Rashad Jennings surprises Heart of a Giant winner

Posted Feb 6, 2016


Thirteen hours after the Giants’ 31-24 Week 14 road win over the Dolphins, Rashad Jennings was in the car on his way to Roosevelt High School on Long Island.

Jennings’ surprise visit that morning came with a purpose. He was there to present Chukwuma Ukwu with the USA Football Heart of a Giant Award presented by Hospital for Special Surgery and the New York Giants. The program recognizes and rewards Tri-State area high school football players who demonstrate unparalleled work ethic and passion for the game.

In the auditorium that morning, you couldn’t miss the shock on Chukwuma’s face as Jennings called his name to present him with the award.

“I just thought it would be some sort of virtual announcement like a video,” Chukwuma said. “When I walked into the auditorium and he walked onto the stage, my mouth dropped. It was really an amazing feeling and one that I’ll always remember.”

Chukwuma, a senior and four-year starter for the Roosevelt football program, won three division championships with the Roughriders as a guard and fullback. He was selected to the Nassau County All-Star game this past season.

However, Chukwuma’s efforts in the Roosevelt community are what truly set him apart, and make him well-deserving of the Heart of a Giant award.

Chukwuma is the President and Founder of the Future Rough Riders of America (FRRA), a student group that aims to help graduating seniors become leaders. Launched in September of 2014, the program hosts established Roosevelt alumni as part of a series of monthly lectures. The FRRA also provides a mentoring program to middle school students as they transition to high school.

“FRRA was born by bringing back alumni and positive members of the community,” Chukwuma said. “I wanted to give them a platform to speak about their careers and how they became who they were after leaving Roosevelt.”

"It was an honor to help present Chukwuma Ukwu with the Heart of a Giant Award this year," added Dr. Samuel Taylor, Sports Medicine Surgeon at Hospital for Special Surgery. "His passion to help others, tireless work ethic, and unrelenting dedication to his community are only matched by his humility."

Chukwuma’s leadership role in the community started well before he launched the FRRA program. In the fifth grade, he helped raise $5,000 for a school in Africa. He organizes toy drives, donates to food banks, volunteers at his church and helps feed the less fortunate.

The Nassau County All-Star game he was selected to this past season fell on Thanksgiving. Chukwuma skipped the game, having already committed to serving meals.

“Roosevelt is me, and I am Roosevelt,” Chukwuma exclaimed.

“This is a role model,” Jennings added. “He is a standout kid who truly exemplifies what it means to have the Heart of a Giant.”

The award hits home for the Giants running back, who never shies away from sharing his own struggles as a high school student in rural Virginia. Jennings was a sixth-string running back who battled asthma and a 0.6 GPA during three seasons at Jefferson Forest High School.

“This type of program [FRRA] would have done a lot for me,” said Jennings, who transferred to Lynchburg Christian Academy for his senior year. “As athletes, we have an awesome responsibility to give back to our communities and an awesome responsibility to make a difference in our communities.”

Jennings was joined on stage at the ceremony by Joe Vito, who has been the Roughriders head coach for the last 22 seasons. It was Vito who nominated Chukwuma for the award.

“I’ve known him since he was in seventh grade,” Vito recalled. “We brought him up on the varsity in eighth grade at the end of the season just so he could be a part of the program. He’s been a leader of his peers since.”

Nominations for the Heart of a Giant award began back in September. Every week for the first six weeks of the Giants regular season, USA Football selected ten deserving nominees. From there, the field of 60 was winnowed down to six finalists. All six athletes were required to submit an original video, showcasing why they have the Heart of a Giant. Voting was open to teammates, classmates, family and friends.

“What stood out most about Chukwuma was his selflessness,” said Dan Gant, manager of sponsorship at USA Football. “His teammates respect him, his coaches respect him and he’s a big time leader in his community. That’s what stood out to us most, his commitment and love of serving others.”

“I thought it was a no-brainer,” Vito added. “Because we are a small school, I wasn’t sure he would get the votes to become a finalist. From there, is he deserving? Yes.”

In addition to the award, Chukwuma received a $5,000 equipment grant from USA Football and Hospital for Special Surgery for his school. The other five finalists received $1,500.

Chukwuma’s heart on the football field shouldn’t be overshadowed by all he does off it. In the second game of his senior season, he badly injured his right knee. He sat out a few plays before returning to the field on both offense and defense as part of a 34-7 Roosevelt win.

“The next day, I went to a physical therapist and I was heartbroken,” recalled Chukwuma, who discovered that he tore his meniscus. “I was told I most likely wouldn’t be able to play the remainder of the season. That wasn’t something I was willing to take.”

Six days later, Chukwuma played in Week 3, and every Roosevelt game after that.

The high school senior has two younger brothers and two older sisters. He lists his favorite subject as United States history and hopes to pursue a business degree at a New York Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) university.

Until then, and with his playing career now behind him, Chukwuma’s sole focus will remain as it always has – making a difference.

“I’m so grateful to everyone that’s been involved in this entire process,” Chukwuma said. “It means more to me than anyone will know. Roosevelt is a town that’s looked at so negatively, and to say that the Heart of a Giant lives within this one square mile community is really an honor.”

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