Garrett Jenkins poses for a portrait in the locker rooms in Bird Arena. (LAUREN BACHO / PHOTO EDITOR)
Jordan Horrobin / Staff Writer
Garrett Jenkins needed someone to pick up the phone.
He stood outside Milan High School in Milan, Michigan, on a mid-May afternoon waiting for a ride home from track practice. It was past 4 p.m. Where were his parents?
He called his dad, Joel, who was hard to understand through the phone. He was crying.
“Something bad happened,” Joel said. “I’m on the way to the hospital with your brother.”
Garrett’s stepdad, Steve Montesanto, took Garrett straight to the hospital. “What’s going on?” Garrett wondered. He was calm, but confused.
“I thought it was just a broken arm or something,” Garrett, an eighth-grader at the time, said. “People have a tendency to freak out more than they need to.”
At the University of Michigan Hospital, Garrett’s mom, Gloria, filled him in on what they knew. Garrett’s older brother, Ian, had fallen off a friend’s pickup truck and sustained a closed head injury. Still, Garrett didn’t clue in to the magnitude of what was happening. Aside from a minor cut on his arm, Ian didn’t have any noticeable scratches hinting at such a severe injury.
As the doctors took Ian into surgery, the family went to the hospital chapel. Garrett looked around and the seriousness of the moment crept into his mind.
“Honey,” Gloria said, “Come here, because I think we need to pray.”
“Is Ian going to die?”
Garrett’s mind flooded with thoughts he couldn’t believe. Or didn’t want to believe. His brother, his best friend, his role model, his goalie and his golf partner — they could all be taken away before he knew what to think or do.
On May 23, 2011, at 7:54 a.m., Ian Patrick Jenkins died at age 15. Garrett lost the closest person in the world to him and, at age 13, was suddenly asked to grow up. He wasn’t ready.
But the years have shaped Garrett, a freshman with the Ohio Bobcats hockey team, in ways he couldn’t imagine as a 13-year-old. The unexplainable tragedy of a loved one lost too soon has taught him how fragile life can be.
In a lot of ways, the boys were nothing alike. Ian was a big kid, nearly six feet tall with a size 11 shoe in the 10th grade, and had straight, brown hair. Garrett was smaller, scrawnier and had curly hair that was nearly black.
Ian had lots of friends and was very social. His mom called him the Pied Piper because he loved being surrounded by people.
Garrett was quieter and more introverted. He had friends too, but he liked following the Piper.
Soon, Ian’s friends became Garrett’s friends, and vice versa, and a network of kids from their neighborhood and sports teams formed. But they each had just one best friend. Growing up two years apart, they were inseparable.
They always played together. Sometimes it was golf, like at Pine View in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where they’d sneak right onto the 11th hole from their house. More often, it was hockey.
Nearly every day they played mini sticks, a version of hockey using miniature hockey sticks, a ball and a net. They’d have friends over and blast music during games, or go at it one-on-one. Ian was a goalie; so, naturally, Garrett wasn’t.
The boys scurried up and down hotel hallways playing mini sticks at their hockey tournaments, which were often at the same venues, even though they played in different age groups. Most of their miniature hockey classics, however, took place in their basement, which saw its share of drywall dents and scuffs.
As Garrett and Ian grew, so did their competitiveness. Battles for the ball turned into wrestling matches. Among the casualties were tables, lamps and themselves.
“They were like two bear cubs in the house,” Gloria said.
A little blood here, a few tears there. But the anger didn’t last long.
“I guess it shows how close we were,” Garrett said. “We’d fight and 10 minutes later we’d be fine and watching TV.”
Provided via Cassidy Jenkins
Garrett Jenkins, right, and his brother Ian Jenkins pose for a photo in their hockey gear.
Through the years, it never got easier for Garrett to score on Ian. As a teen, Ian blossomed into a premier goalie prospect and was scouted by several colleges, as well as junior hockey programs across North America.
Ian’s hockey goals had been the same for years in pursuit of the NHL: be in the U.S. National Team Development Program and then play NCAA hockey at Michigan. He and Garrett had even fantasized about Garrett playing for the Wolverines’ rival, Michigan State, so the two could duke it out like old times.
But while Michigan gave him free tickets in the team’s family section and the USNTDP coach offered him a roster spot, Ian changed his mind. He wanted to play in the Ontario Hockey League, a more pro-style of junior hockey in Canada, and fast track his NHL dream.
On May 7, 2011, the London Knights picked Ian in the second round of the OHL draft. Garrett thought London was a great fit for his brother because it was a league powerhouse located just two and a half hours from their home.
Ian signed with the Knights on May 18 of that year. The next day, while Garrett was temporarily stranded at track practice, Ian went to his friend’s house after school. Ian sat in the bed of a red, late-'90s Ford Ranger truck. He fell out while it was moving and hit his head.
Joel had picked up the boys' sister, Cassidy, from school and taken her for ice cream. They heard the sirens and, when they found out it was Ian, went to the scene. Joel saw his son on the ground and knew something was wrong. He wouldn’t let Cassidy leave the car. It was her 10th birthday.
