It was Cal volleyball’s 2014 Pac-12 season opener against Stanford. After getting blown out in the first set, the Bears found themselves one point away from stealing the second, 24-23.
Cal hit a high-arcing serve to start the possession that resulted in a kill. An error and another Stanford kill later, Cal surrendered the hard-fought set and then the match half an hour later.
And as the team huddled up in defeat, the players half-heartedly congratulating one another for performances that ultimately fell short, one player stood out from the rest — Jenelle Jordan. The sophomore middle blocker played well off the bench in limited minutes with four kills and two blocks, but it wasn’t her performance on the court that the team noticed.
Jordan continued to wear her cheek-to-cheek smile over the course of the season despite a disappointing year with just two conference wins. After every missed kill, every blown blocking
assignment, she never failed to approach the team with words of encouragement, positivity and a slap on the butt, as if to say, “I know you can do better. We’ll get it next time.” If there were an award for most high-fives given over the course of a season, Jordan would be the odds-on favorite to win every year.
“When you’re down, she’s the first person to bring you up,” says roommate and teammate Alyssa Jensen. “That carries onto the court and off of it.”
Jordan learned this positivity growing up, watching her father, Darin Jordan. From how she talks to her athleticism to how she’s able to interact with anybody, Jenelle Jordan is her father’s child, his mirror image.
She grew up watching her father cheer her on from the bleachers at all of her volleyball matches. A former athlete himself, Darin Jordan never said anything to discourage his daughter or other players, going as far as applauding the other team when it railed off a nice kill or blocked a tough shot. Jenelle Jordan can still hear her father yell all sorts of things, all positive, at most of her home matches in Haas Pavilion.
“It’s funny, because players from the other teams would go up to me and tell me how awesome my dad is,” Jordan says.
After winning a Super Bowl with the San Francisco 49ers in 1994, Darin Jordan retired the season after to stay at home with his burgeoning family. But his wife, Andrea Jordan was working on her residency to become a pediatric surgeon. The family ended up moving around a lot because of her training.
Born in Oakland, Jenelle Jordan moved to Memphis, Tennessee when she was 3. And then to Canada and then to Maryland and then to seemingly every state in between — every two years. She didn’t have trouble making friends, but that didn’t make the prospect of permanently settling down in Houston any less exciting.
“That experience was just a whole bunch of crazy,” says Jenelle Jordan’s brother, Jonah Jordan. “We stayed at a place for maybe two years, and then we’d move again. We had friends everywhere we went, but it was kind of hard because we had to keep moving.”
Jordan can look back on her childhood only with fondness and nostalgia despite moving around a lot. If anything, moving around brought her closer to her family. She remembers all the times she retreated to her brother to vent when she found her parents too frustrating. She remembers when her mom would press up against her stomach to diagnose her ab pain and tell her to sit out of practice the next day. She remembers the nuggets of advice her dad would pass on to her from time to time: firm handshakes, address others as sir and ma’am, sandwich criticism in between constructive compliments. She took all of his advice to heart.
No advice was taken more seriously than what her parents told her — or didn’t tell her — when one of her friends died when she was in the seventh grade. Jordan’s friend was hit by a car on the side of the road. Nobody could have possibly seen the tragedy coming.
Jordan didn’t know how to react to this news. It hit her especially hard. She had just seen him the day before, and now he was gone forever.
Her parents helped their daughter get through it as best they could. Teaching a child about the fragility of life is never easy. They thought it was best to let her process the tragedy and come talk to them when it was time. Darin and Andrea Jordan understood there was nothing to do but let their daughter know that they were there for her. In hindsight, she appreciates that her parents allowed the silence to do the talking.
But the learning experience wasn’t the loss of her friend. The learning experience was how her parents helped her cope with her loss. It helped her realize that words can only do so much in a situation such as this.
“It wasn’t their words,” Jordan says. “It was their actions. It was them giving me a hug and asking if I was OK. I didn’t want to talk about it at that time, so I would say that’s where I learned that there is an understanding to helping people.”
This collection of experiences and memories with her family taught Jordan that certain losses can be settled only by time. But she also learned that her inability to fix everything shouldn’t keep her from doing nothing.
Jordan’s greatest strength is not evident in the classroom or even on the court. It is not her ability to block shots or to kill the ball. It is her ability to put herself in others’ shoes. The shoes don’t always fit, but the effort is there. And oftentimes, that’s all there is to do.
“I might not understand where everyone’s coming from, because I haven’t gone through it all,” Jordan says hesitantly. “I haven’t gone through most of it. But I will be open ears and positive words. I’m here to listen. I’m not here to tell you how to fix it, because I don’t know. I’m not a psychologist or therapist. I’m a friend.”
And when tragedy struck once again when one of her friends died when she was a sophomore in high school, Jordan was left to apply what she learned from her parents to someone else. It wasn’t a car that dealt the tragedy this time, but depression. Her teammate and best friend’s best friend had committed suicide. Jordan lost a friend and teammate, but her best friend had lost someone she had known since elementary school.
Looking back on how she felt when her friend was killed by a car, Jordan realized all she could do was offer a hug. That silence and company was the only way for them to sympathize together.
“Just because she’s been around some things that weren’t always the best, she knows what to do and what not to do,” Jonah Jordan says. “Sometimes you just need a hug or to know that someone is there for you and not talk about the issue. Growing up around these tough times and different experiences, she built her personality in a way where she can see the situation and react to it.”
So that’s what Jenelle Jordan did: She saw that her friend was facing loss and reacted by embracing her as well as her pain.
“All I did was give her a hug,” Jordan says. “She didn’t need advice, because my advice wasn’t going to bring her friend back. Giving advice was just going to make her more irritated. All she needed was for me to be there for her and tell her that it was OK to let it out.”
Jordan understands that everyone copes with loss differently. She knows this because she is all too familiar with suffering. But she also acknowledges that it is necessary, that it is the only thing everyone has to endure.
“A common understanding is that when somebody feels bad, somebody feels bad,” Jordan says. “You can’t be upset two different ways. Tears are the same thing. It’s universal.”
It can be hard for Jordan to wear a smile sometimes. But she still stays optimistic — not just for herself but for others. She could very well wake up upset, angry or sad tomorrow. That’s beside the point though. Today, Jordan continues to smile.
Winston Cho covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho