(Reuters) - Overweight, burdened with asthma and marooned on the bench as a fifth-string running back, Rashad Jennings of the New York Giants chuckles as he recalls his routine during his high school football games in rural Forest, Virginia.
“Drinking Sprite and eating M&M’s on the sideline,” Jennings said. “Why not? Didn’t matter. I wasn’t going to get into the game.”
All of that impish indifference changed for the future NFL standout during one game when every player ahead of him on the Jefferson Forest High School team’s depth chart got injured.
“The coach yells, ‘Rashad Jennings, get in the game!’ and I can’t even find my helmet,” Jennings said. “I had to pick up some random helmet. I didn’t use their mouthpiece though. That would have been nasty.”
Jennings immediately scored on a 40-yard run. “I figured I wasn’t going to play anymore so I went back to the sidelines with my buddy to eat my M&M’s,” Jennings said.
But Jennings got back in the game and scored three more touchdowns, two of them on defense, which he had been forced to play because of other injuries to teammates. In 14 total plays, he had four scores.
A University of Tennessee scout there to see another running back was awestruck by Jennings. That changed when the scout asked Jennings about his grades in school.
“That’s when I had to tell him the truth,” Jennings said. “I had a .6 GPA (a barely passing D-minus grade point average) at the time. He said, ‘Son, you have potential.’ But that changed me. That was the first time, outside of people who are supposed to support me, anyone saw that I had potential.”
Jennings, who never had a mentor, found inspiration. He said that is why he has created The Locker Room Project, a charity dedicated to preparing the next generation of athletes for success on the field and off.
Jennings said he hopes to recruit at least 50 current and former professional athletes and coaches representing each of the NFL’s 32 teams to teach life skills for the program, to be unveiled on Monday.
His older brother Butch, who played for the Giants a decade ago, recalled the impact that the Tennessee scout had on Rashad.
“I lived about 16 miles (26 km) away and he shows up drenched in sweat,” he said. “My wife thought he’d been crying. He walked and ran the whole way. He looked at me and said, ‘I’m ready to do whatever it takes.’ That was the day it all changed.”
Jennings buckled down in the classroom, began losing weight from his 270-pound frame, and transferred to a private school where Butch and another brother, Bryan, worked as coaches. The older brothers gave up their salaries so Rashad could afford to attend the school.
Jennings started at the University of Pittsburgh as a freshman before transferring to Liberty University near his home and becoming a seventh-round draft pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2009. He played four years with the Jaguars, one with the Oakland Raiders and is in his second season with the Giants.
“He likes to lead by example,” fellow Giants running back Andre Williams said. “Getting it done for him is not what you say, it’s what you do.”
Jennings remembers a conversation he had with his father after being hospitalized as a youth for his asthma. He said he pleaded with his father to quit drinking and smoking. He said his father asked him what he wanted to do with his life.
“He had a beer in his hand,” Jennings said. “I was chubby. I looked at him with my little glasses on, and said, ‘I want to play in the NFL.’ He said, ‘Do you think you can make it to the NFL without drinking or smoking yourself?’”
“Just to prove him wrong, I’ve never done it a day in my life, drinking or smoking.’ That’s the funny thing. I inspired him to quit because he watched his kid prove him wrong.”
Jennings, 30, said he believes he can provide children with a path to success, whether or not it is on the football field.
“You can’t do it by yourself. My .6 wasn’t about my ability, it was my attitude. I thought I was smarter than school. I want to help people like me. I want to have ‘little Rashad’s’ back,” Jennings said.
“There’s nothing special about me. I’m just in a special position. If I’m just known as Rashad Jennings, the running back, then I’ve failed.”
Reporting by Steve Ginsburg; Editing by Will Dunham