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LSU wide receiver Jaray Jenkins (10) tries to evade Mississippi defensive back AJ Finley (21) on the play during the first half at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium Saturday Oct. 23, 2021, in Oxford, Miss.

Jaray Jenkins’ dad, John, told him that he’d catch the winning touchdown against Florida.

“I said you need to realize that it’s going to be a good game, going to be a tight game,” John said. “(Kayshon) Boutte is out, so you need a receiver to step up and take over.”

Jaray, lined up to the left, ran around quarterback Max Johnson just before the ball was snapped. Johnson faked a handoff, then found Jenkins wide open on the right edge for an easy touchdown.

It was Jaray’s third of the day and sealed a 49-42 victory over the Gators.

As Jaray emerged from the locker room, John made sure to let him know he was right.

“I said, ‘Jaray, what did daddy tell you about the game on Saturday?’ ” John said. “And he dropped his head and said, ‘You told me I was going to catch the winning touchdown.’ ”

Jaray's three touchdowns that day, as John tells it, bonded him with a stranger in the stands, a man he said is a family member of Eli Ricks.

“We were sitting down together and it was my first time ever talking to him, and he said, ‘John, your baby gonna score,’ and I said, ‘I believe you,’ ” John said.

The first score was a 28-yard grab up the middle on a go route. The second resulted from a 5-yard out after the Tigers’ second interception. The stranger called every single one, saying Jaray would tie Tyrion Davis-Price in touchdowns. By the third one, the two jumped and chest-bumped, as if they’d known each other for 20 years.

John never doubted his son, but the season had been frustrating for Jaray. He started the first game, but hadn’t started since, not catching passes against McNeese or Central Michigan, and grabbing two against Mississippi State and Auburn. Before the Florida game, Jaray had only two touchdown receptions as an LSU wide receiver, both from last year.

But this isn’t the first time Jaray’s patience has been tested, and there’s one thing that keeps him motivated through it all: honoring his mother.

Getting to LSU

Jaray’s mother, Dee Dee Hunter, would have preferred if Jaray stuck with baseball. She didn’t want her little boy getting hurt.

But when he chose football, it wasn’t a surprise. Jaray had outrun kids all over Jena through youth football. That was fine with Hunter, as long as he didn’t quit.

“She said, ‘That’s the only thing I’m gonna hate is that I didn’t get to see you play college ball,’ ” John said. “She told him, ‘Whatever you do, do not quit.’ ”

If anyone knew what it was like to not quit, it was Hunter, a woman who battled breast cancer for seven years. She was alive for Jaray’s freshman year of college, and while he didn’t play, just standing on the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta after No. 1 LSU had defeated No. 4 Georgia in the SEC championship game is his favorite memory with her.

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“Being on the field with my mother at the time was something I would never forget,” Jaray said.

The moment encapsulates his dream being realized. It's the piece of it she saw, and now, the future she’ll never be there for after she died later in 2019.

Just making it to LSU didn't come easy.

In the first game of Jaray’s senior season at Jena High School, he collided with a wide receiver while in coverage who fell on him, breaking his leg. When the doctor delivered the news that night, Jaray cried. It was his first game of the season, and now he’d miss his entire senior year.

“The rest of that time, he was still there for practices, still there for games, he did everything he could to be a leader,” Jena coach Jay Roark said. “We’re glad he’s doing well down there. He’s been very patient and kept his nose to the grindstone, and it’s paying off for him.”

Jaray had received an offer from LSU months before his injury. He was sitting at a baseball game when coach Ed Orgeron called to extend the offer. Giddy like a little kid, he called his mom and Roark with the news before committing.

That offer remained after he broke his leg.

Exercise in patience

Every week, LSU players field questions about motivation from reporters in the midst of LSU’s tumultuous 4-4 season. With a coach on the way out, training rooms full of injured players and a challenging schedule ahead, it’s hard to find a path for LSU to make a bowl game two years removed from its national championship season.

But the players are having fun seeing Jaray have his moments. Even against Ole Miss, he was the Tigers’ top receiving target with four receptions for 52 yards.

“I think he's kind of come alive,” Johnson said.

Jaray isn’t playing for just himself or even his mom; he’s playing for the town of Jena, where locals claim the wide receiver as their own. For them, it used to be just the LSU Tigers; now it’s Jena’s Tiger, Jaray. If he doesn’t play, John gets questions. If he scores three touchdowns, John thinks his phone might combust from all the text messages.

“I love the game,” Jaray said. “No matter if I'm starting or if I'm not starting, I'm always going to do something.”

His dad knew it when Jaray started against Florida two weeks ago. Jaray may have been a momma’s boy, but his dad is still here to keep him in check.

He thinks back to the time Jaray asked him for a pair of football gloves in junior high. Jaray didn’t catch a pass during his first game with them, and John threatened to take them back if he didn’t.

Then he said, “Dad, I’m ready now.”

And he was.

Email Leah Vann at LVann@TheAdvocate.com or follow her on Twitter, @LVann_sports.