On the path to becoming a professional athlete, there are no easy steps. Reign FC forward Darian Jenkins has had to walk a particularly unsteady path, however. After spending her first year in the NWSL on the Disabled List and her second seeing limited playing time with the North Carolina Courage, Jenkins is ready to settle in and play a major role for Reign FC.
Jenkins grew up in Utah, where she first became interested in soccer playing with boys in her class at recess in elementary school. Already taking part in basketball and dance, she asked her parents to let her join a soccer team, too.
Jenkins fell in love with the game. One year after joining a rec league team, she joined a competitive squad as an 11-year-old and immersed herself in training, first earning the attention of the U.S. Youth National Team through the I.D. camp program as a U14 in 2009. Living in the Salt Lake Valley, her parents had ranching property in Heber City, Utah but chose to remain close to Riverton where Jenkins was attending high school so she could focus on soccer.
Jenkins, like so many-college bound athletes, yearned for a change of scenery. She found that and more at national powerhouse UCLA, where she drew accolades all four years, scoring 29 goals while adding 12 assists in 76 career appearances.
Her senior year in 2016 started out in flying fashion. Jenkins became the first Bruin to score a hat trick since Sydney Leroux accomplished the feat in 2011. She had been considering her opportunities to turn professional after her senior season. The forward, who had continued to receive U.S. Youth National Team call ups, hoped that her dream of playing for the U.S. Women’s National Team would soon become a reality.
Then, on October 2, her best-laid plans hit a catastrophic road bump. In a road match against Oregon, Jenkins suffered a compound fracture in her left fibula.
“The night before, I had a dream that I had broken a bone,” Jenkins said. “I think I had broken my arm in my dream. At the game, I felt weird, like something was going to happen and then when I broke it I heard two breaks.”
“I looked up and a girl from Oregon was freaking out and calling for an ambulance. I reached down to touch it and my bone was sticking out of my leg. I think I was in shock, but I was instantly upset because I knew I couldn’t play in (an NCAA) championship and the draft was in four months. I was thinking ‘no one is going to want to draft me anymore. National team camp is out of the question.’”
Even as her dreams came under threat, Jenkins was resolved to make it back to the pitch.
For an athlete, the period right after a major injury is always the toughest. Active by nature, lying in wait in the initial phases of recovery is anathema to how athletes construct their routines. Jenkins’ experience was no different. Two long months of being unable to put her leg on the ground followed, followed by months on crutches and wearing a boot.
“It sucked, but I had a great physical therapist at UCLA,” Jenkins said. “His name was Jeremy Vail. I would trust that man with my life. He was always super positive and worked with me every day. I’m pretty psycho with trying to overdo things and he always made me feel like everything was going to be okay.”
Slowly, Jenkins began the arduous process of recovery. The NWSL draft, however, remained out of mind.
Until UCLA head coach Amanda Cromwell told Jenkins that she was still on pro clubs’ radars, that is.
“I didn’t think anyone was going to draft me because before the draft, I was still in a boot with crutches,” Jenkins said. “I couldn’t bear weight. My leg was swollen, even months in. My coach Amanda said ‘hey, Boston contacted me. They’re thinking of taking you first or third overall.’ I was stunned.”
The draft took place in Los Angeles that year, so Jenkins – still on crutches – went to the event to see where the future might take her, despite her injury.
Boston didn’t pick Jenkins, but the North Carolina Courage recognized her potential and snapped the forward up in the first round with the seventh overall pick.
“I heard that North Carolina was thinking of taking me, but I thought ‘I’ll believe it when I see it,’” Jenkins said. “I wouldn’t have even gone to the draft if it hadn’t been in California. I was shocked I was drafted and that they wanted me to come out that year, since there was no way I was going to play.”
Jenkins roomed with current teammate Taylor Smith her first season in North Carolina. Friendships with other former Bruins like Samantha Mewis and Abby Dahlkemper helped the forward feel at home as she learned how to walk and run again.
A call-up to the U23 National Team for camp in November 2017 served as a major moment in her recovery, finally feeling back to full health. Going in to the 2018 season, however, playing time was hard to come by on a dominant North Carolina side. Jenkins made 14 appearances for the Courage, but only played 176 minutes.
To continue living her dream, Jenkins realized she needed another change of scenery.
“I initiated getting traded,” Jenkins said. “I wanted more opportunity to play. My goal is to be on the national team and there wasn’t a chance to start a game in North Carolina. I couldn’t stay because you have to start to get looks.”
Offers came in. Jenkins and her agent explored opportunities abroad in France or Sweden, with the Royals in her native Utah as another suitor. Ultimately, though, Reign FC won out.
In a new environment and fully healthy, Jenkins has found an environment where she can enter the next phase of her career.
“When you first get to college, you think the level of play is so intense,” Jenkins said. “By the time you hit senior year, you’re ready for another challenge, another chapter. This is exactly that. Everyone is always pushing each other to get better. There’s better competition to work up against. That’s been really refreshing for me, because I’ve always been one of the most intense people on the field. I have to up my intensity further for the level here. That’s always nice. It’s great to have this level of competition.”
Jenkins enjoyed tremendous success with the club in preseason, scoring two goals and forcing an own goal. She bagged her first NWSL goal in the season opener against Houston in a 1-1 draw and has five shots in three appearances, all of them starts.
“I love the pressure and competition for minutes,” Jenkins said. “Being here has made me that much of a better player. This team is very supportive of each other. (Head coach Vlatko Andonovski) and the coaching staff are players’ coaches, which I hadn’t had in a long time. Every little detail is trying to get you better to help the team. It’s not trying to change your game, it’s focusing on the things you’re good at. I don’t think I’ve ever been encouraged to go one-on-one and shoot. Ever. That’s really refreshing.”
Despite the rocky start to her professional journey, Jenkins now has a chance to make a major impact for Reign FC. The forward will be heavily relied on as the roster thins out during the World Cup. After recovering from such a serious injury while navigating turning pro, however, pressure and high expectations are part of the game for Jenkins.