This story appears in FCA Magazine’s January/February 2017 issue. Subscribe today!
There was a long litany of reasons his future looked bleak. Overweight. Asthmatic. Struggling academically.
NFL running back Rashad Jennings didn’t even see the football field until his junior season at Forest High School in Virginia. Weighing in at a hefty 275 pounds, he outsized your typical high school offensive lineman. Even his own coach scoffed at Jennings’ dreams of an NFL future.
“My ‘enough is enough’ kicked in when he looked at me and said, ‘Rashad, you’re too fat, you’re too slow, and you’ll never even be able to play college football,” Jennings said.
Back then, Jennings was a fifth-string running back. Now he’s among the NFL’s elite, a starter for the New York Giants, where he stands out because of his faith in Christ, his outreach to those in all communities, and a uniquely inquisitive approach to life.
• • •
An old adage says, “If you judge a fish by how it climbs a tree, you’ll think it’s stupid.” In today’s world, if you judge a high school student by their 0.6 GPA, you probably won’t think they’re too bright either.
But it’s all about perspective. In Jennings’ case, you could say he was a fish out of water at Forest High School.
“I thought I was smarter than school,” said Jennings, now an eight-year NFL veteran, “and I became irritated with it.”
Take, for instance, the time he was assigned to write a paper about his hero. Jennings chose Martin Luther King Jr. He strolled into the library and poured through books, searching for quotes that aligned with his train of thought. But he couldn’t find anything that quite fit, so he had an unconventional idea for his paper.
He quoted himself.
At the bottom, he cited “Rashad Jennings’ mind” as his source.
He received an F.
“My teacher said, ‘Rashad, this is really good content, but you got an F because you quoted yourself,’” Jennings said. “So I said, ‘Right, but is what I said true? Is it relevant to the paper?’”
Although the teacher conceded that his quotes were accurate and truthful, she stood by her F because Jennings wasn’t a credible source. He pressed even further.
“‘So you’re telling me I’ve got to go do something big and amazing in this world just to be able to come back and say the exact same thing in my paper?’” he asked. “She looked right at me and said, ‘Yeah.’”
That is perhaps the perfect anecdote for why Jennings’ GPA was so low. He loved learning, he loved asking questions, but to many folks those questions didn’t make any sense or—even worse—they found them annoying and disrespectful.
So his lack of traditional motivation in the classroom continued. Away from it, on the football field, Jennings found a little more success in limited action as a junior, gaining big yardage despite his far-from-peak condition.
His older brothers, Butch and Bryan, were both ex-NFL players turned assistant coaches at nearby Lynchburg Christian Academy. They could see the potential in Rashad, but they knew he needed some structure and discipline. LCA, they concluded, was the perfect place for him.
Making that happen financially was a total team effort. Jennings’ mom paid half of the tuition, while Butch and Bryan covered the rest through their coaching salaries.
Bringing It Home: Blessings In
As I reflect on my walk with God throughout the years, every day I am continually reminded of this truth: We serve a God who wants the very best for His children. God doesn’t want us living a life of mediocrity.
“Paying for a private school can be a lot,” said Wayne Lance, then the head coach at Lynchburg. “But Bryan and Butch never questioned their sacrifices. John 15:13 [ESV] says, ‘Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.’ Bryan and Butch exemplified this, and would have given up anything to see Rashad fulfill his God-given potential.”
Following their commitment to him, Rashad hit the books and began taking care of his body better than ever before. Due to his struggles at Forest High, he not only had to repeat his junior year at LCA, but it took additional home school and summer school classes (on top of his regular course load) to get back on track. Amazingly, in short order, he was earning A’s and B’s while piling up touchdowns as the Bulldogs’ starting tailback.
“I really believe Rashad was bored before he came to Lynchburg,” Lance said. “Here was a kid with a 0.6 GPA, and now he was in tune, focused and being held accountable. As he made the adjustment, it was exciting to see him achieve.”
In two seasons at LCA, Jennings rushed for more than 3,200 yards and 37 touchdowns, all the while bringing his inquisitive nature to the gridiron.
“Rashad would always ask questions,” Lance said with a laugh. “‘Coach, why are doing this?’ ‘What’s the point of this?’”
"Guys like Rashad, their desire to understand is impactful, and it changes the course of their lives as well as the lives of people around them.” -Lance Jennings
Lance, in the midst of just his second season as a head coach, was initially defensive. He tried to explain it was “just football,” but soon his perspective changed. Rashad, as he learned, wasn’t trying to be difficult—he was simply trying to see the big picture and gain understanding for why things were done in a certain way.
“Rashad was among only a few kids I’ve ever coached who were natural ‘why’ guys,” Lance said. “Their thirst for knowledge is deeper. They want to learn. Guys like Rashad, their desire to understand is impactful, and it changes the course of their lives as well as the lives of people around them.”
Jennings graduated from Lynchburg Christian Academy and headed to Pitt (his mother’s alma mater), where he became only the fourth player in Panthers history to start at running back as a true freshman. He also continued to excel in the classroom, where college-level courses seemed to offer greater opportunities to think outside the box.
“Remember, I’m the kid who failed English in high school and passed Spanish but can’t speak a lick of it,” Jennings said. “My freshman year at Pittsburgh? I won the ‘Freshman Writer of the Year’ award, because I got to [write freely].”
Despite his success at Pitt, Jennings had to drop everything and return home after finding out his father, Albert, was set to undergo life-changing surgery. The elder Jennings suffered from diabetes, and doctors were prepared to amputate his leg.
“My parents took care of me for 18 years,” Jennings said. “The least I could do in college was be there for three.”
The Man Behind the (Face)Mask: Through his community involvement, Rashad Jennings hopes to expose people to a more personal side of himself in order to make an impact in their lives.
So, Jennings transferred to nearby Liberty University, eventually rushing for a whopping 3,633 yards and 42 touchdowns. The team chaplain invited him to serve at a local FCA event, which proved to be perfect for the kid who was always asking “why.”
The proof, Jennings said, is in Scripture, where God pours out His word to draw us closer to Him. Job 1:7, he said, is the perfect example.
“The Lord asks Satan where he’s been, despite already knowing,” Jennings said. “Satan replies, ‘From going to and fro on the earth, and walking up and down on it.’”
He realized God asks questions like these so His people can truly understand what He’s teaching them.
“When I reread that verse, where God asks Satan, ‘Where have you been?’ It was a big turning point for me,” he said. “It’s like God hits pause, looks at me and says, ‘Rashad, I know where he’s at. I’m asking these questions so that you know the answers. Rashad, did you hear him? You sure? Okay, I’m going to hit play now.’”
• • •
Jennings graduated from Liberty in 2009 with a double-major in business and sports management, along with a biblical studies minor. Some prognosticators pegged him as a potential second-round pick, so Coach Jack Del Rio and the Jacksonville Jaguars were ecstatic to nab him in the seventh round with the 250th selection of the 2009 NFL Draft.
“It’s such an honor to hear your name get called,” said Jennings, revealing that the memories are still sweet even though he fell so late in the draft. “When I got drafted, I felt like a lot of people got drafted. There have been a lot of people who have been on this journey with me. Look at my pattern of youth and my education. I’m not supposed to be here. Without a doubt, hard work, faith, family and prayer are the only reasons I’m here.”
As a late-round pick, Jennings fought for a roster spot and every carry he could get with Jacksonville, eventually playing three seasons there. Then he signed a one-year deal as a part-time starter with the Oakland Raiders, and it was there that he caught the attention of the New York Giants, who brought him to the Big Apple on a four-year deal that runs through next season.
“As I’ve had to work my way up as a starter, I’ve always prepared as one,” Jennings said. “When opportunity presents itself, it’s too late to prepare.”
That lesson carried over into Jennings’ relationships with teammates, friends and family. He keeps the same forward-thinking mindset, trying his best to be prepared for whatever life throws his way.
“Whatever you think long about, meditate on, the things you want to do, you’re going to have your chance,” he said. “If you’re not ready to capitalize on those opportunities when they present themselves, you’re going to miss them.”
As Coach Lance put it, his former student has now become the teacher.
“Rashad uses his past experiences to identify, relate, teach and encourage others,” said Lance, who now coaches at Atlantic Shores Christian. “He realizes that he has this small window in life to impact and help change lives.”
In 2013, Jennings took another step in faith by tackling an opportunity he’d long dreamed about. In hopes of helping kids like him face life’s adversities, he started the Rashad Jennings Foundation (RJF). Through RJF’s reading program, mentor partnerships and football camp, Jennings strives to impact kids in the same ways his own mentors helped him.
“I wasn’t the kid who rolled out of bed with all the talent, with all the academics lined up,” he said. “I wouldn’t have been picked first in any pick-up sport or for projects in class. I’ve had to work at a craft, and because of that I get to give back authentically, and I get to teach authentically.”
In recognition of his community service, Liberty president Jerry Falwell invited Jennings back to campus to deliver the keynote address at the university’s spring 2016 commencement ceremony.
“Rashad Jennings is a Liberty University living legend,” Falwell told the Liberty Champion student newspaper. “He’s seen more success in the NFL than any other Liberty football player in recent years, and he exhibits the Christian values that we pray all Liberty graduates will embrace through his service to others.”
With the same careful, consistent approach he applies to his RJF work and NFL career, Jennings used the commencement address as an opportunity to share Christ with the gathered crowd—instead of focusing on politics, business, industry or anything else.
“As athletes, we get to take what we’ve built in us and instilled habitually and utilize that for shaking this world up for God,” he said. “So I decided to talk about the one element that everything stands or falls by, and that is a Christ-like, child-centered faith.”
Over the last few years, Jennings has grown increasingly active on social media too, where he prompts thought-provoking Twitter discussions through the hashtags #AskShad and #ShadChats. And, in the coming months, he’ll take his public outreach a step further, hoping NFL fans would see there’s more to him—and other NFL players—than just speed and strength.
A longstanding tradition in the league, players from all 32 NFL teams gather at midfield following every game—a visible sign of their faith, respect for Christ, and respect for one another.
“No matter the jersey or the name on our backs, we come to the 50-yard line for the opportunity to share our faith, pray, and thank God for life and the opportunity to play this game that we so love,” he said. “It’s a safe way for us to grow and challenge each other, while letting our fans understand who we are and what really motivates us to play the way we play.”
With the tradition in mind, Jennings has spearheaded the “Meet Us At The Fifty” ministry, set to launch in February. Through its website (MeetUsAtTheFifty.org), social platforms (@MeetUsAtThe50), podcasts and more, sports fans and fellow athletes will be able to interact in deeper ways, including faith-based discussions.
It’s easy, he said, to be a fan of the game without really knowing who you’re cheering for. Pro athletes share meals and locker rooms with teammates and coaches, but they’re still fans too. So stepping out in faith—at an FCA Huddle, on the 50-yard line or elsewhere—is an authentic way to grow deeper in relationship.
“Without God, nothing would be possible, including our talents on the field.” -Rashad Jennings
“I really want fans to know the true makeup of us,” Jennings said. “I think that goes a long way, and for athletes it goes back to understanding the privilege and the platform we have, to where people may be intrigued to listen. That’s when you have an opportunity to share what may impact another person’s life.”
That same spotlight shines within FCA Huddles across America, where Jennings said athletes and coaches have an awesome opportunity to use their platforms to bring glory to God.
“The Fellowship of Christian Athletes is important,” he said. “The title says it all. As believers, iron sharpens iron. I take that as if iron sharpens iron, believers sharpen believers, meaning we can hold each other accountable.”
FCA, Jennings said, provides great resources for coming alongside athletes and coaches to push the spotlight off themselves and put it on the One who deserves all the honor: Jesus Christ.
“Without God, nothing would be possible, including our talents on the field,” Jennings said. “As an athlete, it takes a lot to be successful. You can use words like determination, commitment, loyalty, sacrifice, accountability. All of these things are also characteristics of what it takes to be a man or woman of God.”
• • •
Recently, a friend asked Jennings to come talk to her students about what it’s like to be a professional athlete. As he spoke to the class, the students took detailed notes of everything he said, taking great care to cite him as a source in their collective work. Once the papers were completed, Rashad asked the teacher for a copy of each one.
