Lassiter (Ga.) for his senior campaign of high school. At Lassiter, he hauled in 24 catches for 415 yards and six touchdowns to lead the Trojans, who ranked as the top team in Georgia at one point, to a 10-1 campaign.
Ryan garnered interest from several Division I suitors, but his father’s alma mater called the loudest. A chance at following in his father’s footsteps was “exactly why I went to Tennessee,” flipping from Clemson—where Martin played—in favor of pursuing his dream school.
Sometimes dreams are meant to reveal only a glimpse of reality.
During Ryan’s first season at Knoxville, Tenn., the Volunteers redshirted him amidst a battle with knee injuries. The following year, he appeared in all 13 games as a redshirt freshman, but made just one catch for six yards.
Around this time, Martin was nearing the end of his career at Clemson, contending for his due—both on and off the field. As a redshirt senior, he was fending off incoming talent for playing time while battling injuries.
He was also leading a revolutionary charge against the NCAA.
The summer of 2014 intoduced the world of college athletics to Ed O’Bannon vs. NCAA, a suit filed by former players that sought to offer compensation for athletes whom the NCAA and EA Sports profited off of via the title’s college videogame series. While the O’Bannon trial was afforded national spotlight, Martin headlined a separate case, referred to as Jenkins vs. NCAA, of arguably greater magnitude. It was brought to court by a group of student-athletes with playing eligibility remaining (later including Wisconsin men’s basketball player Nigel Hayes), backed by representation from sports attorneys Jeffrey Kessler and David Greenspan.
Their argument: That the NCAA “conspired to cap the value of athletic scholarships to tuition, room, board, books and fees,” as Sports Illustrated legal analyst Michael McCann writes.
The purpose of the “Jenkins model” is to create a free market in which programs would compete for the services of players, but do so in a way to benefit them financially, meaning if a school felt it needed to offer a recruit more than what was permitted under the compensation’s full-cost-of-attendance cap, then it should be able to do so.
SI senior writer Andy Staples wrote the antitrust suit seeks “to end all financial restrictions on college athletes,” adding that “[n]o case before has taken such direct aim at the business model” of the NCAA, targeting amateurism at its root as opposed to O’Bannon, which despite full implementation would leave “a lot of the rules” untouched.
Martin began the legal bout while he was still playing—a pioneering example of a student-athlete directly counteracting a system he was embedded within. He explained his reasoning for spearheading the cause was not only with his future and other players’ in mind, but Ryan’s, too.
“Honestly, I think I became more of a leader just having him in my life as a little brother, forcing me into that leadership position,” he said. “When we were younger, I had to make the decisions, I had to lead. He has a lot to do with my decision to take action, because I’ve gone through what he and those guys have gone through.”
Back on the field, Martin, a proclaimed “superhuman” by his former coach Dabo Swinney, continued to push through injuries throughout his collegiate career. After his final season at Clemson, he signed a free-agent deal with the New York Jets, however, like his father, the injuries would ultimately force him to conclude his football career earlier than desired.
With his own experience in mind, Martin’s commitment to better prepare others for life after football has become a focus of his, taking the fight against the NCAA beyond his career.
“I’ve sweated, I’ve bled for the school, and I’ve seen the other side of it when you get done with school, and a lot of my friends who started almost every game in their career now, when they get done with football it’s like they don’t even know what to do with themselves,” he said. “So I know what the other side looks like as well. It made me want to change it that much more for the younger generation.”
Ryan has found inspiration in watching his brother take on such a controversial matter, championing the cause of players in an advocative role.
“It’s awesome to look up to a leader like that,” he said. “A guy that I grew up in the same household with. He’s always been a real outspoken guy, a real convicted person about what he believes, so I definitely try to model that in everything I do.”
His brother’s willingness to act when placed in an unfavorable position rubbed off on him.
Conviction would lead Ryan to make a decision surrounding his future ahead of his third season with Tennessee—His time with the Volunteers wasn’t working out, and in February 2015, he announced he would transfer following the spring.
“It was tough,” he said, “because Tennessee was always my dream school growing up, and I signed with them out of high school. But for whatever reason it didn’t work out there.”
The decision was eased by Martin’s advice.
“He just wanted me to do what’s best for me. He trust that I would make the right decision,” Ryan said. “I was 19 years old at the time, becoming a man. He just gave me the best advice just telling me to do what’s in your heart, and it was in my heart to transfer. I’m glad I came here though.”
“Here” ended up being Arizona State, where Ryan walked on as a redshirt sophomore in 2015. The familial support for his decision extended not only from his brother, but his parents, too.
“It’s been cool,” Jenkins said of his time at ASU, grinning. “The situation was so great here. My parents gave me their blessing saying that they’ll pay for my school. It was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass on.”
Through two years at ASU, the chances have been few.
In four appearances, Jenkins has recorded two catches for 13 yards. At 5-foot-11 and 196 pounds (he was listed at 5-foot-9 and 197 pounds when he arrived two years ago), he’s had to work hard on “really everything” in order to compensate for not being a physical specimen; releases, route technique, and tracking deep passes over his outside shoulders, specifically.
