Max-Out? No. Max Satisfaction? Yes.
Young men who play competitive intercollegiate athletics are lucky if they gain even one chance to step onto a field – or a court, or a rink – as a gameday starter. It's very much worth remembering that becoming a professional athlete – even a bench-riding one – puts a person in very select company. Making the top rung of college football, the Football Bowl Subdivision, represents a similar mark of achievement. To strap on the pads for even one afternoon as a starting performer is an honor that stays in the mind's eye, filling a lifetime with a special sweetness that can never be taken away. The greatest thrills a college football player can hope to experience – at least at the elemental level of taking the field – are to start on opening day and in a bowl game. For a West Point football player, being a starter for the Army-Navy Game and the other Commander-In-Chief's Trophy tilt against the Air Force Academy is a dream come true, the fulfillment of many aspirations and the reward for years of toil in high school.
Max Jenkins was not the opening day starter for the 2011 Army Black Knights… or the 2010 version… or the 2009 version… or even the 2008 edition of The Brave Old Army Team. He stood in the background as a backup, doing what coaches asked of him and quite literally sticking with the program. He got a taste of meaningful (in other words, "non mop-up-related") action earlier this season when starting quarterback Trent Steelman got dinged up against San Diego State, and held his own, stabilizing the situation until Steelman returned. Jenkins was every bit the good teammate that coach Rich Ellerson could have hoped for. A senior, he obviously didn't live life at the top of a depth chart, and he didn't dazzle opponents with overwhelming skill, but Jenkins demonstrated the qualities that keep a player on a roster. He was prepared, he came to work every day, he remained thoroughly teachable and receptive to new feedback. He was, in short, the kind of person and player you want to bring to the ballyard, to have by your side in the heat of competition. Jenkins didn't leave behind a trail of eye-popping accomplishments in his Army career through week eight of this 2011 season, but he earned something much more important: respect from coaches and teammates.
And then came the night of October 22 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Steelman – who is every bit as his last name suggests – received a level of physical punishment that was too much for him to stay on the field. It became evident early in the week that Steelman would not be able to take the field as a starter, a crushing blow for an Army team that needed its veteran quarterback – the one who presided over a 7-6 bowl-winning season last year – to take to the gridiron. However, it's a common occurrence in sports that one person's injury is another person's opportunity, a portal to potential greatness but, before that, a moment of meaning and value.
We don't know if Max Jenkins will produce greatness in the remainder of Army's season, but we can say with absolute clarity that Jenkins will remember this past Saturday, a snow-filled scene at Michie Stadium, for the rest of his life. That sweet taste of opportunity, that rich honor of being able to be called on as a starting quarterback, finally graced Jenkins's career in week nine of his senior season. Moreover, this delayed but not undeserved bit of recognition came in Army's final home game of 2011. After all of his time in football's equivalent of the salt mines, all the years in which opening-day starts and Navy game playing time went to other people, Jenkins – just before the curtain closed on his West Point career – was able to take the field in West Point as the leader of his offense, the tone-setter for his teammates, the extension of his coach, the focal point of a crowd and a student body who wondered what would happen in awful weather conditions.
No, this game didn't teach us much about Army – it was never going to – but the takeaway from this shutout of Fordham is that Jenkins gained his moment in the sun on an afternoon when the sun was very much hidden by the elements. Don't be fooled by the white October that visited New York State; the sunshine of satisfaction coursed through Jenkins's veins even though he personally accounted for only 65 yards. He fittingly – and maturely – allowed his teammates to pile up almost all of the Black Knights' 544 yards. A great teammate on the sidelines, Jenkins remained a great teammate as a starting collegiate FBS quarterback, and he was able to taste that glory before a delighted home crowd, soaking in all the sights and sounds of gameday as a performer, not a bystander.
Max Jenkins's name won't enter the pantheon of elite Army football players who have started and won games over the decades. However, the main point of Saturday's romp in the snow against Fordham is that Jenkins simply IS part of the pantheon itself. He has started a home game for The Brave Old Army Team. He's won a home game for West Point. He waited a long time to be called "starter," to receive an honor most college athletes don't experience, but he gained it before graduation. He reached a place most young people don't attain.
Did Army max out? Not on a day when the Black Knights committed two turnovers and collected only 30 passing yards. However, the numbers don't tell the story of a day that owned supreme value for a quarterback who made his last Army home game a fabulous football first.
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