“I took all those ‘A’ papers right back to my old high school, to the same teacher, put them on her desk and said, ‘Hey, check this out,’” he said.
Jennings, the once chubby, underachieving kid with a 0.6 GPA and bleak NFL aspirations, had truly become a credible source.
Bringing It Home Devotional: Blessings in Obedience
By Rashad Jennings
“For the LORD God is our sun and our shield. He gives us grace and glory. The LORD will withhold no good thing from those who do what is right.” – Psalm 84:11
As I reflect on my walk with God throughout the years, every day I am continually reminded of this truth: We serve a God who wants the very best for His children. God doesn’t want us living a life of mediocrity. He wants us living a fulfilled life on purpose, for a purpose.
I’ve also realized that all the blessings I’ve had over the years have been in direct correlation with doing what God said to do, when He said to do it.
When my dad had his first leg amputated due to complications with diabetes, I had a choice to make. I could either stay at Pittsburgh, or I could transfer to a smaller school in Lynchburg, Virginia, to be closer to my family.
To the world, transferring to Liberty, a smaller Christian university, probably looked a little crazy considering how much I was excelling at Pittsburgh. But after asking God what I should do, I felt more peace in going home than staying where I was. While outsiders may not have understood my decision, I felt God was leading me to move home and honor my parents, as He calls us to do.
So I did it. I followed Him.
When everything was said and done, I wanted what God wanted for me, and I knew I would only obtain it by doing what He said to do.
In 2009, I was drafted to the NFL from that same small school. I’m now living my dream, playing running back for the New York Giants as an eight-year NFL veteran who has been given a platform to make Christ known.
Obedience—following God’s leading and doing what He tells us to do—isn’t always going to be easy, especially if it requires change. Obedience doesn’t always lead to comfort. In fact, if we are truly going to receive all the promises God has for us, I’d say obedience will often require us to be OK with being uncomfortable and uncertain.
But there’s one thing I know. God honors us when we honor Him.
“For the LORD God is our sun and our shield. He gives us grace and glory. The LORD will withhold no good thing from those who do what is right.” (Psalm 84:11)
So, how do you walk in obedience? How do you follow God’s leading? Read God’s Word and pray!
God has already given us a game plan for how we should live our lives. It’s all made perfectly clear in the Bible. God doesn’t give us His Word to hinder us, but to help us receive all of His promises. As you read His Word and pray, God will give you the wisdom and guidance for every situation you face.
So, I challenge you. In what areas of your life is God calling you to be more obedient to Him?
Is He calling you to give up a friendship or relationship that is holding you back and not drawing you closer to Christ? Let go.
Is He leading you to ask for His forgiveness and turn away from some sins or habits that are only hurting you? Ask and turn away. It will be worth it.
If God will not withhold any good thing from those who do what’s right, it’s safe to say He can (and does) withhold good things from those who do not. Don’t allow disobedience to delay your own blessings! God will lead us to the right thing, but it’s up to us to receive it.
God always comes through on His promises as we follow His leading. There are blessings in obedience, and they are always exceedingly and abundantly more than anything you can ask, think or imagine.
• In what situations in your life do you need direction? Pray about it and read God’s Word for guidance.
• In which areas of your life has God already made His will clear to you? Ask yourself, “Am I being obedient?”
• Are you truly listening to God’s leading, or the voices of everyone else?
• Deuteronomy 11:1
• Galatians 6:9
• James 1:17
Lord, I thank you for who I am in You. I thank You that You have given me—and will continue to give me—every good and perfect gift from above, and that You will withhold no good thing from those who do what is right. I thank You for Your eagerness to show me areas in my life where I need to be more obedient to You. I pray for conviction of the Holy Spirit to prompt me and make me aware of the areas in which You want me to give my very best. While the enemy will try to make me feel condemned or unworthy because of my shortcomings, I pray for Your presence to overpower me and remind me that You only want Your very best for me. As You begin to reveal these areas to me, I know Your wisdom and strength will help me walk into all the promises You have for me. I trust You. Amen.
Photos courtesy of Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports and Christina Hovestadt/Rashad Jennings Foundation