Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
Aaron Jenkins is New Mexico’s Iron Man.
If the senior offensive lineman plays in each regular-season football game this year, he will have played in 52 games, breaking the Lobos’ record of 50 (shared by Steven Romero, David Anaya, Marquis Bundy, Jhurell Pressley and Jason Sanders). He will also have 50 starts, which would be a UNM record, and he would tie the UNM program’s record of 50 consecutive games played.
Jenkins, a team captain at right guard, will make his 40th start and play in his 42nd game Saturday, a big one against rival New Mexico State in Las Cruces.
No one can deny that Jenkins’ durability is remarkable.
What is this Iron Man’s source of strength?
His 60-year-old mother, Lisa, who is battling breast cancer.
“That’s who I look up to,” Jenkins said of his mother, who is recuperating from a recent infection at a rehabilitation hospital in Dallas. “That’s where I get my motivation from. She’s my ‘why.’ That’s why I come out here and compete so hard every single day.”
Lisa teared up when she heard that her son credits her and her fight against breast cancer for his success at UNM.
“I think every parent would want their children to be inspired by them,” Lisa said during a telephone interview. “I am proud he would say that. It’s actually my sons who inspire me. Everything I do is for my kids. Getting better and my goal to fight this cancer and do all the treatments and go through the rehab, it’s really for them, Sammy and AJ. They’ve been my inspiration since they were little.”
Jenkins, and his older brother, Sam, learned a great deal from Lisa, who raised them as a single mother and usually worked two jobs, mainly as a choir director at church and a music teacher in the Dallas Independent School District.
Ten years ago, adversity struck the family when Lisa was diagnosed with breast cancer. She remembers the ordeal being difficult for her boys, especially when she was in the hospital for chemotherapy.
Lisa said she depended on her faith in God and scriptures like Romans 8:28 to overcome trials.
Last year in mid-September, the cancer returned. More rounds of chemotherapy ensued through December. In February, she endured a mastectomy. In early July, when Jenkins was home in Dallas, Lisa suffered an infection and had to go back to the hospital.
“AJ had to go back to Albuquerque in July,” Jenkins said “I got better after going home. For this most recent episode I had to have surgery on Aug. 15. Two weeks ago, I got another infection. It’s been up and down. But I’m back on my way up.”
Jenkins believes his mother will beat cancer again and improve her health. Lisa didn’t want to force her faith in God upon her boys. She wanted them to choose on their own. She lives her life by example.
She, too, believes her health will improve. She already bought a flight ticket to Albuquerque to attend her son’s final regular-season home game, Nov. 24 against Wyoming.
She also wants to go to the Lobos’ game at UNLV on Oct. 6.
She would go to more games, she said, but her money has been directed to her health care.
Jenkins said that when his mother speaks to him on the phone, he notices that she makes sure to sound as if everything is fine. He knows that she does not want him to worry so much about her but instead to focus on his senior season at UNM.
Lisa is confident her son will persevere through this trying time. She saw his strength 10 years ago and even before that, at the age of 8, when Jenkins dealt with a serious eye condition that caused headaches.
Jenkins continued to play youth football, even when medication caused his cheeks to swell.
Throughout Jenkins’ fascinating consecutive-game streak, he has played through injuries.
UNM coach Bob Davie has been impressed, but not surprised. He knew he was gaining a special person when Jenkins committed to the Lobos, over Texas Tech and Rice.
Davie saw Jenkins’ unique persona and close bond with his mother when he went to the Jenkins’ home to recruit him. Lisa played the piano while Jenkins sang an original song, “Mountains Move,” for Davie.
Davie, and other UNM coaches, including Saga Tuitele (offensive line/run game coordinator), have connected closer to Jenkins during the past two years.
“He is an unbelievable person,” Davie said. “He came in (and played two games as a freshman), and had the labrum shoulder situation. We got the labrum done and redshirted him. He’s been an iron man since then.”
After practice on Thursday, Jenkins’ teammates sang, “Happy Birthday,” to him as he turned 23. Jenkins said he was planning to make food and gift bags to pass out to the homeless because he wanted to give rather than receive on his birthday.
It’s a special week for Jenkins because this is the final Rio Grande Rivalry game he’ll play. Jenkins has accomplished a great deal during his time at UNM, but he believes he can provide more great moments before he breaks the Lobos’ record.
“It’s always tough showdown facing those guys down south,” Jenkins said of the Aggies. “This is my last time. I might shed a tear or two. I’ve had so many great moments being a part of this rivalry. I feel like if we can go out there and compete, we can get back on a win streak that we had a couple of years back.”