Tyrell Jenkins was once a highly sought-after quarterback before deciding to focus on baseball. He nearly found himself back on the gridiron after a rough patch on the diamond. It took the help of his mother and a Cy Young winner to put him back on track.
A first-round pick by the Cardinals in 2010, Jenkins was slated to attend Baylor University prior to being made the 50th overall selection in the Draft. After careful deliberation, the right-hander, now 22, chose to forgo Baylor and head to Johnson City in the rookie-level Appalachian League.
The next three years were among the most challenging of his life. After a successful start to his career with the Johnson City Cardinals in 2011, the Texas native struggled the following year, posting a 5.14 ERA in 19 starts for Class A Quad Cities before being shut down with a lat injury.
The 2013 season was very similar for Jenkins, who compiled a 4.70 ERA in 13 starts and saw his season end on a down note following Aug. 5 surgery on his right lat.
The injury put Jenkins behind schedule to start the 2014 campaign, and he did not make his debut until June 17 for Palm Beach. That debut was a preview of his strong season -- the 6-foot-4 hurler tossed six hitless innings en route to a 6-5 record with a career-best 3.28 ERA.
Back in November, Jenkins was part of the package sent to Atlanta for All-Star outfielder Jason Heyward. Now the Braves' No. 11 prospect, Jenkins found time to talk about his career, his influences and his new home.
MiLB.com: What was your reaction to the trade?
Tyrell Jenkins: I was shocked at first, for two reasons. One, they called me around seven in the morning and so I was still half-sleeping and it didn't really process. For two, I wasn't expecting it. Once it happened, I went back to sleep and when I woke up an hour later to work out and people were texting, my phone was blowing up, high school friends were like "You're on ESPN." It was a pretty busy day.
MiLB.com: When did it hit you that you were going to be playing for a new team?
Jenkins: Once I woke up and had 100 missed calls and 400 messages and tweets and Instagram posts, and I woke up to my phone ringing off the hook. I think for the first hour I was talking to someone and I wouldn't even hang up, I would just beep over to the next person. It was a crazy day.
MiLB.com: It seems like, based on your twitter feed, you've really taken to Atlanta. What's made the transition so easy for you?
Jenkins: For the most part, it has been the fans and the front office. I went on the Braves Caravan and the social media team was there, and the people helping there were all so welcoming and genuinely nice people. We talked about basketball, football, we talked about their favorite food places. It wasn't just a trip with the Braves, it was also me meeting new friends. It was helpful. A lot of people reached out to me as well. The brand of Choplanta line, they sent me a shirt, I talked to Freddie Freeman and B.J. [Upton]. A lot of guys made me feel welcome. That made the whole process a lot easier.
MiLB.com: What was the caravan like for you?
Jenkins: The caravan was great. It was just a whole atmosphere of Atlanta and the surrounding cities, they love the Braves. It's similar to St. Louis -- they're crazy about their Cardinals up there -- but Atlanta genuinely loves the Braves. There's been some down years these past few years but they understand the process, I hope, and they know that things will be better. They just love Braves baseball down there. That made me feel welcome. That first trip on the caravan, those little kids were so excited to see me and Lucas Sims even though they had no clue who we were but we made their day by coming to see them, because we play for the Atlanta Braves. That was pretty cool and that really made me feel at home.
MiLB.com: How do you feel like this past season went for you on the field?
Jenkins: I feel like it was a really good season. I came back in the second half of the year and I had my ups and downs, but I feel like I finished strong. And in the [Arizona] Fall League, I feel like I had a really good showing out there. Obviously it opened some eyes with the Braves, of course, and maybe some other teams. Really coming back, for me, I knew I could do it. I had to prove that I could be healthy and could do it. When I'm on the mound, I want to be dominant. I want to be a presence on the mound that no one wants to face. It was just about being that bulldog I was in high school. You hear from a lot of people that he's injury-prone, he's this and that, and that stuff starts to stick in your head. I just want to show people that once I'm ready to go, I can go. I feel like the back half of the year was successful.
| "What people don't know was that I was very close to saying, "OK, I want to go play football." Then I stuck through it and I talked to [Adam Wainwright]. He told me what he saw in me was the person he knew wouldn't just quit because of an injury. It had to be something much more than that to give up on my dream. He really helped me day-by-day through that process, texting me, sending me words of encouragement. Honestly, if it wasn't for him, I don't know where I would be today in my career."
-- Tyrell Jenkins
MiLB.com: Besides showing that you're healthy, what else do you find yourself trying to work on or improve upon?
Jenkins: Right now just being consistent. I pride myself on going deep into the games, getting quick outs, ground balls, strikeouts, I want to be the guy when you need six, seven or eight innings to save the bullpen, I want the ball in my hands. Also fine tuning my pitches. On film you might see a curveball that looks good or a two-seamer that looks good, but you can never be too good. This game is hard enough as it is. I continue to work every day on perfecting my pitches. I want to be able and go out every day and know I have all four pitches. That just takes time, being healthy and getting the reps. Hopefully next year I can get those reps in and continue moving forward.
MiLB.com: Do you find yourself worrying that you might get a reputation as an injury-prone player?
