MERIDEN — Most of the city no doubt watched Sunday’s NFC wild-card playoff game between the Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints.
Exactly just how many could be calculated by the number of phones that buzzed and beeped when Meriden native John Jenkins, playing defensive tackle for the Bears, recovered a deflected pass in the second quarter.
“My phone was going crazy with kids texting me, even adults on our coaching staff,” Maloney head football coach Kevin Frederick reported on Monday. “Everyone who knows him, who’s part of the program, is happy for him and excited.”
“When that whole thing happened, I started receiving texts,” said Bob McKee, the Maloney athletic director. “We threw it on social media.”
Meanwhile, in the living room at Scott Aresco’s house, it got very loud.
“I was screaming to my wife Amy, ‘Come here! Come watch this!,” said Aresco, softball coach and assistant athletic director of the Spartans. “I think everyone was texting. I sent one to Frederick; I sent one to Bob. When it happened, social media-wise, it went pretty crazy.”
Down in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, one viewer reached for his ringing phone.
“As soon as he made that interception, Joe Ferreira called me up.”
That was the report Monday from Bob Zito, who counted Ferreira as one of his assistant coaches when he led Maloney football from 2004-2012.
Jenkins played for the Maloney Spartans during the Zito Era. More into basketball than football at the time, Jenkins played both sports from 2006 into 2009 before departing for Perkinston, Miss. to attend Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.
By then, it was just football. Jenkins parlayed two years in Mississippi into two years at the University of Georgia. It all led to the 2013 NFL Draft, when the Saints drafted Jenkins in the third round.
On Sunday, Jenkins was up against his former team and helped slow down the Saints’ high-powered offense. His turnover — ruled a fumble recovery after initially appearing to be an interception — led to a Chicago field goal that pulled the Bears to within 7-3.
But Chicago’s offense simply could not get into gear and the Saints chalked up a 21-9 victory.
That didn’t dull the buzz Meriden was still feeling on Monday. “Hey, did you see John make the INT?” echoed in the halls of Maloney, where the helmet Jenkins wore at Georgia resides in the trophy case.
“Good for Meriden; good for Maloney. I”m happy for John,” McKee said. “One of the sentiments that’s always been said about John is how good a person he was when he was here at Maloney. I think there are a lot of people cheering for John just because of the person he is.”
Jenkins is now 31-years old. This season was his eighth in the NFL. He has been with five teams. This was his second tour with the Bears.
At 6-foot-3 and 333 pounds, he is called “Big John,” just as he was at Maloney. He is no stranger to the Spartans who have succeeded him in the Green & White.
“A lot of the times John would come back, he would come back and speak with our kids. He was a speaker at one of our banquets,” Frederick said. “My current kids, when they were in the Meriden Raiders, they remember him coming back and speaking to them when they were at a young age.
“He doesn’t forget about the Meriden youth,” Frederick added. “John grew up in Meriden and he knows the path he went through. I think it’s important to get that message out to the kids. He understands that.”
No question, Jenkins hasn’t forgotten his roots. During the 2018 season, when Jenkins was with Miami, Aresco and his son Zach travelled to Florida to see their team, the New York Jets, take on the Dolphins.
Prior to the game, Zach won a field pass in a promotional contest. The Arescos wound up near the tunnel where the Dolphins entered the stadium.
“As soon as he walked by, I called, ‘Big John!’ He came over and he talked to us. That was kind of cool because everyone around us was waving to random players,” Aresco recalled.
“He asked about teachers at Maloney, he asked about the school, he asked about Coach (Howie) Hewitt. He told me what the game plan was against the Jets, which was cool to hear from a player.”
Jenkins told Aresco and his son where to meet him after the game. They talked again.
“He’s just a real friendly guy. It was a great experience for my son and myself as well,” Aresco said. “I’ve run into players before; I’ve gone to hotels where the Mets play. I’m star-struck when I run into someone. With John, when I saw him, we just had a down-to-earth conversation.”
Frederick noted that the play by Jenkins on Sunday, punctuated by his youthful celebratory run off the field, put Meriden in the national spotlight for the second time in just a few weeks.
“First Miguel Cardona being the Secreatry of Education and now Big John.”
Compared to Cardona, who projects to be in President-Elect Joe Biden’s cabinet for at least four years, the play by Jenkins was of the moment.
Yet Frederick wouldn’t be surprised to see Jenkins, who has 165 tackles in 93 career games, play in the NFL for another five years — and not just on the year-to-year path he’s been on since leaving the Saints in 2016 making stops in Seattle, Chicago, Miami and New York.
“The type of football he’s playing right now, there’s going to be an NFL team out there that’s going to sign him to a bigger contract, I think,” Frederick said. “He’s such a presence in the middle. I see him signing to a team for a longer period of time.”
What’s for certain, Meriden will be talking about Big John’s play for a long time to come.