After Ian’s surgery, when the family was filled with a mix of confusion, fear and grief, Garrett didn’t know what to do. Although Ian was available for visitors in the intensive care unit, Garrett didn’t go see him until the next day.
Ian was in a coma and his survival was unlikely. It was more than Garrett could handle to be around.
“It kinda freaked me out,” he said. “I wasn’t mature enough to sit there and strike up a conversation (with Ian).”
Garrett wished he’d kept it together and spent more time with his brother, he said, but he just couldn’t.
Four days later, Ian was gone. And the following month was agonizingly slow for Garrett. His parents told him to take as much time off from school as he needed.
The thing was, he didn’t know what he needed.
“I had no idea,” Garrett said. “I just told them what I thought they wanted to hear.”
He returned to school after about a month, but it wasn’t until later that the family went for counseling to speed the healing process.
Garrett first went to sessions with his mom, dad, sister, stepbrother, stepmom and stepdad at NorthRidge Church in Plymouth, Michigan. The family also saw a local therapist, Colin Horn, who had known the family for years and worked with them through Joel and Gloria’s divorce.
At the time, Garrett thought counseling was “the dumbest thing ever” and he didn’t know why he had to go. Everyone grieved in his or her own way, he thought. Though his method was to not grieve openly at all.
Garrett stopped going for a while. He admits that he’s not quick to talk about things that bother him, which he got from his dad. He keeps most of his pain inside, stowed away safely to himself. He needed Horn to get in his head and clear some things out.
Eventually, he saw the value in the small group and one-on-one sessions. It’s been so helpful, in fact, Garrett continues to go see Horn alone a few times a year.
“I’m not a psycho or anything,” Garrett said. “But (therapy) definitely keeps you together a little bit more.”
Garrett has changed how he forms relationships with people. He opens up quicker than he used to.
“He always kept people at arm’s length before,” Gloria said. “He’s more real about (relationships) and doesn’t take them for granted.”
Garrett has learned that at any moment a relationship can vanish.
He’s more real about how he views his hockey career, too. While hockey is still a big part of his life, it’s no longer the focal point. He realized that last year when he chose to play junior hockey in Alberta and Massachusetts instead of going to college. For the season, he was living and breathing hockey.
He loved the time away from home playing hockey and doesn’t regret it one bit. But the time away also taught him how much there is to see and do outside of the sport he grew up playing.
“I like school,” Garrett said. “So going to college and setting goals — like getting good grades and being involved in the school other than hockey — is definitely important to me.”
Provided via Cassidy Jenkins
Garrett Jenkins, back, and his brother Ian Jenkins pose for a portrait in their hockey uniforms.
Going to OU seems like a perfect fit, combining a successful club hockey team with a business program that has opportunities he’s looking for.
Garrett, who plans to study finance, is already talking about internships and how he hopes to get involved in the business school.
On the ice, he’s a speedy forward looking for playing time on a veteran Bobcat team that went 29-9-2 last season. He still loves the game, and OU is a place where his love can thrive.
In some ways, hockey may be Garrett’s ultimate distraction from personal battles. But at the same time, it will always connect him to his brother. His best friend. His role model. His goalie and his golf partner.
“To play college hockey at OU, he gets to honor his brother,” Gloria, an OU alumna, said. “Because it’s something his brother never would have done. And at the same time, start a new chapter for himself.”
The new chapter is without Ian, but not entirely. Garrett tattooed Ian’s date of birth and death on the left side of his chest, a physical reminder that keeps his brother close to his heart. And he will always carry the lessons Ian taught him.
Ian may have shown Garrett how to pick a corner with a wrist shot or throw an elbow where it stings, but no lesson from him was as great as his final one: life is unpredictable.
“It’s the reality of things and a lot of kids don’t like to grasp onto that,” Garrett said. “But I think this whole situation with my brother has definitely matured me.”
If you see Garret this fall at OU, it’ll probably be on a Friday or Saturday night in a chilly Bird Arena, as he dashes through center ice with his head up and a puck on his stick.
But you might also catch him somewhere on campus reaching down and scooping up a penny or a dime.
When Gloria’s mom died, Gloria started finding dimes everywhere she went. After Ian’s death, pennies started to pop up, too. And the family found them all over the place.
One was in a Red Robin parking lot at Steve’s feet as he got out of his car. Another was wedged between layers of a sandal in Gloria’s walk-in closet. Two more were waiting for the family in IKEA, which brought back memories of Gloria getting lost in there years before with Ian, Garrett and Cassidy.
“Everyday stuff like that reminds me of him,” Garrett said.
Gloria recorded the dates, time and locations of the pennies she found in the first year and a half after Ian died. Eventually, the volume of coins became overwhelming.
“We’ve collected so many pennies and dimes over the years,” she said. “It’s just freaky.”
Some of the coins are kept in a mug in Gloria’s bedroom. The others are in a bowl in the kitchen that Cassidy made in school.
When Garrett roams the OU greens, his eyes will be peeled for something most people overlook. He said he’ll probably keep a jar in his dorm room at James Hall to store what he finds.
“I’m definitely going to be the weird penny guy at OU,” he said. “Most people are like, ‘Oh, they’re just pennies and dimes.’ But obviously, to us, they mean something.”