North Carolina Courage forward Darian Jenkins finally stepped onto the field during a game at Sahlen’s Stadium in Cary, NC on a rainy afternoon in March, more than a year after she was drafted seventh-overall in the 2017 NWSL College Draft. It was the first match of the 2018 NWSL regular season, and the Courage were facing off against Portland Thorns FC; the team that had beaten them in the Championship to end the 2017 season. Three minutes after Jenkins stepped onto the field, Debinha hit a rocket shot to beat Portland goalkeeper Adrianna Franch and give the Courage a 1-0 victory.
Here at DirtySouthSoccer, we had an opportunity to talk with Darian about the journey to get back onto the pitch after a gruesome injury ended her collegiate career, about getting drafted by the Courage, and about her prospects looking forward.
The early days and finding soccer
Darian grew up in Murray, Utah “on a ranch” as she would put it, and soccer was not her only endeavor into youth sports. Luckily for the Courage, it was her most successful.
“My mom had me in dance, which I loved, and then I played basketball. Hated it. I’ve never been good at it.
I think when I was 6 or 7 I played soccer at recess with some of the boys at my school and I asked my mom if I could play soccer and she signed me up and the coach was like ‘she should probably just go to a club team’, so I played club and it took off from there.”
A tough injury and difficult recovery
Jenkins had an outstanding career at UCLA, making 76 appearances and scoring 29 goals. On October 2nd, 2016, in a match against the Oregon Ducks, Jenkins suffered a terrible injury. “I broke my fibula and compound fractured my tibia and tore a couple ligaments.”
Asked about the injury and her mentality during the recovery she replied, “Yeah, it was tough. I mean, the first couple months were rough but my team was playing so I think that was a good distraction. I was able, because I lived right off of campus, was able to go to the games and still hang out with everyone, but I think once the season ended, that was tough because I just didn’t really have anything and I was super anxious about the draft, but I went to a good PT in LA at the school, so she helped me a lot and I’m glad I was able to at least walk at the draft even though I was in a boot. But I knew I was going to be back on the field, there was no doubt in my mind.”
Speaking of her draft experience, “my college coach Amanda had been talking to another team, and they were like ‘oh, we’re going to pick you.’ I was supposed to go earlier on.”
That didn’t quite pan out, and Jenkins was abruptly introduced to the newest team in the NWSL. “And then right before the draft, I got a text from my coach, and she was like ‘nevermind, the Courage are probably going to take you.’ So I was like, ‘the Courage? Who the heck are the Courage?’ I had no idea that [the Western New York Flash] got bought out, and that they brought them down to North Carolina, so I thought ‘it must be a new team.’ I had no idea even where. So I was really happy, obviously, Pail [Riley] is such a great coach, and our team, I think we probably have the best culture.”
A year of recovery with the Courage
After the draft, Jenkins was signed by the Courage and put onto the disabled list. She would not be added to the active roster as she worked her way back, and she talked about the metal stresses that came with being unable to actively participate with the squad.
“It was pretty tough. I think that was a little more tough than doing rehab because as a pro we don’t have school to distract us. You just have practice. So it’s like, I would go do PT, sit and watch a practice, and then I’d have eight hours to just kind of sit on my thumbs, you know? So last year was pretty tough. I missed being able to travel and to be a part of the games. But if anything, it just kind of fueled my fire. It made me appreciate soccer a lot more than I did before. It was tough, but I think we have such a good team culture that I felt like I was always included in things, which was nice because I’ve heard that that’s not the experience for a lot of girls at other teams.”
Then, after months of therapy and sitting at practice, Darian was finally able to attend games with the team and warm up with the rest of her teammates on the field.
“It made me so happy.” She continued, “it’s moreso like being with the team and being part of the little ritualistic stuff we do before a game and being a part of that energy and excitement. I probably felt like I played 90 minutes I was so excited just to be able to do that. It’s the little milestones that happened, and like being able to see my jersey.”
A great preseason and wide open future
Darian Jenkins got her first real NWSL experiences in the preseason, where she scored four goals and made a real impact as the Courage went undefeated in their six warm-up matches.
“It was nice. It was nice to get my confidence back. I’d gotten the two U-23 camps and we played games there, but our style of play is completely different and a year of sitting out, just watching and trying to pick up how we press and how the press should be, and finally being able to put that all to fruition and get results from it was great. It was really exciting.”
The conversation turned to the regular season. “It’s been tough being back,” she said. “So, regardless of preseason, you kind of look at all of the players that we have and you’re always going to have to fight, but it’s definitely made me stronger mentally, and look at things even more. What I have to work on, and kind of looking at my role. A lot of the time, usually, when I get on the field there’s like 10 minutes left, maybe 8, so we’re just trying to keep the ball and got to the corner.”
We spent some time discussing strategy and her personal growth. Darian specifically brought up working on not dropping back too far and not hesitating when she shoots. Her final statement when discussing her growth was “I want to score a freaking goal!”
When asked to pick a role model in the locker room, she picked Crystal Dunn who she called “slippery and calm on the ball,” and McCall Zerboni who “is just a badass all around.”
Jenkins will likely have an opportunity to get that first goal of the season when the Courage travel to Seattle to face the Reign next Saturday at 4:00 pm ET.