By JEFFREY POWELL
At 65 years old Ralph Jenkins is living in the house he was born and raised in. He spends many hours a week doing light maintenance and janitorial work at his beloved St. Joseph A.M.E. church in DeFuniak Springs. His life today is dedicated to God and helping young people realize their dreams. From the outside, it might be hard to believe that this humble man once realized his own dream of success on the football field.
Prior to his graduation from Tivoli High School in 1965, Jenkins had excelled in basketball, baseball, track and football. He was selected All-City, All-Conference and named captain of the offensive team his senior year. He once scored six touchdowns in a single game. He was also a pretty good student academically.
“I made a couple of A’s,” Jenkins said with a smile. “But the truth is I was more of a B student.”
His academic status, along with his athletic accomplishments allowed Jenkins to be accepted into Tuskegee Institute with a football scholarship. Shortly after High School graduation he was living at Tuskegee and working out full time with the team. By the time fall came around he had earned nine credit hours and was a resident of the football dormitory.
“Players had to keep at least a 2.5 grade point average to stay on the team,” said Jenkins. “We all need rules and regulations to keep us in line. It was tough for some of the players to follow the rules. There was a lot of temptation with alcohol and staying out late.”
Over the next four years Jenkins was by all accounts a gridiron standout. He started at offensive halfback and returned kick-offs. By his sophomore year professional football scouts were talking to him about his future. In 1967 he was named the most valuable player in the Turkey Day Classic played in Montgomery, Ala.
“Mr. Jenkins was a player when I was a student,” said Tuskegee University Sports Information Director Arnold Houston. “He was the starting running back on the 1967 team that went undefeated. That team also won the S.I.A.C. division B championship. We have Ralph on the books as an all-time greatest football running back athlete at Tuskegee. In 1966 he gained over 1,000 yards. He is only one of nine players to ever do that at this school.”
During his senior season Jenkins received a knee injury which at first was believed to be a bad bruise. He continued playing and was drafted in 1969 by the Kansas City Chiefs. He reported to their training camp at Liberty College, Mo. to find himself surrounded by football legends such as Len Dawson, Emmitt Thomas, Otis Taylor and Mike Garrett.
“Here I was, a country boy from DeFuniak Springs In the middle of these great players,” Jenkins said. “Then I realized they put their pants on the same as I do.”
As training camp progressed he and the team saw that his previous knee injury kept him from making a clean cut. Jenkins actually outran the starting running back but he was unable to make the moves necessary to play in the AFL. This realization relegated him to the practice squad. Over the next 3 1/2 years Jenkins also practiced with farm teams in Seattle and Indianapolis but he knew professional football was not going to work out. This would have been a devastating development to many people and he was disappointed but Jenkins was proud of his accomplishments.
“My football career was humbling because I did not expect to get that far,” Jenkins said. “At first I did not think I would get out of high school, then came Tuskegee and then I am with the Kansas City Chiefs at Soldier Field in Chicago. The lesson to be learned here is that you cannot quit. You have to hit the books, there is no way around that. If you want to succeed you have to study. I tell my own children this and it is true for all children no matter where they come from.”
After leaving professional football, Jenkin returned to DeFunaik Springs and worked for Showell Farms and helped to raise his children. For a short time he also volunteer coached at Walton High School. In the mid-1990s he had a health scare which convinced him to never drink alcohol again. This event also brought him closer to God.
“I was afraid I was going to die,” Jenkins said. “I promised God I would belong to him if he let me live. I trust in the Lord and God has been good for me. My children are doing well and are educated. I have always been blessed but now Gods blessings have been doubled.”