I was actually a three-sport athlete when I was really young. Baseball, football and basketball were my games, and I played them without any thoughts or cares. I just liked to play, and it never occurred to me to notice whether I was anything special.
But the people around me did notice. It must have been when I was between the ages of six and eight that my parents and siblings began to tell me that I was no ordinary kid playing sports. They made me realize that I was gifted, and that I had a chance to be something special.
My notoriety grew as I got older. I was playing varsity baseball before I was even in high school. My brother and I were on the same team, only he was a senior. People would see the other “Jenkins” in the batting order and ask who it was and be told it was a kid from eighth grade.
It was around then that I met the guys who would become my financial advisers—my “agents” who would eventually scam me out of my money. I don’t know if they just had a keen eye for it, but they could tell before I even got to the ninth grade that I had the goods to be a high-round draft pick in baseball.
I kept playing baseball when I got to high school, but I was also the starting quarterback for the football team as a freshman. Eventually, I was being recruited by schools that were winning bowl games and national championships, and my recruitment itself was getting a lot of publicity.
There was only ever one right choice for me. I had been a Gamecock my whole life, and I knew deep down that South Carolina was the place for me. I had sold peanuts and sodas at Williams-Brice Stadium when I was a kid. I wanted to play football there.
So I signed my letter of intent. I was going to be a Gamecock.
Soon after, I knew that I was up for the 1995 Major League Baseball draft and that there was a chance I could go pretty high.
It wasn’t clear that I was a lock for the first round, but I was getting a sense that it was in play just from what was going on around me. There was a lot of hearsay and talk about me being a potential first-round pick, and it was hard not to notice all the scouts at my games.
When the draft came, the Boston Red Sox picked me 24th overall. That was just seven picks after Roy Halladay and after guys like Todd Helton, Kerry Wood, Darin Erstad and Matt Morris—all of whom would go on to be great major leaguers.
Now, when you’re 18 years old and you get picked in the first round of the baseball draft, you’re not thinking too much. There’s not really a thought process that takes you from Point A to B to C.
What I remember was thinking, “Wow, I just got drafted in the first round.”
It was even more surreal for me because of what baseball meant to me and my family. My cousin had been a first-round pick in 1991, and my brother had been a late-round draft pick that same year. I also remembered going to so many baseball games on Father’s Day with my grandfather.
What I realized was that I had a chance to live out a dream.
That said, I actually did come close to saying no to baseball. I definitely loved baseball, but I was also a football fanatic with a commitment to go play at my hometown school.
It wasn’t easy to disregard that. I had even given thought to playing two sports either in college or professionally, like Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders. If I went into baseball right away, I had no idea what would happen to my football career.
So there were questions: When you’re a two-sport star like I was, the fact is that you’re just not accustomed to picking one or the other.
But at the end of the day, I had to make a practical choice. What it came down to was that I truly loved baseball, and there I was at the age of 18 with a chance to become a professional athlete right away.
It, of course, also made sense for me to go with the Red Sox from a financial perspective. They offered me a $575,000 bonus, and money like that was going to put me in a position to do a lot of things for my family that I couldn’t do if I went to college—not right away.
So I made the choice. It was going to be professional baseball for me.
I ended up struggling in rookie ball that year, hitting only .145. In A-ball the next year, I hit .224. I hit 18 home runs the next year in 1997, but my average was only .239.
There were questions. The questions weren’t constant, but they were there. But for the most part, I was still confident I had made the right decision. And I still loved playing baseball.
I was traded to the Chicago White Sox organization in 1998, and the breaking point for my career came soon after. I knew that the guys who were supposed to be looking out for my financial well-being were stealing money from me, and that was taking a toll on my family.
That didn’t cause me to lose my love for the game. What I lost was more like my love for everything in general.
I was so stressed in 1999 that I couldn’t concentrate on playing the game, and I definitely wasn’t hitting. That didn’t force my release, but I more or less asked for it and got it.
That was it for my baseball career, but things ended up working out.
When I went back home and contacted Lou Holtz, who South Carolina hired in 1999, he remembered me from when he had recruited me for Notre Dame. I told him I wanted to play football, and he offered me a scholarship after he went looking for bad things about me and came up empty.
In 2001, there I was running out of the tunnel at Williams-Brice Stadium. I was finally a Gamecock, just like I had always wanted to be.
A couple years later in 2003, I was drafted again, this time by the Miami Dolphins in the sixth round as a linebacker.
I got to play in the NFL for a couple years, and I loved every minute of that too. To go from in baseball to out of baseball, to going to school and playing football, to playing in the NFL and overcoming so much personal turmoil along the way, I have to say it was one hell of an experience. Here’s hoping I can get it made into a movie someday.
When I look back on everything now, I can’t say I loved baseball more than football. I can’t say I loved football more than baseball. Whatever season it was, that was the sport I loved the most. Baseball comes after football, and the draft came after I had committed to South Carolina.
I don’t regret my baseball career. If I could go back, I would be more worried about working on certain aspects of my game than I would be about making a different decision. It was the right decision at the time, as I knew I was going to go play pro ball and that I was going to help my family. And when I was playing, I took my approach to the game seriously, and I fought and battled hard to make it.
I also wouldn’t trade my experience for another. I didn’t get to the majors, but I still got to play professional baseball. Then I went to school, played football and got my degree.
I’d say I still managed to kill two birds with one stone, even if it wasn’t at the same time.