If he had let the bitterness and anger consume him, if he had allowed pride to cloud his judgment, if he had listened to the scores of alleged friends and would-be advisers from his hometown, Ronney Jenkins probably would be zipping up and down football fields next fall for Southern Cal or Arizona State or UCLA or Washington rather than BYU.
Instead, he followed his heart and, for the second time, it led him to Provo.Jenkins knew he'd made a commitment to the Cougars. He also knew he'd compromised that commitment by breaking a rule. As gifted as he is running the football, he decided he wouldn't run away from his mistake or from the school that gave him a scholarship.
So it is that a few months after serving a yearlong suspension for unspecified honor-code violations, Jenkins is practicing this spring with BYU in preparation for the much-anticipated 1998 season. His jaw-dropping speed, and his 150-watt smile, are back.
And BYU couldn't be happier about that.
Still, heaven knows he had plenty of reasons to leave BYU and enroll somewhere else. It had been a surprise to many that he wound up at BYU in the first place. He is a black, non-LDS student-athlete at an LDS school with a predominantly white student body.
He is a talented back who has been clocked with 4.3 speed in the 40, revolutionizing the passing offense at a school where some of its players have to be timed with an hourglass. Last summer, many observers were convinced the Cougars were about to lose their best running back, potentially, in history. And they almost did.
"At first, I didn't think I'd come back," said the 20-year-old Jenkins. "But I realized I couldn't hop up and leave. I didn't want to leave. I broke a rule - I'm not saying the punishment fit the crime - but I paid my dues. That was the right thing to do. Sitting out was the best thing I've ever done. Before, I was looking too far ahead. It helped me calm down and look at things in a different way."
Not long after a sparkling first season in Provo, which saw him earn 1996 WAC Freshman of the Year honors and help the Cougars to one of their finest seasons ever, Jenkins was informed he would have to sit out the 1997 campaign.
"The hardest part was finding out I wasn't going to play," said the 5-foot-11, 170-pound sophomore. "I just wanted to play so bad. I was real mad and upset. I felt at the time a lot of hatred. I didn't feel I was treated right." And he knew that other schools, where honor codes don't exist, still wanted him. If BYU was going to force him out of action, well, he would pack up his breakaway speed and dazzling athleticism and take them elsewhere.
Before news of his suspension became public knowledge, Jenkins contacted coaches from schools that had recruited him prior to his signing with the Cougars. This time around, he wasn't just some high school kid with a couple of highlight reels and a book of clippings. He had proven himself as a solid Division I performer with unlimited ability. And the recruiting war for his services began in earnest once again.
He seriously considered going to the school for whom he cheered as a youngster, USC. A coach at another Pac-10 school gave him an "I told you so" lecture about his mistake of choosing BYU. Refrains of BYU-bashing resurfaced from recruiters who warned Jenkins the school was only interested in converting him to the LDS Church.
Meanwhile, Cougar coach LaVell Edwards told Jenkins he would grant him a release from his scholarship to pursue other opportunities, if that's what he wanted. "He's an honest man," said Jenkins of Edwards. "I respected that."
In the end, Jenkins decided he would once again turn down the array of tempting offers. He would serve the suspension and redshirt. Last spring, he got married and moved back to Oxnard, Calif., for the summer. He put the frustration behind him, but he lost his motivation. There were times when friends wanted to play football in the park, but that only served as a painful reminder that he would not be on the sidelines that fall. "I had never sat out a football season before," he said. "I was more hurt than mad."
It was a cruel summer for Jenkins. He went from high school hero to outcast. It had been bad enough for him when he had initially chosen BYU over more glamorous programs out of high school. "I took a lot of heat from people in my community," he remembered. "They forgot it was my decision. They wanted me to go to USC or Nebraska." In the town where he had set a national record for yards gained in a single game (619), some thought he had duplicated the worst decision of his life. "When I got in trouble, people there were happy," he said. "It's gotten to the point that I don't want to represent Oxnard anymore. One minute they're on your side, the next min-ute they're not. A lot of people who claimed to be my friends were not. People were talking about me behind my back. They didn't pay me any attention."
Once he came back to Provo in the fall, other challenges awaited. "I had a hard time watching practice," he said. "When I first got here, it was hard playing behind someone. I had never done it. But not playing at all, that was a whole different story."
While Jenkins was on the outside, looking in, the Cougars were on the inside, looking out. In 1997 the BYU offense was anemic. Certainly, the Cougars could have used Jenkins in the backfield. He had rushed for 733 yards and 11 touchdowns and caught three TD passes as a true freshman. Suffice it to say BYU is elated to have him at its disposal once again. He's so good, the coaches are rewriting portions of the playbook for him.
"It's great to have him back," said BYU quarterback Kevin Fet-e-rik. "He's such a great player. He's one of the five fastest in the country. He definitely brings a spark to the offense. We're working on a lot of things so we can get the ball in his hands this year."
"He adds another dimension out there," said Edwards. "He's real hungry right now. He's been away from it awhile and he's anxious to get going."
The modest Jenkins says he just wants to contribute wherever he can. And he's not looking over his shoulder, either, unless it's to catch a pass. He's comfortable with his decision - both decisions, actually - to play at BYU.
"I felt inside BYU was the right place to go," he said. "Before I got here, I had never felt the type of unity we had (in 1996, when the Cougars went 14-1). I never won a lot of games before I came here. I never could have imagined going to the Cotton Bowl and being ranked in the top five."
Jenkins, who says he is "trying to find Christ" in his life, adds he is at BYU for more than just football. "If I would have been at another school, there would have been no room for change," he said. "I want to change, and that's why I'm here. Being here almost forces you to change for the good. That's why I like it here so much."
One day Jenkins was running bleachers, doing a lot of heavy thinking. "I was looking around, and I realized I'm here for a reason. I don't know what that reason is," he said, flashing that smile. "I have no regrets about coming to BYU."