By Chip Malafronte
If Fred Jelks has shown anything in the decade or so he's been playing competitive football, it's that size doesn't matter.
From the time he first stepped onto a football field as a pint-sized 10-year old, coaches have thought the same thing at first glimpse of Jelks.
He's too small.
"It's kind of been a recurring theme," said Jelks, now a defensive back for Yale. Usually the littlest guy on the field, even from the time he first strapped on a helmet and pads back in 1992 in Bloomfield, Conn., Jelks knows coaches and opponents are thinking the same thing. Yet he's been putting any doubts to rest quickly once the whistle blows. Jelks is well aware that his blazing speed and outstanding athletic ability more than make up for what he lacks in sheer mass.
Size didn't matter when he became the best player on that pee-wee football team. It didn't matter during his three seasons as a starter at Bloomfield High, which won Connecticut state championships all three years and emerged as one of the top programs in the country. It didn't make much difference to recruiters and it hasn't hampered his collegiate career.
A junior in his second season as a regular for the Bulldogs, Jelks is one of the smallest defensive backs in Division I-AA football at just 5-feet-5, 150-pounds.
He admits that on occasion he'll hear some grief from an opposing player about his size, but said it really doesn't happen very often.
"Early on some coaches might go after me and test my skills," Jelks said. "But once they see that I can play, that's usually the extent of it."
Yale head coach Jack Siedlecki has seen his share of small players come through the program. Among the most notable was Todd Tomich, a defensive back who was only slightly bigger than Jelks. Tomich was the 1997 Ivy League Rookie of the Year, a two-time All-Ivy pick and the Bulldogs' career leader in interceptions with 16.
"We have a lot of very talented, undersized kids," Siedlecki said. "Fred fits right in with them. He is very talented, just small. Sometimes they turn into the best players we have. They're overlooked by the bigger schools because of their size, but they have the talent to be top-level players. He fits that category."
Jelks appeared in all 10 games last fall after tearing a posterior cruciate ligament in his knee during spring practice in 2002. The injury didn't require surgery, but it took a good deal of time to rehabilitate.
He was cleared to play over the summer, and turned in a solid season by finishing the year with 12 tackles, including eight solo, and also recovered a fumble against Penn.
"I played last season with a (knee) brace, and that limited me a lot even if it was just mentally," Jelks said. "The knee was fine but the brace wasn't comfortable."
Jelks said he is playing confidently and aggressively, two qualities that helped him emerge as a leader during his high school years.
Jelks was coached by Jack Cochran at Bloomfield, the most successful, if extreme coach in Connecticut over the last 10 years.
Aside from winning three straight championships, Jelks played on what is widely considered one of the greatest high school teams in state history. Bloomfield's heralded offense averaged 55 points per game during Jelks' junior season, while it churned out numerous Division I-A players including Andrew Pinnock (South Carolina), Jermelle Lewis (Iowa) and Dwight Freeney (Syracuse), the latter of whom is now playing for the Indianapolis Colts and was one of the league's best rookies in 2002.
"Those guys inspired me to reach my potential on the field," Jelks said.
A leader in the classroom, Jelks was also a leader on the field at Bloomfield. Playing man coverage against opponents most of the time, Jelks, also a sprinter on the school's indoor and outdoor track teams, was usually assigned to cover the top receiver and almost always locked his man down.
Jelks was named all-conference twice, and as a senior earned a spot on the New Haven Register's All-State second-team. He was also an Academic All-American. Columbia and Brown showed interest in Jelks, but it was Yale's coaching staff that won him over.
"Meeting the staff is really what made my decision," Jelks said. "To this day it's a plus in what my judgment of what Yale football is. I can go into the football offices and just hang out because the coaches are so personable."
Siedlecki was drawn to Jelks athletic ability and his aggressive style of defense.
"He can dunk a basketball. We have a lot of 6-footers who can't do that," Siedlecki said. "He also plays very physical. He will hit you."
Interested in a career in investment banking when graduates in 2005, Jelks' football plan over the next two seasons in a simple one.
"Coach always says there are just two goals," Jelks said. "To win the Ivy League championship and to beat Harvard. My individual goals lie within that realm and that's what I'm focused on."