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Rashad Jennings' incredible journey to the NFL

The Rashad Jennings

How many asthmatic, 270-pound teenagers become productive NFL running backs?

How often does a student who once carried a point-six grade point average become obsessed with learning?

How does a football player make it to the NFL by moving from a big-time program at the University of Pittsburgh to small-school Liberty?

"I did a 180 in my life – an overweight, chubby kid with glasses and asthma, I had to figure something out," Jennings said. "I was 270 in high school riding the bench saying, 'I want to play in the NFL.' I had to make a commitment in my life to change that around and it's unique, because I get to sit back and look and where I'm at today because of some small decisions and it's humbling."

Those decisions are just all part of Jennings' unconventional background. But Jennings, a six-year NFL veteran who joined the Giants this year as a free agent, isn't living in the past. His present deserves notice, because in his short time with the team he has been revealed as a man of high character and a player with impressive skills.

That was all on display in the Giants' first two home games. On Sept. 14, the Giants trailed the Arizona Cardinals, 22-14, and were driving for a potential tying score when Jennings caught a short pass from Eli Manning at the 15-yard line and turned upfield. But without being hit, Jennings slipped and fumbled, losing the ball in the process. With that turnover went the Giants' last best chance to pull out the victory and they lost by 11 points.

After the game and the following day, Jennings didn't hide. Instead he twice stood at his locker and answered numerous questions from the media. He said the fumble was "uncharacteristic of me.

"That is nothing that my history shows and it's nothing that my future is going to be. It's tough, you swallow it, you become more conscious of it and you go on to the next play and the next game, but in that critical situation that is where it is hard to swallow. … It's a game next week and that is what we are preparing for now."

That game belonged to the Giants, and Jennings was a big reason they defeated the Houston Texans, 30-17. He led the team's new-look offense by rushing for 176 yards and a touchdown on 34 carries. It was the heaviest workload for a Giants running back since Joe Montgomery had 38 rushing attempts on Dec. 5, 1999 against the Jets and the team's highest yardage total since Ahmad Bradshaw ran for 200 yards on Oct. 7, 2012 vs. Cleveland.

"He's a pro," head coach Tom Coughlin said. "He didn't get down on himself. He was disappointed, a lot of his feelings he kept to himself with regard to that. I'm sure it wasn't something that he was very happy with, but he turned right around."

"A lot of good backs get what is blocked for them," offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo said. "The special backs, they get the yards after contact and that is what you saw (from Jennings against Houston). He had faith in his footwork, he had faith in his course, he set blocks well, and when you do that, you have a chance to run through arm tackles. He broke a lot of arm tackles and had a lot of yards after contact. Carried the ball 34 times, he had a full day's work."

That's exactly what the Giants expected Jennings to give them when they signed him on March 12. He had played for the Oakland Raiders in 2013 after spending his first four NFL seasons in Jacksonville.

"Looking at Rashad Jennings, evaluating him as a free agent, we knew he was a high character guy," McAdoo said. "He has a lot of versatility, but you appreciate his toughness. You appreciate a back who gets stronger as the game goes on and it's certainly a testament to his toughness and the way he takes care of himself and the way he prepares each and every day showed up (vs. the Texans)."

As impressive as he was on the field, Jennings might have done his best work that afternoon after the game. At a postgame news conference, he noted several times how well the offensive line had played, and he spoke movingly of is relationship with his teammates and the inspiration he derives from his father, Albert.

"Speaking to my teammates, we pray before every game," Jennings said. "In leading the prayer today, I reminded the guys before we walked out on the field – whatever reason you play this game, play like that. Whether it's a child with cancer that you want to motivate, play that way. (If it's) to prove somebody wrong, play that way. If it's to play for this team, play that way. If it's because your grandma's watching, play that way.

"Today I was reminded, my father has diabetes and he ended up getting both of his legs amputated. He doesn't have legs, so I remembered that I do have them, so I played that way. You've got to find a different motivation outside this game to push you. Simply playing football, playing to my best ability is how I say, 'Thank you,' to God for giving me this talent."

Jennings is thoughtful, analytical, curious, introspective…and spiritual.

"My relationship with Christ is the reason why I work so hard," Jennings said, "where any ounce of humility or anything that's good comes from is because of my attempt to be like him."

Jennings grew up in the central Virginia town of Forest. "Most people consider me a country kid," he said.

Jennings has two (much) older brothers, Bryan and Butch, both of whom played in the NFL.

Check out photos of RB Rashad Jennings from the 2014 season

"They're 10 and 13 years older than me so I was the, 'Whoops, here we go again,' baby," Jennings said. "I was almost like an only kid. They gave me crap, but it helped me because you played with your brothers and they never took it easy on me and beat me pretty good. Whenever I played with them and then went to play with my age group I got a chance to dominate. They were always hard on me. Hard love, good lessons, good teachers, mentors in my life. Two people I looked up to that happened to be my brothers."

Albert also played football, so well, in fact, that he received a scholarship offer to the University of Nebraska. He turned it down because he wanted to help provide for his family and instead enlisted in the U.S. Air Force.

And we can't forget mom.

"My mother is the best mom in the world - hard worker, always had a smile on her face, optimistic, God-fearing," Jennings said. "We have a big family, I'm an uncle nine times, I have six uncles, four aunts. We've got a big, big family."

Sports were popular in the family. Jennings' favorites were basketball and football. "I tried baseball and was really bad," he said.

Jennings began his high school career at Jefferson Forest High School, where he got his big break, and finished it at Lynchburg Christian Academy, where he became a star.

"There was a scout from the Tennessee Volunteers who came through to watch our starting running back," Jennings said. "I was like fifth string. I literally did not play. My buddy and I used to be on the sideline and Dr. Pepper and bring our own drinks, because we knew we were never going to play. The starting running back ended up getting hurt. Then the second string running back gets hurt, the third string running back gets hurt, they put in a wide receiver, he got hurt, the first string came back for a little bit, he got hurt again. Eventually they said, 'Rashad, get in.' The first play was a 30-yard touchdown. I came back to the sideline and our second string got a little healthy, so they let him play. He ended up getting hurt again, and put me back in. Three plays later, 40-yard touchdown. Then on defense, a similar situation, two guys got hurt, first play sack, fumble, scoop and score. I ended up scoring again on defense so out of 14 total plays I scored four touchdowns, two on offense and two on defense.

"That scout came to me right after that game and said, 'I came to see the starting running back, but I couldn't help but to notice you.' And he asked me, 'How are you grades?' I said. 'I've got a point-six.' He looked at me and grabbed me on my shoulder and said, 'Son, you've got potential. Get your grades right.' That was really the first time outside of family and people that are supposed to support me really encouraged me and saw something in me. My brothers and me, we all decided it would be best for me to transfer and get another opportunity going to a private school. I ended up repeating my junior year. We didn't have money at the time for it, so both of my brothers made an investment in me and they coached at the Lynchburg Christian Academy for free to pay for my tuition to be at that high school. The rest is kind of history."

As his weight dropped and his grade point average rose, Jennings became a star. In two years at LCA, he was a two-time All-Virginia Division II selection while totaling 3,287 yards and 56 touchdowns, including 1,978 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns as a senior. He also lettered twice in basketball.

"I set a couple school records for shooting threes," he said. "I used to shoot the ball at half court, I didn't care. We weren't good so coach said, 'Rashad, just shoot the ball whenever.'"

His high school coach had ties to Pittsburgh, so Jennings attended camps and eventually the "country kid" enrolled there. In 2005, he became only the fourth true freshman running back to ever to start a game at Pitt, joining Tony Dorsett (1973), Brandon Williams (1998) and Raymond Kirkley (2001)

"I loved the area, loved the experience, people, learning from the offensive coordinator, Matt Cavanaugh," Jennings said. "I had a good time there."

But while he was away, his dad's diabetes progressively worsened. Jennings decided to leave Pittsburgh and play at Liberty University, a Christian school located 10 minutes from his family's home.

"He had to get his leg amputated," Jennings said. "I felt that my parents had taken care of me for 19 years of my life. I said to myself, 'What's three of mine to be there for them and still have an opportunity to get the majors I wanted and also an opportunity to play in the NFL?' I transferred for family reasons."

The decision was good for both personal and athletic reasons. At Liberty, Jennings established the Big South's career rushing record with 3,633 yards and averaged 5.7 yards on 633 carries, with 42 touchdowns. He earned consecutive Big South Offensive Player of the Year honors.

