Kris Jenkins spent seven wonderful and difficult seasons in Carolina. He made three Pro Bowls and played in a Super Bowl, but his lows were just as dramatic as the highs -- and perhaps the lowest moment came when he wasn't allowed in his own stadium.
In 2004 and 2005, Jenkins missed 27 of 32 games because of injuries. He was gone so long that, when he arrived one day to attend a home game and support his teammates, he was stopped at the players' entrance because the guard didn't recognize him.
"That," Darome Jenkins, his father, once said, "wiped him out."
Kris Jenkins returns to Bank of America Stadium on Saturday night, his first game against the Panthers since being traded to the New York Jets in 2008. (He missed last season's game at the Meadowlands because of knee surgery.) When the fans get a look at the massive nose tackle, they might be reminded of the 2002 version.
"I'm stress-free, no stress," Jenkins said Thursday before the Jets broke camp in Cortland, N.Y. "I haven't played in a season where I haven't had any stress since Year 2. Now that I'm back at this place, it feels good. It really does."
Jenkins' smile is bigger and his belly is smaller. Recovered from major knee surgery, he dropped nearly 40 pounds in the offseason, reported to camp at a svelte (for him) 359 pounds and claimed to be rejuvenated. Now he gets to show off against his former team, which is rebuilding after a disappointing season.
The usually glib Jenkins slipped into a PC mode when asked about his return to Carolina, saying, "I don't have any bad feelings toward anybody in Carolina. ... I'm not going to get into all of it. ... I'm over that situation. I'm a Jet now."
Jenkins and the Panthers tired of each other and decided to part ways, with Jenkins saying he welcomed the change of scenery. Save for the 10 games he missed last season, he has flourished in New York. Now he's looking to be what he was in 2008, a dominant interior lineman.
To make it back, Jenkins has adopted a back-to-basics approaching, trying to polish certain fundamentals in his game. At 31, he realizes it takes more than natural power and quickness to survive in the trenches. Instead of being stubborn, he has embraced the coaching.
"He's willing to improve, regardless of age," Rex Ryan said. "That's what you're seeing. We're seeing a phenomenal Kris Jenkins, and he was phenomenal to begin with. He's really become a better technique player, which is scary for the league."
Jenkins is expected to play about one quarter on Saturday night, as Ryan is planning to reduce the workload for his starters, who played a full half in Monday night's preseason opener. Once again, the defensive spotlight will be on rookie cornerback Kyle Wilson (starting for holdout Darrelle Revis) and the backup corners, most of whom were lit up by the New York Giants.
After fleeting thoughts of retirement in the offseason, Jenkins is back where he began his career. It's where he will spend his retirement some day, closer to his oldest son. He already owns 10 acres of lakeside property near Charlotte.
"I enjoyed it because it's cheap," he said with a laugh, referring to the cost of living. "Everything in New York is a whole lot more money."