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Editor’s Note: In a wide-ranging news interview Malcolm Jenkins — with roots in Piscataway, N. J., but memorable experiences in Philadelphia and New Orleans — offered insight about his life, which was the subject of his memoir through the lens of many play-by-play sports analogies. For football aficionados, the sports highlights are numerous and a constant thread.
Malcolm Jenkins, a former Philadelphia Eagles safety and two-time Super Bowl champion, arrived for an interview with WHYY News to promote his book, “What Winners Won’t Tell You,” at least half an hour early.
“Well, Jim Tressel, my head coach at Ohio State, he had this policy that if you’re on time, you’re late,” Jenkins laughed as he settled into the radio studio booth across from Independence Mall. “If you’re early, you’re on time. And if you’re late don’t show up. That kind of stuck with me.”
Jenkins described himself in the following order: author, business owner, philanthropist, former athlete, and father. But that’s likely just what was the tip of his tongue at the time, not the order of what appears to be his priorities in life.
Instead, he’s doubled down on introspection and understanding his worth, leveraging the skills he has developed, and not shying away from asking for help to overcome weaknesses.
People don’t often “take a lot of time to evaluate what we have at our disposal and how to make the best out of that,” he said. “I had to do that with myself, my own career, and it really re-energized and turned my entire trajectory as an athlete around.”
Most people cannot control their natural physical speed or intelligence beyond rigorous training, but “we can learn the best parts of ourselves and our weaknesses and play to that,” he said. “Trials and tribulations [can] ultimately lead to success if you handle it the right way. It’s just about understanding yourself and a lot of time we compare to other people. We look for saviors in other people. We make excuses.”
So what’s the answer to the book’s cliff hanger: “What Winners Won’t Tell You?”
“I think what winners won’t tell you is that there’s a lot of failures on the way to success,” Jenkins said.
In Philadelphia, the football celebrity opened a brick and mortar retail storefront — Damari — which is also Jenkins’ middle name. It’s a variation of the name Amari which roughly translates to ‘eternal strength’, according to Jenkins.
The Old City shop sells custom suits — with a flair towards professional athletes who are often required to don formal attire for frequent events — among other fashion needs like celebrity red carpet festivities and weddings.
But that wasn’t his first business idea. Instead, Jenkins started a men’s accessory business known as Rock Avenue Bow Ties several years before.
“I was making handkerchiefs, bow ties, neckties, things like that when I was in New Orleans,” he said. “When I got here, I really expanded on that company and turned it into a full custom clothing line.”
During his professional athletic career, he noticed many athletes were relying on the same suit makers, and would show up wearing identical outfits to events.
“Every player shopped the same three custom clothiers. You come thinking you’re fresh and you’d see three guys with the same suit on,” he said. “The majority of guys, the reason they had on the same suits is because they would allow their reps to pick their clothes for them.”
But instead, Jenkins said he was already going through fabric swatches “picking out every button” and decided that all he needed was a manufacturer.
“I figured that if I was gonna be doing all the work anyway then I might as well make it myself,” he said.
Jenkins has found a mix of joy, and personal and financial satisfaction as an art collector too.
“Art has been one of the fun things that I’ve always been a part of [the scene],” he said, and even collected the art of a former NFL player Ernie Barnes.
But then, he started “getting serious” and spending time at art fairs getting to know the artists, and now has started studying the art market to invest in works that could appreciate in value.
“It’s a cool ecosystem and I relate to artists a lot because it’s a lot like athletes. They have a specific skill that not many in the world have at that level and there are a ton of people who love to watch it and engage with it,” he said. “So when you’re investing in them early they’ve got enough work where you know they’ve got momentum but they are at a price point that you can afford, and then you can just watch that grow just like an investment strategy.”
The overarching goal is for him to have a “highly regarded collection of contemporary Black artists.”
The retired football player’s vision for financial literacy in schools grew out of his own realization that to harness and grow his wealth from professional sports he had to pay attention. He once asked a financial planner to calculate how long $5 million dollars would last with the lifestyle he was sustaining — it was surprisingly short.
“If you have $5 million dollars in the bank, like you’re doing pretty good. But just for the exercise of it, I just wanted to know, if I didn’t get picked up and my career was over, how long would this money last. Because in my mind, I was like, I don’t ever have to work again,” he said. “That was usually the consensus, like if you make it to the league, you won’t have to work again. But that is not the case at all.”
Jenkins detailed why he strategically negotiated his own contracts instead of leaving everything up to an agent — in short — he wanted to get involved in his own destiny. Here’s what he learned about being a free agent.
“You won’t win a negotiation if you’re not willing to get up from the table,” he said. “If you’re not willing to leave, then you’ll take whatever they give you, respect yourself enough to understand how things move. Put your foot down where you need to and how to value yourself and bet on it. But it’s scary to bet on yourself.”
At first he said he didn’t realize he could even ask his financial advisor why all of his investments were only in stocks and bonds — no real estate.
