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Selfless Leader Aspires for More

October 30, 2008  Lynchburg, Va.  RSS
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Rashad Jennings currently stands at 1,000 rushing yards on the season, making him the first running back in program and Big South history to post three-consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.

Rashad Jennings currently stands at 1,000 rushing yards on the season, making him the first running back in program and Big South history to post three-consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.

Editorial Note: This article ran in the Flames Illustrated football game day program on Oct. 25 (Charleston Southern game). During the contest, Rashad Jennings led the Flames by rushing for 127 yards and two touchdowns. The performance gave the senior his 19th career 100-yard game, which stands one away from the program's all-time record.

The biblical account of David tells the story of a young man who constantly sought after God's heart. Overlooked as boy, he put his trust in the Lord. His relentless faith empowered him with the courage to slay a powerful giant and inevitably become king.

Like David, running back Rashad Jennings knows how it feels to be underestimated. Told by his high school coaches he was not good enough to play football, the Bedford, Va., native transferred to Liberty Christian Academy. A two-year starter for the Bulldogs, Jennings led LCA to a 10-1-1 record in 2003, earning the moniker of team MVP.

Jennings and his teammates travelled to Pittsburgh for a senior camp that year. While playing a friendly game of pigskin with his friends, scouts from the University of Pittsburgh noticed Jennings and, shortly thereafter, the university offered him a full scholarship.

"I didn't take it then, but that played in my head that they liked me as an athlete," Jennings said.
Following considerable prayer and research, Jennings officially committed himself to the Panthers. News spread of his decision, leading up to a highly anticipated match-up between LCA and St. Anne's-Belfield School (STAB) in the Virginia Division II state championship.

During the contest, fans anticipated the clash between the Pittsburgh bound running back and STAB defensive end Chris Long, who was headed to Virginia. The crowd awed as the two star prospects collided in the game's early moments.

Later on, Jennings switched over to the defensive side of the ball, while his counterpart moved to the offensive line. As Long went for a block, Jennings saw an opening and knocked the lineman to the ground. STAB went on to capture the state title, but after the game, Long approached Jennings in response to the hard thump.

"(Long) shook my hand and said, ‘That's the hardest I've ever been hit'," Jennings recalled. "It's funny. He sent me a little message on Facebook recently. He said, ‘Still to this day, that's the hardest I've ever been hit.'"

Following high school, Jennings travelled north to Pittsburgh where he garnered 411 yards his freshman year. In his lone season as a Panther, he started in the team's season-opener, joining Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett on a short list of true freshman to start an opening contest at Pittsburgh.

Enjoying life in Pittsburgh, circumstances back home prompted the running back to return to his roots. Jenning's father, who suffers from diabetes, underwent a leg amputation, making it difficult for him to travel. Understanding the importance of family, Jennings transferred to Liberty, allowing him to be closer to home.

"I felt that was the right decision," Jennings said. "I want to use football as a ministry and Liberty is great platform for that. I still can accomplish everything I've wanted to do in life by being here."

In his first season as a Flame, Jennings rushed for 1,020 yards, helping Liberty achieve the best season turnaround in the nation. Much like the team's 2007 theme, Jennings went from "Good2Great" his junior year, picking up 15 rushing touchdowns and earning the Big South Offensive Player of the Year Award.

Despite becoming a household name among those in the Big South, Jennings is constantly looking for ways to improve on the gridiron. This past spring, the senior worked hard to enhance his blocking skills. Heeding the words of coaches and his elder brother, Butch, who also donned the Flames jersey, Jennings stays steadfast in bettering himself from week to week.

"He's improving because he remains hungry," assistant coach Frank Hickson said. "Rashad continues to find something in his game that he can improve on and I think that's what makes him such a great player."

After completing the first seven games of his final collegiate season, Jennings marches forth as a candidate for the 2008 Walter Payton Award, an honor given to the most outstanding offensive player in the Football Championship Subdivision football. Although the award notes a player's individual accomplishments, Jennings credits his candidacy to his teammates.

"If I win it, the award is going to stay in this locker room," Jennings stated. "It's a team effort. It's not anything specific that I'm doing. You can put somebody else on our team in that position and I think they can accomplish the same things."

Jennings displayed his recognition of team over self in this season's 43-38 road victory over Coastal Carolina. With 1:46 remaining in the fourth quarter, the rusher broke loose for 32 yards on a third and two, easily picking up the first down. Having previously accumulated three touchdowns on the day, Jennings had a chance to achieve four touchdowns in one game for the first time in his collegiate career.

Rather than add this unprecedented stat to his playing resume, the senior captain did what seemed more natural to him – he slid at the one yard line. The play sealed the victory for the Flames, giving them a win over their conference rival for the second-straight year.

"You talk about memorable moments, that one right there is a classic moment I will never forget as a coach," Hickson said.

"To me it was a no brainer," Jennings added. "When you've got an opportunity to end the game, you end the game."

After suffering a broken pinkie finger in this year's season-opener, Jennings underwent surgery to repair the damage, forcing him to watch from the sidelines during Liberty's contest against Glenville State. The next week, Jennings responded by posting 116 rushing yards in the Flames' 19-16 win at Western Carolina.

Following a bye week, he nearly eclipsed his previous performance, running for 220 yards at Youngstown State, helping him earn national Player of the Week accolades. Although his finger is still healing, Jennings says the appendage is a nonfactor.

"It's almost back to normal," he noted, revealing the small scar on his pinkie. "I've been playing through some pain, but I'm okay."

When he is not squeezing through gaps and breaking tackles, Jennings relaxes by playing the guitar, reading a good book or conversing in a friendly debate. Regarded as a prankster, the senior enjoys playing a practical joke or two on his teammates.

With two older brothers who played in the NFL, Jennings hopes he too can reach the pinnacle of professional football. This season, he changed his jersey number to 23, understanding that the league requires backs to don double digits. "It's just kind of shows that I understand that and I respect that," Jennings said.

The aspiring rusher also plans on eventually attending graduate school and earning a master's degree in communication studies. No matter what career path he travels after graduation, Jennings says he wants to use his talents for God's glory.

"If you put God first, I think everything falls into place," Jennings stated. "It's never about me, and it never will be."

That statement sums up how Jennings has carried himself during his collegiate career. When Jennings chose to leave a highly reputable Division I program, it was not about him. When he chose to slide at the Coastal one yard line, it was not about him. Instead this modern day David sought after God first, allowing the Heavenly Father to take care of the rest.

During his lifetime, David overcame the odds, conquering lions, giants and bears. While Jennings may have the opportunity to do the same in the NFL, for now he remains patient, persistently running after God.

Just as He took care of a simple shepherd boy, the Creator watches over Liberty's leading rusher, guiding each step he takes. David's life is now written down in history and his name is forever recorded in the Hall of Faith. Though he stumbled from time to time, he kept his eyes focused on the One greater than himself. Similarly, Jennings keeps his focus on the same God. The difference – the remaining chapters of his life have yet to be written.
Eric Brown is a copywriter for Liberty's University Advancement office, assigned to cover athletics.