Malcolm Jenkins grabs me by the neck and begins to tug me like I'm some kind of tackling dummy. The Pro Bowl safety's hands—strong enough to drag running backs to the turf, quick enough to snatch touchdown passes away from Tom Brady—enforce his will, yanking me hard in each direction.
I feel a slight constriction in my windpipe. Onlookers appear amused. Jenkins is cool and efficient. My head bobbles as his wrists and thumbs jostle and grasp at the hunk of cloth growing ever tighter around my throat.
How could I let it come to this? Malcolm Jenkins, Philadelphia Eagles safety, is throttling me because his image and his reputation are at stake.
Jenkins cannot let me leave the store wearing one of his bow ties so poorly.
Knot Following the Rules
The following Malcolm Jenkins bow tie story is not the standard athlete-fashion story you have read (or skimmed…or skipped) a hundred times before.
Football player gets rich and famous. Entrepreneur buddy has an idea for a line of sunglasses, cuff links or sweat socks. Football player lends buddy name, fame and cash. Buddy's company cranks out a few glitzy baubles. Player slaps a photo on the website and shows up for a promotional event or two. End of story.
Jenkins doesn't do things the way most athletes do them, whether it's a small-business startup or a youth football camp with a hefty dose of sports science. His tastes are eclectic, his interests diverse. Everything he does has its own spin.
That's why this is the story of a safety and a sewing machine.
"I was complaining to my wife that I couldn't find bow ties that fit my personality," Jenkins says. "She said, 'Then make your own.'
"That turned into me buying some fabric and a sewing machine and Googling how to make a bow tie."
Jenkins downloaded patterns and experimented with materials. After much labor, he managed to produce some wearable ties.
"I realized that sewing is not my strong suit," he says. "But I got an appreciation of what goes into it."
Jenkins met a New Orleans designer looking to start a business. They partnered to found Rock Avenue, an online purveyor of bow ties, pocket squares and an expanding line of fashion accessories.
Jenkins doesn't sew them himself anymore, but he's no figurehead, either.
"It's something I'm very hands-on with," he says. "I pick every fabric. I'm hands-on with the designs and what we roll out."
Jenkins has a distinct fashion sense. When I met him at a hat shop in Center City Philadelphia, he wore a violet blazer, a hunter-green fedora, a checkered dress shirt and a muted print bow tie that somehow pulled the ensemble together. It was part Mardi Gras, part Prince memorial.
So Jenkins isn't the kind of guy who likes to wear the same cookie-cutter, conservative menswear many other football players do while complying with the NFL's rather uptight dress codes. He began to use bow ties to express himself a few years ago. But he didn't know how to tie them, and clip-ons rarely met his sartorial standards. One thing led to another, which led to a sewing machine, which led to Rock Avenue.
Jenkins' taste in bow ties is eclectic: There are solids, floral prints, paisleys, wools, tweeds and silks in his collection.
"My entire inspiration is simply whether I would buy my own product," he says. "I don't claim to be a fashionista. I don't have to follow the rules. I just make what I like."
There's something for everyone. Maybe even someone who cannot tie a bow tie at all.
"Bow tie wearers are like a cult," Jenkins says. I should have taken that as a warning before Jenkins and business partner Eric White select a brown hunk of fabric for me and begin the long ritual of teaching me to tie. If bow tie wearers are a cult, this is shaping up like an initiation ceremony from one of those 1970s after-school specials.
"If you can tie your shoes, you can tie a bow tie," White says, assuming too much. With Jenkins meeting and greeting Eagles fans and paying customers, White draws the short straw of making sure I don't end up looking like a Christmas gift wrapped by a preschooler.
You might think someone as serious about bow ties as Jenkins learned the tying arts at an early age: dad or grandpa standing behind him at the mirror on Easter Sunday, that sort of thing. In fact, Jenkins learned to tie bow ties the way he learned to make them, the way everyone learns everything nowadays: from videos on the internet.
"YouTube taught me," Jenkins says. "Once I figured it out, I threw away my entire collection of pre-tied clip-ons. I started over."
There's now a tying demonstration video by Jenkins on the Rock Avenue website:
But White is attempting the impossible with this refugee from the pre-internet era. No one could teach me to tie a Catholic school necktie as a child. Only when girls began snatching clip-ons off the necks of boys to humiliate us in the seventh grade did peer pressure and puberty motivate me to master the half-Windsor. It's impossible to recreate similar conditions now, no matter how many fetching young salesladies surround us and giggle.
White still gives me his full effort. "You have to feel around for the hole," he explains during a critical juncture in the bow tie consummation. "Once you find the hole, you have to poke through. But not too hard."
I'm not sure which is worse: that my bow tie lesson sounds like an extremely detailed sex education class, or that I'm flunking it.
The final stage in the tying process is primping, where the wearer—or White in his role as gentleman's gentleman—adjusts the fabric this way and that so it looks like a fashionable accessory, not a little brown bat that crashed into my lower chin and died. White releases me, but the polite, strained smiles of the spectators make it clear that my bow tie has problems no amount of primping can solve.
This is a fashion emergency. This is a job for Malcolm Jenkins.
The real Rock Avenue is the main drag through Jenkins' hometown of Piscataway, New Jersey. It's not upscale or downscale, tony or rough—just a busy street through blue-collar neighborhoods, though it does have a great ring to it for a fashion line.
"It sounds nice, doesn't it?" Jenkins laughs.
Jenkins returns to Piscataway in June for a two-day youth football camp. If Rock Avenue Bow Ties is not your typical athlete's vanity project, then Next Level Football Camp is not your typical weekend of burpees and blocking sleds. While the kids hit the field with Jenkins and NFL stars like Marques Colston and James Laurinaitis, their parents get a two-day crash course in sports science.