“A financial advisor will tell you the only way you’ll make money is in a stock market,” he said, noting there’s a difference between being rich and wealthy. Often the wealthy invest in private equity deals and real estate.
Jenkins remembered his first business investment: an apartment complex in Ohio that was purchased with a line of credit for just shy of $1 million.
“I jumped in front of the line [of offers] because I was the only one who could pay in cash [from the bank as opposed to a mortgage],” he said. “The building was fully occupied so it immediately cash flowed and paid for itself. I remember asking my financial adviser — Is this legal? I just bought a million-dollar building and now I own it. I didn’t pay a single dime for it, that just seemed crazy to me.”
But investing in real estate is not intuitive for most, he said.
“A lot of people want to build our wealth off our labor, no matter if you’re making $5,000 or $5 million dollars,” he said. “But the minute you can’t work, you’re in an emergency. But when you talk about being wealthy it’s about your expenses being covered by the money that’s coming in that you don’t have to work for [because it’s investment income].”
That’s particularly difficult for athletes who are under immense pressure to perform and not take time for themselves.
“A lot of us want to focus so much, like all our time on our sport, but you realize that the sport — once they are done with you they will kick you to the curb and then you’ll start to try and build your own life,” he said. “And all of the support — people patting you on the back, everybody wants to help you, your social capital all of that — just steadily declines after you’re [done] playing.”
Because of his foresight — and a team of trusted business professionals — he was able to ‘walk away on my own accord’ and leave $6 million dollars on the table.
“I felt confident in my ability to survive and my own acumen, so that’s a blessing,” he said. “Most people don’t get to step away from the game. Their contract ends or the team tells you you’re not good enough anymore or you get injured.”
Family dynamics around money, especially for someone in the position where they are the first in their generation to accumulate significant wealth, can be a difficult juggling act.
“When you’re the first person to have success it’s a blessing. You get to hold that mantle for your family. You get to bring resources into your ecosystem. But you’re also now tasked with protecting those resources, oftentimes from your tribe because they don’t have the understanding of wherewithal about how to preserve it or grow it. It’s all about the needs and demands that are happening right now,” he said. “You give money to people thinking that’s the solution and you realize they aren’t educated enough or don’t have enough experience to handle that kind of money. It’s a really tough predicament for a lot of athletes and it is a cause of a lot of stress for guys who come from families who aren’t used to having this kind of money at their disposal.”
Jenkins’ business entrepreneurship portfolio includes Broad Street Ventures, a $10 million investment fund with Black and Brown investors, which includes some NFL players. The fund invests in ‘late stage and growth stage investments in consumer products and tech companies’. Also included are Damari, the Philadelphia ‘fashion house’, Disrupt Foods, a restaurant franchise network and investment company, E&R Real Estate, a developer with projects in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Georgia. He even runs a documentary company known as Listen Up Media.
But don’t expect more businesses in the funnel.
“I don’t want to start anything [else], I’m tired,” he said. “It’s more about investing. We’re looking for opportunities for companies that are growing. The cornerstone of our business is franchising.”
The Disrupt Foods enterprise is primarily Papa Johns and Wingstop locations, the goal is to become the largest Black-owned franchisee in the nation for the fast casual food brands.
“It makes no sense for every guy in the [NFL] league who wants to get into franchising to find an operator, go buy their own store, do all of those things when most people just want the exposure in their portfolio,” he said. “Like, I’m not making any pizzas. But I’ve got a team around me that can execute these things.
Overall, it’s about generating more wealth in Black communities, he said.
“If there’s a mission for me and how I’m moving now, what I want to have an impact on is really educating people on the power of group economics. People when they have success, most of the time they do it as a collective family, as a community. Owning businesses in their own communities,” he said. “When you look at [Black communities] we don’t own the majority of the businesses in it. We don’t own homes most of the time. It just continues to push us into pockets of poverty that are harder and harder to climb out of as an individual.”
On social justice
Jenkins was not always so optimistic — in fact he struggled with joy — and made it his mission to rediscover it.
“A lot of my frustrations as a player, as a man, as a citizen were just out of line with what I wanted to do. I began to just focus on my impact and what I wanted to leave behind, all of sudden the success kind of lines up. I’m walking in my purpose and things are aligning,” he said. “When you really find that vibration and you hold it. I started having more fun playing a game — in the game that at one point in time had died for me. I didn’t enjoy playing. But honing into that, like what are the things that are most important and coming down to impact both on the field and off. I was able to find that joy again. You want to feel good about what you leave behind and that takes a ton of intentionality. That takes a ton of understanding yourself and doing that internal work. But once you do, I found myself to be so much more satisfied with the things that I put out. The way I use my voice, those things to me equate to winning.”
During 2020, Jenkins said he hit a low point — despite snagging Super Bowl team wins in years prior and reaching his professional football career peak in many ways.
