Rashad Jennings had a busy Monday night. The Giants running back finished his team’s 31-24 victory on Monday Night Football with 81 yards on 22 carries and more than 100 total yards of offense. He was John Gruden’s “Gruden Grinder” player of the game and the Giants own anointed “Toughest Player of the Game” award. Then he and his teammates took the three hour flight back to New Jersey from Miami, got in his car and drove home in the middle of the night.
So what did Jennings do to recover from his Monday night exploits? He got in a car and drove to Roosevelt High School on Long Island to present the USA Football and Hospital for Special Surgery Heart of a Giant award to a varsity football player at Roosevelt High School. The award comes with a $5,000 equipment grant for his school which will go toward the player’s football program.
The 2015 winner of the award, Chukwuma Ukwu, was honored for both his commitment to his team and the work he has done founding a mentoring and transitioning program at the school, called Future Rough Riders of America (FRRA). As part of his work, FRRA has both hosted well-known and established Roosevelt alumni to speak about their careers and experiences after high school and also established a mentoring program with feeding middle schools so that future Roosevelt students are ready to make the most of their high school experience.
Jennings said it was important for him to be involved in the process precisely because of the type of player Ukwu is; the senior two-way starter on the offensive and defensive line is a solid contributor but not a superstar for a good Roosevelt team that reached the Long Island Division IV championship game, eventually falling to Shoreham-Wading River.
“(Winning the award is) based upon his character in the classroom, the way people perceive him,” Jennings told USA TODAY. “He’s never above reproach despite all the adversity he had to battle with, he’s been nothing but encouraged. That’s what having a big heart is all about. A grant like this will be tremendous. One, it will help things financially, but secondly, the recognition you get in the community and the respect, you can then use that as a magnet to continue to expand upon the idea of taking ownership in the community with parents, teachers, faculty and students to make a difference.
“It’s important for me to be involved in this as a professional athlete. There’s nothing special about us; we’re just in special positions. Whenever we can shine light on things that are important to us, we should. Kids have to battle a lot of things, especially today. For a kid to battle through adversity and keep a smile on his face with integrity and discipline, we want to take time to reward that kid.”
Still, what Ukwu lacks in sheer physical star power on the field he makes up for with his leadership. That wasn’t lost on Jennings, who felt overshadowed through much of his high school career. He spent three years at Jefferson Forest High in rural Virginia, mostly as a sixth string running back on the bench before breaking out in the final game of his junior season (due to injuries to the players in front of him on the depth chart). He transferred to Lynchburg Christian Academy for his senior season and earned immediate recruiting interest, which, combined with dramatically improved grades, set in motion his path to the NFL.
“At Jefferson Forest this would have done a lot for me,” Jennings said. “It would have shown that you can get recognized for doing the right things. As a kid a lot of times the person who gets attention is the super straight A student or the kid who is mischievous. The middle worker who is always trying and attempting might not have the flash, he might go unrecognized. This type of award gives a stability and attention to the kid who stays steady. That is really important in a society where we mimic whatever is rewarded. This will set the standard for what is to come. That’s what it would have done for myself.”
Like Ukwu, Jennings has also focused his efforts off the field on helping others around him. He founded the Rashad Jennings Foundation, which has a dedicated reading initiative — the Rashad Jennings Reading Challenge — which has helped students in nearly 40 schools across Florida and New Jersey read more than 200,000 books, with follow-up exams testing the students’ comprehension of the content with drawings for NFL tickets, signed memorabilia and other prizes. The Rashad Jennings Foundation also recently launched a Locker Room mentoring program, which will be implemented in 2016.
Together, Ukwu and Jennings represent what football players can do correctly off the field, spreading significant influence in the process.