"The pros are ahead of the curve," Jenkins explains. "We've changed what we need to do to take care of athletes. But when you look at college, high school and below that level, they don't have that information. They're still practicing like it's 1987."
At Jenkins' camp, local medical professionals conduct seminars with parents about hydration, nutrition, sleep habits and overuse injuries. Most parents' questions and concerns revolve around concussions, of course, and last year, a local hospital center gave parents vouchers for free baseline concussion screenings.
"We were surprised that nobody had done it before," Jenkins says of the prescreening idea.
Jenkins wants parents to have information his parents didn't have when he started playing football.
"My dad used to tell me all the time: 'You don't know what you don't know,'" he says. Jenkins' mother now organizes the parent activities for the youth camp. About 400 children are expected to attend the free event.
Proceeds from Rock Avenue bow tie sales support the Malcolm Jenkins Foundation, which organizes the youth camp as well as high-fashion fundraisers (like an annual Blitz, Bow-Ties & Bourbon fundraiser) for a scholarship, food bank and other philanthropic endeavors. Jenkins also squeezes a wife and two-year-old daughter into his schedule. Oh, and professional football.
"My year doesn't stop," he says. "Whenever I get an open window, it gets filled with something else."
Jenkins' numerous projects reflect a wide range of influences: his parents' values, the New Orleans lifestyle, Chip Kelly's sports science.
"Everybody I interacted with in my life, directly or indirectly, has placed a fingerprint upon my life," Jenkins says. "That combination has made me who I am."
Maybe Rock Avenue isn't just some street with a catchy name.
"It's a community of individuals who aren't afraid to break the rules. When you buy a tie from us, we say 'Welcome to the neighborhood.'"
There's a large crowd gathered outside Goorin Bros., a high-fashion haberdashery in Center City Philadelphia. The crowd is energized: cheering, gasping, snapping smartphone photos. Walnut Street, a primary midtown artery, is actually closed off by police.
The Eagles rule in Philly. And Malcolm Jenkins is popular. But close-the-street, attract-a-crowd-at-a-hat-shop popular? Did Jenkins bring the Phillie Phanatic with him? Rocky Balboa? A 50-foot cheesesteak?
The crowd is not for Jenkins. There is a raccoon high in the branches of a tree. Animal control is on the scene to ensnare the elusive creature. A seesaw battle ensues. After witnessing a few daring escapes from the critter-getter's noose, the crowd begins rooting for the raccoon. Few in the crowd are aware an Eagles Pro Bowler is about to appear—with free drinks and snacks, no less—inside a boutique about 20 paces from the raccoon fight. The traffic makes Jenkins late, anyway.
Philadelphia is a strange place. It's also Jenkins' home now. He lives in Northern Liberties, a (for want of a less loaded term) gentrified neighborhood a few miles north of Center City.
The fashionable, philanthropic and entrepreneurial Jenkins is also a dedicated urbanite.
"I like living in the city," he says. "I really don't like the suburbs.
"I know me. If I lived in the suburbs, I would get a little lazy. My house would be a little bit bigger, and I would never leave my house."
The explanation rings a little hollow; it's hard to imagine Jenkins getting lazy. Jenkins clearly likes the city lifestyle. He still travels to New Orleans a few times per year for business and pleasure; the Rock Avenue ties are crafted there, and the former Saints safety still likes to take in the festival scene.
"It keeps calling you back," Jenkins says of the Big Easy.
What successful, talented, fashionable young fellow wouldn't want to be downtown, near the vibrant theater and restaurant scene, not to mention the human-on-raccoon drama?
Philadelphia is changing. Rocky would be more likely to run through a revitalized neighborhood than past a trash-can fire these days. The Eagles defender, successor of a long line of tough guys who extend back from Brian Dawkins through Chuck Bednarik, can be a Beau Brummell off the field as long as he remains a little of a barroom brawler on the field.
The modern Eagles defender, successor of many who paid too great a price for the love of the game, can also be realistic about a life beyond the NFL. Jenkins plans to expand Rock Avenue into a head-to-toe casual menswear line.
"As I get older, I realize that eventually football will end," he says. "So strike while the iron's hot."
The word millennial comes to mind as I reflect on Jenkins' attitudes, preferences and lifestyle. But I don't know how he feels about it, so I dare not utter it when his fingers are just inches from my jugular.
Fit to Be Tied
Jenkins claims he can spot a clip-on tie immediately.
"If it's perfectly symmetrical, it's a fake," he says. "It actually looks better when something's off."
By that standard, the bow tie I mangled under White's tutelage is the greatest fashion statement in the history of mankind. But Jenkins doesn't agree. Hence, heavy knuckles at and around my throat, a swift tour of the borderline between primping and strangulation, karmic payback for every idiotic thing I ever said about a football player.
But when Jenkins finally releases his grip from my neck, my Rock Avenue bow tie looks downright spiffy. I purchase it and wear it from the store, terrified to risk a retying, along with a new hat. Walnut Street is back to normal; the renegade raccoon is in custody. When I return home, my wife is unsure whether to smother me with affection or suspect the kind of midlife crisis that ends in a one-bedroom apartment beside the railroad tracks.
Jenkins returned to Eagles OTAs a few days after the Goorin Bros. event. Fashions and charities will soon recede completely into the NFL's background again. But Jenkins has the balance figured out: family, community, individuality, work, passion, football, fashion, fun. It's not easy being a young Philadelphian, especially for an Eagles player. But Jenkins wears it well.
Better than I do, anyway. Jenkins may have welcomed me to the neighborhood, but I'm not cut out to join the bow tie cult.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @MikeTanier.