CRYSTAL LAKE, Ill. — Most school afternoons went the same way for Jean Jenkins.
The school bus arrived at the corner. Her oldest son, Justin, and her daughter, Jenna, walked through the door.
But her youngest, Jeff, never popped inside.
Trying to locate him always played out the same way, too. She would first find his backpack, thrown on the ground near the bus stop. Jeff wasn’t far away, running around with Samson Evans.
“We had to institute the don’t-go-over-there-without-asking-me rule,” Jean said. “I would be waiting for him. That was probably in second grade and they were already really good friends.”
They became best friends, leading Prairie Ridge High School, tucked into the northwest Chicago suburbs, to two Class 6A Illinois state titles. Now, they’re heading to Iowa, in part, because they rely on each other.
“Jeff is probably a little bit more outgoing and Samson is a little more serious,” John Jenkins, Jeff’s dad, said, “but I think they bounce off each other in a lot of different ways, being complementary in what they do.”
Know your neighbor
The Jenkins family first moved into its Crystal Lake, Ill., neighborhood in 2002, when Jeff was 2 years old. The Evans came soon after.
At first, Evans went to a different elementary school, but was home by the time Jenkins finished school. The two quickly hit it off because of their shared interests.
“I would be getting off the bus and him and [his brother] Carter would be playing football and we would always hang out after school,” Jenkins said. “It was probably sports and being so close to each other led us to becoming friends.”
They played catch with a football and jumped on trampolines during the day and played the outdoor hide-and-seek game ghost in the graveyard at night. Both families, including Samson’s sister Chandler, 23, older brother Shane, 22, and younger brother Carter, 15, became close.
“It was always who was in our yard and who was in their yard,” Jean said.
Inevitably, the two boys with so many shared interests became as close as siblings and soon started relying on each other for advice. They rarely go more than a day or two without talking.
“I’ll text him if something comes up,” Evans said. “Little things, anything. School, girlfriends. Life, whatever.”
Jenkins admits Evans, a 3-star quarterback, does more than that. Jenkins, a 4-star offensive lineman, is known as a hard worker and his high school coach raves about his motor. But he sometimes needs a little encouragement to get started.
“I like being there to push him to do whatever he can do,” Evans said. “I know he can do more. He always doesn’t want to do it, but he needs a little motivation and he will get it done no matter what.”
Evans, quiet by nature, isn’t afraid to speak up around Jenkins. Evans prefers honesty over the carrot-and-stick approach. If he needs Jenkins to do something, he tells him.
The two will sit in the high school commons and finish a project on the spot. Jenkins is appreciative. He seeks Evans’ help all the time, even giving him his Google passwords so he can look over his papers.
Evans makes as big of an impact with Jenkins in sports as in school.
“He is always pushing me in the weight room since we were little kids to get better,” Jenkins told Land of 10 in May. “He is the kind of kid that you want to be around, just trying to compete and he pushes everyone.”
Football was always special to them. They played Junior Wolves youth football together in third grade and won a championship. As Jenkins started gaining weight, they moved him up a weight class, forcing him and Evans to play on different teams.
“That really bummed him out,” John said of Jeff.
They teamed up again in eighth grade to win their second championship for the Junior Wolves. It was then that Matt Evans, Samson’s dad, realized something special was coming.
“I watched what happened with [Samson’s older brother] Shane’s teams,” Matt said. “We had a good league. Whoever ended up being successful in those leagues typically was the high school team that was going to win state or was close to it.”
Samson and Jeff won back-to-back state high school titles and 28 consecutive games the last two seasons.
Jenkins earned first-team all-state honors as a junior and senior. Evans also was a two-time first-team all-state selection and received Illinois Football Player of the Year honors from four newspapers as a senior.
With Jenkins clearing the way up front, Evans set the program record for rushing yards (6,386), rushing touchdowns (111), passing touchdowns (31) and total touchdowns (155).
“Let’s be honest,” Cary-Grove football coach Chris Schremp told Land of 10 in May. “They are Division I football players. They are different than the average kid. Those guys can’t go out and they can’t go partying on the weekends and they can’t be with kids that do that.
“So they gravitate toward one another and they hang out and that is what they should be doing because they have a different agenda than most kids.”
Jenkins and Evans never expected to play college football together. It’s rare for high school teammates to pick the same program. It’s rarer for best friends. But for these two, it shouldn’t be a surprise.
Evans didn’t consider the notion until his junior year when some programs started recruiting both players.
Iowa offered Evans in December 2016. The move caused Brian Ferentz, then Iowa’s offensive line coach, to apologize when he offered Jenkins a month later.
Jenkins liked Ferentz, the stability of the program and the team’s history of developing offensive linemen. He committed nine days after receiving his offer.
Evans was more deliberate, taking his time to pick between playing quarterback at Northern Illinois or a skill position at Iowa. Jenkins was his unofficial lead recruiter, sending him texts of Kinnick Stadium and reminding him of the benefits of playing at Iowa.
The decision ensured their days as teammates will extend beyond high school. Jenkins and Evans will room together at Iowa.
They pushed each other to this point. They won’t stop now. Not as they try to replicate their Prairie Ridge success in the Big Ten.
“It’s just a really special experience for both of us to do that,” Jenkins said. “I think it will make it easier for us, especially with our personalities, too, because we don’t always fit in right away. We aren’t always the most talkative, so to have us to go back to at night in the same room will be nice.”