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Liberty Journal

'Renaissance man': Alumnus Rashad Jennings takes a stand on and off the field

Fall 2013 : By Drew Menard

There is more to NFL running back and Liberty University alumnus Rashad Jennings (’09) than just football. Much more. Though he almost literally eats, sleeps, and breathes football year-round, Jennings doesn’t let that keep him from enjoying all that life has to offer. His success on the field has taken him to the pinnacle of American sports (at least as far as football is concerned) — the National Football League — where he played four years with the Jacksonville Jaguars and is now in his first season with the Oakland Raiders.

But his success off the field is truly what makes Jennings unique.

Foremost, he makes it unashamedly clear that God comes first.

“I am truly humbled to be in the position I am. There is nothing special about me; I am just in a special position, and it is my job to utilize it to advance the kingdom,” Jennings said. “My faith is what got me here. My faith is going to keep me here. A part of playing in this game is to make sure that I witness to as many guys as I can; that truth (the Gospel) is going to last longer than the NFL.”

When asked to describe her son, Jennings’ mother often uses the term “renaissance man,” because of his many abilities and interests, to which he is constantly adding. Though a good description, even that title does not do justice to all that Jennings strives to be.

“I love learning … I learn something new every day. I am always reading,” he said.

During his time at Liberty, Jennings challenged himself to master a new craft each semester. He taught himself to write with his left hand, play the guitar, and learn “every card trick and household magic trick known to mankind.”

A native of Forest, Va., (he grew up a few miles from Liberty’s campus), Jennings is proud of his hometown and strives to stay connected. During the football season he writes a weekly column for the Lynchburg News & Advance. He is also writing a book on what qualities lead to success in and after the NFL.

Jennings makes it a priority to give back throughout the year. During the NFL season he devotes one to two hours every Tuesday (his day off) to the community. He regularly visits schools to talk about topics such as fitness and bullying, and shares his story to encourage and motivate students and faculty.

These school visits prompted him to start a nonprofit, the Rashad Jennings Foundation.

“I felt like I was doing a disservice to people because there never was a follow-up,” Jennings said, explaining that he wanted to do something more than just a one-time visit. “(The visits are) great, but that is not what I am called to do. I am called to impact lives.”

Through his foundation, headquartered in Lynchburg, Jennings hopes to provide high school students with accountability and encouragement to pursue a college degree. One of the foundation’s goals is to have professionals (sports figures, celebrities, physicians, etc.) “adopt” a school and once a week conduct a live feed with a brief personal message.

Jennings also wants to give back to his alma mater. He plans to provide internships through the foundation for Liberty students who want to work with professional sports.

As Jennings continues to build great things in his spare time, his NFL career remains his main focus.

“I train year-round; I stay in shape like a boxer,” he said.

This determination continues to earn him playing time on the field.

At Jacksonville, Jennings averaged 4.2 yards per carry, netting 944 yards in three seasons, and scoring seven touchdowns. His best season with the Jaguars (2010), he rushed for 459 yards on 84 attempts, 5.5 yards per carry, including a career-long 74-yard run.

He also has tallied 454 receiving yards in his career.

Jennings’ path to the NFL was blazed by hard work and paved with sweat.

“I have never been the guy that could just roll out of bed and just be the best. Ever since I was a little kid I had to work extremely hard,” Jennings said. “God gave me enough talent to be able to work hard and chase it. I’ve learned a lot about work ethics, ways to stay healthy, and ways to stay mentally sharp.”

This ethic has helped him become a pioneer for several programs. In high school Jennings played for Liberty Christian Academy. Before he arrived, the school posted a 0-11 season. LCA went 8-3 in Jennings’ first year with the team, then 10-1 the next. Since then, the program has continued to improve.

Despite being told by a college coach that he would never make it as a running back, Jennings went on to the University of Pittsburgh where he started as a true freshman.

A year later, in 2006, Jennings decided to transfer to a college closer to home so he could help take care of his ailing father.

Liberty’s founder, Dr. Jerry Falwell, Sr., had enthusiastically watched Jennings play at LCA and personally invited him to play for the Flames.

“He said, ‘Rashad, I would love for you to come here, I have had dreams about you being here, and I think you will be the guy to help get this program headed in the right direction, so we eventually become a DI single A school to beat Notre Dame,’” Jennings said.

Liberty was 1-10 the season before Jennings joined the team. He became a key factor in the turnaround of Liberty Football, which went 6-5 his first season, followed by an 8-3 mark his second year, and 10-2 his senior season. In his three years, the Flames had a combined Big South Conference record of 11-2, including Liberty’s first two BSC Football Championships (’07 and ’08). The Flames have now won five Big South Conference titles in football, including four straight from 2007-10.