However, finally, the hard work is beginning to noticeably pay off. His teammates aren’t shy in their appraisal of his heightened skill level, either. Just ask receivers John Humphrey, Jr. and Ryan Newsome.
“Ryan Jenkins is one of the best route runners I’ve been around,” said Humphrey, before Newsome echoed the sentiment.
“He’s good. He real good,” Newsome said. “I’m interested in getting the opportunity with him.”
Jenkins humbly received the compliments.
“It’s definitely a part of my game I like to emphasize just because I’m not the tallest guy in the world,” he said. “I definitely have to find different ways to be dominant out there on the field, and route running is one of them.”
As a result of his effort, breaking into the top of the depth chart is a real possibility nearing the conclusion of spring practices where Jenkins has seen time as part of the Sun Devils’ first- and second-team receiving units.
Rob Likens, in his first year as ASU’s wide receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator, has allowed the team’s winter and spring programs to serve as his first impressions of his receiving group.
Likens has lauded Jenkins’ ability to squarely translate what’s taught off the field onto it, describing the wideout as “very detail-oriented.”
“He listens in the meetings,” Likens said. “To be a great receiver, you’ve gotta take the meeting, what you hear in the meeting, and you’ve gotta able to transition onto the practice field immediately.
“One thing that Ryan Jenkins does really good job of is I tell him one time, he tries to transition that onto the practice field. That’s what he does best.”
“Really, coach Likens, he’s coming through and kinda molding all our receivers to how he wants them,” said Jenkins. “So I’m just trying to pick up on his techniques the best I can.”
Offensive coordinator Billy Napier, also in his first season with the Sun Devils, said he’s been impressed with Jenkins’ approach.
“I think he’s a very focused individual,” Napier said. “He’s a great team player, his attitude has been tremendous, he’s a great example for everyone on the team.”
Martin said he wasn’t surprised to hear Ryan was doing well receiving instruction and implementing it into his game, noting that he’s exuding the same underdog mentality he possessed when they were younger.
“He wasn’t easily impressionable when it comes to things outside of sports, but when it comes to sports, he is all ears,” Martin said. “He’s gonna do whatever he can do to be his best.”
Martin continued, adding that knowing his younger brother is being received well makes him “feel amazing.” Both coaches and players have spoken favorably of Ryan’s work ethic this offseason.
“His journey has been incredible,” Martin said. “He’s transferred, he’s met with different coaches, he’s dealing with a lot of things, and the way he’s handled it just makes me proud.”
But the quest isn’t complete, for neither Ryan nor Martin, just yet.
Ryan, a scholarship player at Tennessee, has gone two years without one at ASU. Based on his coaches’ comments this offseason though, he could be en route to earning one in the near future.
In fact, Napier said if Jenkins continues to prove himself, it wouldn’t surprise him one bit if he receives a scholarship at some point.
“(I’m) very pleased with Ryan,” said the former Alabama wide receivers coach. “He’s a guy that gives us a lot of flexibility, he can play inside, he can play outside. Certainly (can) be a core special teams guy, as well.”
Head coach Todd Graham has also commended Jenkins on multiple occasions this spring.
“He’s another guy that’s stood out to coach Napier and myself, and coach Likens,” Graham said. “We watch film, and he’s a guy that’s put himself in position to earn a spot next fall in the lineup as well as being the guy that can fall in the line of (former ASU receiver) Freddy Gammage that earned a scholarship.”
The buzz is beginning to build, but Jenkins is unfazed. His focus is on ASU’s success.
“I just wanna help the team,” he said. “I just wanna be out there on the field in any form whether it be special teams or receiver. I just wanna have some type of big role helping this team win.”
Under scholarship or not, Martin says he’ll be proud of Ryan, regardless of his role. The unconditional support is reciprocated by Ryan, too.
Martin’s case is still ongoing and will be heard at the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California by Judge Claudia Wilken—the same judge that heard (and ruled in favor of) O’Bannon in the same courthouse. But whether Martin succeeds won’t affect Ryan’s respect for his older brother, who’s been a constant influence of whom he is both reverent and grateful for.
“I called a couple weeks ago and told him, ‘Man, I’m gonna dedicate this last year to you,’” Ryan said. “He’s definitely who I wanna do it big for.”
Walk-on scenarios like Ryan’s are common, and he’s aware he isn’t the only player in the country enduring a situation akin to his. When asked, he offered advice for other players coursing the wave of transferring to a new school or walking on in an unfamiliar setting:
“I’d tell them just follow your heart, and if you believe in yourself enough—whether you’re a walk-on or not—you can make it happen. If you go into a situation and they put you fifth-, sixth-string, it shouldn’t matter. If you believe in your abilities, you work hard—whether you’re a walk-on or on scholarship, you can make it happen.”
As for himself, Ryan is just trying to project the confidence he and his brother have for himself onto the gridiron.
“The only thing is I just gotta make sure I take advantage of every opportunity,” he said, “and I think I’m doing that.”