Jenkins: When I first started throwing again, every time I threw the ball I would think "Was that your elbow, was that your lat again?" it was in the back of my head that, every time I threw the ball, I was automatically hurt. It just took me a while to get over that hump. Now when I play catch and I throw I don't think about it anymore. I'm like a whole new person. I have a fresh start with the Braves and I have my life back. It sucks being hurt all the time because there's nothing you can do about it. If you tell me, if you run this much and work out this much and you won't get hurt, there would be no way that I would get hurt because I work my tail off. To get over that hump was pretty big.
MiLB.com: Was there anything you did or anyone you talked to that helped you get over that hump?
Jenkins: [Adam] Wainwright. He had Tommy John in 2011 and he went through that whole process, and the first time I got hurt he was like, "You got hurt, everyone goes through this -- just battle and get back." I got back and I got hurt again. What people don't know was that I was very close to saying, "OK, I want to go play football." Then I stuck through it and I talked to him. He told me what he saw in me was the person he knew wouldn't just quit because of an injury. It had to be something much more than that to give up on my dream. He really helped me day-by-day through that process, texting me, sending me words of encouragement. Honestly, if it wasn't for him, I don't know where I would be today in my career. I really want to thank him for being a leader and being the guy he is.
MiLB.com: Was there a particular time you remember thinking you wanted to back to football?
Jenkins: I had a time where I had maybe three or four terrible starts in a row, and it just happened that the next start or two I had the injury. I remember calling my agent and telling him I'm done. He jumped on me, gave me a good ripping about it. My mom told me to stick with it -- that's not who she raised. I was just fortunate to have the right people around me to pick me up when I was down. I'm glad I had those people and I'm glad I stuck with it because I feel like this year is going to be a big year and could change my life.
MiLB.com: You were something of a four-sport star in high school, starring in track and basketball besides baseball and football. Do you miss any of the other sports?
Jenkins: Not really -- if I miss anything, it's football. There's nothing like the game of football. I just played basketball to stay in shape and waste time between sports. Really, if I didn't play, I would have had to get a job between football and baseball, so I didn't want to get a job so I played basketball. I ran track in freshman year. I never practiced; I would just show up on the day of the meets. I did that my first two years and once my junior year hit I went straight baseball and didn't do track. In my senior year they asked me to help them get to the state finals in track in relay and I went out there and ran a 49-second lap in my relay. I went back the next night and pitched and had 14 strikeouts. That was back when I could do that. I don't feel like I could do that anymore.
MiLB.com: What was the Draft day experience like for you?
Jenkins: I was really more excited about going to play football at Baylor. I knew I had the opportunity to get drafted but I didn't really look into it. When I actually got drafted, the night it happened I was swimming at my friend's house. It was me and four or five other friends. We were just swimming, having a good time, and his mom comes running out and says "You got drafted in the first round by the Cardinals!" Everyone's like "Yeah, let's order pizza!" We partied all night -- pizza, video games. The next morning, when I woke up, that's when it hit me. That didn't mean anything to me. I still wanted to go play at Baylor. It took me the last week to decide. Something hit me in my sleep one night; I wanted to be able to take care of my mom a little better.
MiLB.com: I'd imagine, as a first-round pick, you've been able to take care of your mom pretty well.
Jenkins: Growing up it was just me and my mom; I never met my dad. I guess you could say it was me, my mom, my aunt and my grandma that raised me. My mom would go to work, I would stay with my grandma. On mornings when I would go to the elementary school -- my aunt worked in the cafeteria so she would pick me up for school and I would eat for free and go to class. Once I got signed, I paid off the mortgage on the house we were living in and bought her a car. She's an owner of a furniture store -- she doesn't like to take much, but I like to try and surprise her with gifts here and there. The whole objective for me is that I keep on working to where she doesn't have to work anymore. She's been through a lot. She's beat breast cancer. She's just been there for me. Who knows where I would be if it wasn't for her, if she gave up on me like my dad did. I thank God for her and hopefully can someday return the favor.
MiLB.com: It's got to be gratifying for you to be able to do that for your mom after that kind of childhood.
Jenkins: For sure. I wouldn't necessarily say that we struggled. Anything that I needed she got for me. She always had everything we needed -- traveling, playing baseball, we would turn on the music and go from Texas to Missouri or from east Texas to Dallas and we'd sing the whole way and we'd play almost every weekend. I thank her for that. That really took me to the next level, where more people could see me and it paid off in the end.
MiLB.com: You've been around for a few years -- who's the best roommate you've had?
Jenkins: That would probably have to be Sam Tuivailala. Me and Tui have been pretty close friends since we both got drafted. We have a lot in common. He played quarterback in high school -- he's a Madden guy, I'm a Madden guy. We play a lot of basketball together. We're just really good friends. It's always good to have that one close friend that you can lean on for whatever you need.
MiLB.com: Are you a big gamer?
Jenkins: It's just Madden. I have Call of Duty, but I'm terrible. If you put me on the Madden sticks, you better either put in a cheat code or be Madden himself.
MiLB.com: Any goals for 2015?
Jenkins: Make it to Atlanta. Do whatever I can to help those guys up there win. Of couse that's everyone's goal. I don't think it sounds selfish but I want to make it to Atlanta and help those guys out.
Robert Emrich is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @RobertEmrich.