“There was a lot going on. It was really hard for me to focus on football and just a lot of changes in my life personally. Obviously [there was] a lot going on in the country with a pandemic, the social unrest — all those things. It was just a tough time. I really had to spend a lot of time changing my focus,” he said. “I was still playing a game that I loved. I had a good job. My family was healthy and I needed to lean into that,” he said. “And when I did it completely changed the outcome. It’s just about that focus, not really paying attention to the crowd or the environment, but focus on the task at hand no matter what the situation.”
While Jenkins may be more well-known on a national scale for his more recent activism promoting civil rights — he’s been at the helm of pushing for police reform and social justice in Philadelphia since at least 2016. He met with then-Philadelphia Police Department Police Commissioner Richard Ross after he watched Philando Castile and Alton Sterling who were shot and killed by police officers in Minneapolis and Baton Rouge, La. respectively.
“I think that initial meeting that we had with Richard Ross came out of frustration. I just remember being fed up, having had enough of seeing Black bodies being drug across the news. And people debating, whether it was justified or not,” he said.
At first, Jenkins said he was stuck. “I didn’t know how I would take my influence and lend it to the call,” he said.
Instead of aligning himself with one group or another, Jenkins said he sought to understand everyone.
“Just to have a conversation and really like, unpack the context,” he said. “What are some of the issues the community has and what need are there vice versa? What are some of the struggles of the police? What are some of the things they’re seeing as they try to serve the communities? Is there some common ground that myself as an athlete can learn. You know, can step into bridge that gap that really led me to believe or to understand that most of the violence and things we see play out in the street are a symptom of a larger issue. The police are the front line of a greater system that feeds on people and overpolices certain neighborhoods. Crime is linked in directly to poverty. And all these kinds of things play into each other. If you try to just focus on one cog on the wheel, you’re really not effective. I really had to take a step back, learn kind of how all these things play with one another, learn who the people with power were, and figure out how to use my influence in the best possible way to be of some help.”
But it’s been seven years since Jenkins’ initial meeting with the Philadelphia police commissioner — and this summer yet another civilian was shot and killed by a police officer. Not only that, but the police narrative was different than before video footage of the encounter that was released by neighbors, then later the department itself.
Jenkins said that incremental justice is the goal, but it’s unclear whether much of that has happened in Philadelphia.
“That is progress, but it is such a low bar. I think we would much rather have our loved ones stay living. I think we lose when the officer being arrested is the end-all be-all. If we really want a society that has equity and justice that we talk about then that work is necessary,” he said. “The larger conversation is how do we get to a place where there’s trust and these things aren’t continuing to happen, because we know it’s not just the individual officers that are doing this. It’s a cultural problem. It’s political. What really makes the community feel better is when you have a police department that they trust when they know the officers and [the community] are being protected and served. It’s really hard to bridge that gap. It’s hard for me to go tell the community to have trust in the police department.”
As co-founder of the Players Coalition, Jenkins helped negotiate with the NFL a five-year $15 million grant deal in January 2023. The first partnership between professional athletes seeking the league to help combat racial and social injustice dates back to 2018.
Jenkins said he and NFL wide receiver Anquan Boldin were frustrated after an advocacy trip to Washington, D.C.
“You realize how politics works and it’s really slow. More about, kind of, the optic. Everybody’s willing to have a conversation, but you realize they just want the photo ops,” he said. “We had much more success when we functioned locally to influence local politics. We had guys all over the country really taking up the mantle and serving their local markets, and we saw a lot of success. We passed a bunch of laws. The people closest to the problem are oftentimes closest to the solution.”
Of all the things Jenkins has learned as a philanthropist, he found that sometimes the path isn’t straightforward.
“I stopped doing my football camp after about a decade,” Jenkins said about how out of 5,000 participants only one played professionally. “In 2020 we stopped it and then I never brought it back because I was tired of telling kids to play ball knowing very few of them will ever make it to the professional ranks.”
He’s the founder and chairman of the Malcolm Jenkins Foundation, which is operated by his mother Gwendolyn V. Jenkins as CEO and president. She previously served as a president of the Professional Football Players Mothers Association, a non-profit for the mothers of NFL players.
That doesn’t mean Jenkins doesn’t mentor youth anymore. Instead, he’s focused more on financial literacy in schools.
“There are so many other things that kids can be doing,” he said. “In communities of color, we paint this very narrow picture of what success can be. One of the things that benefitted me the most is that I had people along the way to paint a vision for myself that I didn’t have.”
Jenkins said he didn’t think about the concept of a career path in school, he was just focused on playing football.
“If I didn’t go to play college [foot] ball, I was looking at the military,” he said.
But he wants to offer youth more expansive options — the foundation has continued financial literacy courses — including one that offers prepaid savings accounts for students at college preparatory school, Parkway Northwest High School for Peace and Social Justice. The foundation is also active in three public schools in Newark, N.J.
“How do we get people to take control over their own finances, take control over their own communities, and teach lessons about collective economics and investing, and things like that,” he said. “I really wanted to get to the point where citywide you have financial literacy programs in every school. I think we can paint more visions and showcase to kids other industries and avenues that are more nontraditional that are easier to access. They can do some amazing things. The best thing is working with kids across the country and all the places I’ve called home.”