Jennings practices during Oakland Raiders training camp in Napa, Calif. (Photo by Tony Gonzales/Oakland Raiders)

Jennings rushed for 1,000-plus yards each of his three seasons at Liberty, finishing with 3,633 yards, 42 touchdowns, and averaging 5.7 yards per carry. He set a number of conference records in his day (some have since been surpassed) including most rushing yards in a season (1,500 in 2008), most rushing touchdowns in a season (17 in 2008), most 100-yard games in a season (10 in 2008) and career (22), and most career rushing yards (3,633).

At Liberty, Jennings holds numerous rushing records including most rushing yards and touchdowns in a single season and most 100-yard games (consecutive, single-season, and career).

After battling injuries during his past two seasons with the Jaguars, Jennings’ discipline and hard work brought him back to full health and caught the attention of the Oakland Raiders.

A day before heading to Raiders training camp in Napa, Calif., Jennings talked life, faith, and football in an interview with the Liberty Journal.

What did you learn during your time at Liberty?

I wish it was a little bit longer, I wish I had four years there.

What my time at Liberty showed me and meant to me was really a testament that if you do things the right way, if you put God first and give him honor in your life, He will take care of everything else.

Before you came to Liberty, the football team was 1-10. What does it mean to you to see the program where it is today?

Being a part of that transition, (then) looking back, it’s like, ‘Wow.’

When I first got there I wanted to earn the respect of all my teammates and peers, coming from a bigger school. I didn’t want to seem like a big shot. I wanted to win and turn the program around. Bit by bit, the team started to realize what we were trying to accomplish. We really watched a whole program change. And it was because of the players and the coaches.

Watching the team (now) constantly win and constantly grow with the character and the hard work and the dedication that the guys put in — it is a true testament to what God can do through those who just believe in Him.

It is humbling and it taught me how to leave a legacy behind and give others something to strive for.

What is it like to be a Christian in the NFL?

For me personally, it is easier to carry the torch outside of Liberty. At Liberty, everybody is a believer for the most part. When you hit the real world, you realize how blessed you truly are, you see how many lost souls there truly are. So therefore, you see many more distractions than you are used to. I always tell people, distractions to me are a good thing. Distractions always remind me that I am on the right track. Quite frankly, if I don’t see any distractions I get nervous because I am probably being a distraction to somebody else.

Do you network with other believers in the league?

Every Wednesday I hold a Bible study — I did it in Jacksonville and now with the Raiders. We get a chance to just open up, open mic (style), and talk about where we came from, our journey, our struggles, our pride issues. We are very candid.

On the team, I am the guy people call at 1 in the morning: ‘Hey Rashad, I am really going through some things, I need somebody to hear me out, I need some advice.’

I also have a big group of guys across the league who are true believers. We keep in contact with each other constantly; just shoot a simple text — we’re always talking trash, we still play football — a simple text to make sure everybody’s got their head on straight so we can knock it off when we see each other.

What are your keys to success in the NFL?

There is always somebody trying to take your job, so if you don’t take it seriously, it is just a matter of time. There are only about 1,600 people a year who can do this professionally. In Jacksonville for four years I saw 210 different faces come in and out of one locker room. People can’t just come in off the street, the best players in college get cut. There is no way around the preparation.

Consistency has led to success and understanding how to take care of my body. How I train is this: I lift with the strongest offensive linemen, I run with the fastest wide receiver, I study with the smartest quarterbacks, and I train with some of the greatest running backs in the league.

I also study the playbook, so much that I am teaching the playbook to other guys on the team.

What do you bring to your team?

I bring consistency. I am a complete running back. I bring spark value. I’m a fun guy in the locker room. I am the guy everybody makes fun of … I’m a little dorky.

What has it been like for you in Oakland?

Since I’ve been over here I’ve been busting my tail in the weight room, in the classroom, and in the community.

After my fourth year in Jacksonville and suffering the injury, I knew I was going to have to bust my tail to get back in shape. I knew I was going to get a call from a team eventually. And Oakland called me. I traveled out there for a tryout and they loved me. They wouldn’t let me go home without signing a contract.

What is something people may not know about Rashad Jennings?

I am your average dork by far.

I love chick flicks, I see a love story in just about every movie. I cry in every movie I see … it annoys me, I wish I didn’t, I don’t enjoy it, but I do. Some people may say I’m sensitive, but you are not going to hurt my feelings, I just have a big heart because I feel where people come from.

What do you think you will do after football?

I have no idea. I would like to travel the world as a motivational speaker. I will be working heavily in my foundation. I have been to all these places and networked with managers and CEOs. (Note: These include Facebook, Google, Pixar, Apple, Twitter, Pandora, WellnessFX, and more.)

I think the same attitude that I’ve adopted, the same work ethic … you can take that and put it toward any profession you want to, any relationship, whatever you want to do. I think there is success in adopting this attitude that I’ve had. When I am done playing football the same ambition that I have had 24/7 to reach this plateau is the same approach I am going to take in my future endeavors.

In some way, shape, or form, I will always continue to advance the kingdom.