By ryan buck
A tree grows on Youngstown’s East side. Its colors show rather brightly on Friday nights, but it truly blossoms when few are there to watch it.
First-year Liberty football coach Kevin Cylar fondly recalled his standout high school career at East High School at a recent practice.
He could only smile when he remembered his former teammates whom he still calls his friends.
When he thinks about his former coach, however, he immediately stood up a little straighter and his gaze closed in on the gentleman weaving between his players in the middle of the practice field, giving instruction. He also smiled.
In one of the great ironies of high school coaching in the Mahoning Valley, Jerron Jenkins is now Cylar’s assistant.
“I just sit back and I think to myself that I never thought I would be following in this guy’s footsteps,” Cylar said. “I really didn’t like him as a coach. He was very hard on me. As a boy, I really didn’t understand why. As I started to mature, I’m like, ‘Wow, what would I have done without Jerron Jenkins?’”
Cylar is just one of many of Jenkins’ success stories.
Jenkins, 55 and only a year into retirement, spent more than 30 years in the Youngstown City Schools as a teacher and coach.
He spent 16 years at East High before moving to Liberty under coach Jeff Whittaker and has been there for the past 15.
The East side native and Hubbard graduate played collegiately at Alabama A&M before returning home.
“I wanted to come back to my community and make some of these young men successful,” Jenkins said. “I feel like I had an impact on a whole bunch of young men and that was my goal. It wasn’t about me anymore. It was about trying to move people to do better than me.”
When Cylar was named Liberty’s head coach this past spring, he knew he needed his old coach as his top assistant.
“It’s indescribable,” Cylar said of Jenkins’ impact. “He followed me from junior high all the way up through high school. He was instrumental in me playing football as a freshman. As a senior, he took me on my first college visit to Alabama A&M, which was also his alma mater and I then attended. He actually dropped me off and sent me money while I was in college.
“That’s a big reason why I’m here is because my coach is here.”
As Cylar was leading his East teammates on Friday nights in 1990 under Jenkins’ guidance, his younger cousin roamed the sideline too, waiting for his chance.
“When I was in middle school and little league I would come watch the East games and he would take me under his wing as he played as a senior,” said Cylar’s cousin, P.J. Mays. “He’s one of the guys I looked up to as a defensive player, just his energy and emotion. It was something that I gathered and wanted to emulate when I had an opportunity to play for East.”
Mays, a 1998 East graduate, went on to a stellar career at running back for the University of Cincinnati and YSU before earning a spot on the San Diego Chargers’ roster.
Now in his first season as the East head coach, Mays recalls his conversations with Cylar, who bought him his first set of football pads, as foundations for his career.
“We always talked and communicated with each other,” Mays said. “He always helped me through my whole playing career, just being there and being someone I could bounce ideas off of, someone to help motivate me when times got tough.”
Even during NFL training camps, Cylar and Mays always found time to talk.
“Every time he made a move or made a change in his life, we always in some way gravitated back towards each other and I was able to give him advice and he’s always been a kid that listened,” Cylar said. That’s why I know he’s going to do so well.”
When Mays was leading the East track relay teams to the State finals, Jenkins was there coaching him.
“He’s always been positive,” Mays said. “He’s always in the kid’s corner, that attitude of, ‘I believe what you’re saying, I believe what’s going on, let’s get it fixed and worked out and let’s go from there.’
“He’s Youngstown City through and through.”
Cylar and Mays are two strong branches of Jenkins’ coaching tree that continues to grow on the strength of a message that transcends athletics.
“They’re being what I used to be. Now they’ve taken over,” Jenkins said. “That’s the most important thing to me. Football is not everything. It’s to get an education and move on to the next level and help the kids like they’re supposed to.”