Jacksonville selected him in the seventh round of the 2009 NFL Draft, 250th overall. Jennings was a backup for most of his four years with the Jaguars (including the 2011 season, which he spent on injured reserve).

In 2013, he joined the Raiders, for whom he played 15 games with eight starts. Jennings led Oakland with career-high totals in rushing attempts (163), yards (733) and touchdowns (six). He also had a career-best 36 receptions for 292 yards. It seemed he would be a Raiders fixture for the foreseeable future. So what led him to the Giants?

"Free agency," he said. "In Oakland the owner, the GM, the head coach, everybody said, 'You're not going anywhere, we want you here, you're a Raider. Even if anybody decided to offer you we'll match it. You're here.' So I just went to train and left it alone. Push came to shove, I don't think Oakland let me go. God just wanted me here for whatever reason. And so I'm thrilled."

So are the Giants. Jennings developed a rapport with his new teammates during offseason workouts. He opened eyes with a 73-yard touchdown run vs. Pittsburgh in the team's second preseason game. And he gained more respect with his post-fumble demeanor and workhorse contribution in the big game in the victory over Houston.

"He's just tough, man, he's sheer toughness," wide receiver Victor Cruz said. "You can see it in the way he runs. Very smart runner, knows how to pick his holes, knows when to explode through the holes. It's just fun to see him run, it's fun to block for him, and it's fun to see him with the ball in his hands."

He's also fun to talk to when he's out of uniform, because Jennings is just … interesting.

Naturally right-handed, he taught himself to write with his left hand.

"In college, I was trying to do things to keep myself entertained during down time," Jennings said. "You get tired looking at Facebook so much. You get tired of talking to the same people, the same conversations and text messages. I was like, 'I want more of life. I want to learn.' So I started writing with my left hand, doing card tricks, playing the guitar, odd stuff, random facts. It was just fun to me. I'm terrible at it now but it was just something to learn."

If you find it unusual that the man who once had a barely-measurable GPA is now all about learning, you're not alone.

"I'm telling you, everybody says that," Jennings said. "The school system's just you off memorization. That's not learning. Because you remember something doesn't mean you learn it. People say, 'Knowledge is power.' It's irrelevant if you can't apply it. My approach on it is different. I love learning. I don't like being confined on how I'm judged."

The 270-pound Jennings is now a distant memory. His diet is gluten- and casein-free. Jennings' standard breakfast is a shake with ingredients including Vega protein, Hemp and chia seeds, oatmeal and peanut butter.

"Of the 365 days in a year I have it 330," said Jennings, who has a nutritionist that prepares organic and holistic meals for him each week.

As a rookie in Jacksonville, he purchased a hyperbaric chamber for $19,000. Jennings takes a nap in it every day and sleeps in it after games.

"I bought it instead of buying a car," Jennings said. "I didn't how the stock market worked, but I could control how hard I worked so I made an investment in myself instead of buying a car."

A man with broad interests, Jennings is immersed in a variety of charitable causes and community endeavors.

"Every time I go in the community, every time I dedicate time in my life influencing, giving testimony, supporting, giving up myself I become a better football player, because football makes sense," he said. "It's simply because of loved ones who prayed for me, family who dedicated time, invested money, believed in me before I ever believed in myself that I'm here. There are only 1,600 people who can do that. As a starting running back in the NFL, there are only 31 other people in the world that are doing what I'm currently doing. It gives you a voice, regardless if you want it or not. People look up to you, regardless if you want them to or not. So if I could give a kid hope, encouragement from my stories that are authentic and real and true and where I come from then that's exactly what I'm going to do."

Jennings' generosity extends to his fellow running backs, whose intellectual horizons he is trying to expand. Before they begin the football portion of the day, Jennings offers a proverb, a philosophical thought or moral conundrum for the group to discuss. That is not a standard activity in NFL locker rooms.

"We'll bring up a word of the day or an analogy or a hypothetical question," Jennings said. "It's never in the way of the meetings, because it's before the meetings start. We'll get a five-minute break, so we'll take a one-minute break and get in there and take four minutes and just kind of talk about life for a little bit - because it helps. Football makes sense when you have things moving in your life."

No one understands that better than Rashad Jennings, who is moving forward on and off the field.

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