RASHAD JENNINGS CHANGING LIVES ONE CHAPTER AT A TIME
BY MATT COHEN
At first glance, it looked like any ordinary Tuesday morning at Gregory Elementary School. Kids lined up outside in single file, while teachers kept a watchful eye, doing their best to have each student on his or her best behavior.
This wasn’t a fire drill, and it wasn’t an assembly either. The grown-ups, at close look, were all wearing football jerseys – not typical teacher attire.
It all started to make sense around 10:00 a.m., when New York Giants running back Rashad Jennings burst through a set of double doors, and the entire student body (and teachers) went into a frenzy at the sight of seeing a real life professional football player.
“You could potentially be a hero to a kid. When they see your face and it starts to resonate, it’s like, wait a second, I’ve seen you on TV, now I’m shaking his hand,” said Jennings.
Jennings, partnered up with former Atlanta Falcons player and current bestselling author Tim Green, was at the West Orange school as part of the NFL’s PLAY60/READ20 initiative. As a tie-in to PLAY 60, the NFL’s campaign encouraging kids to be active for 60 minutes a day, READ20 aims to inspire kids to spend 20 minutes a day with a book.
“As a kid growing up with a reading comprehension deficit, I had to overcome and hurdle a lot of obstacles and reading is huge. It’s very important to me and it has enabled me to enter doors I would not have been able to,” said Jennings.
“Reading builds your character and makes you better as a student. It’s particularly powerful when you show up with someone like Rashad Jennings and the kids can instantly relate to him and they see him as the Giants running back and as a star player,” added Green.
Jennings and Green teamed up last year for the first Giants PLAY60/READ20 event at Berkeley School in Bloomfield – also the first year of the program.
“When the NFL said yes, the first team I went to was the New York Giants, and the first player that they connected me with was Rashad Jennings,” said Green.
So what does a PLAY60/READ20 event look like?
From 10 –11 a.m., Jennings and Green, with the help of faculty members and players from nearby West Orange High School’s football team, ran six rotating stations. These ranged from tackling dummy drills to a running back and pass-catching station that Jennings ran himself. From there, the event moved inside to the gymnasium, where Jennings and Green took turns talking to the students. Afterwards, Green read a chapter from his latest novel, Kid Owner, his 16th children’s book.
Although the entire student body lined outside to greet Jennings and Green in the morning, the actual PLAY60/READ20 event was open to just fifth graders.
These kids have been working on this since the first day of school. Since we told them, they’ve been working on it, they’ve been reading Football Genius,” said Principal Michele Thompson. “Here we have two individuals who have come up in the world and wanted to come to Gregory School and share their experiences. That’s what it’s all about.”
The event was especially personal to Jennings, who shared his own journey from a 5th string running back at Liberty Christian Academy in Virginia to a now seven-year NFL veteran.
“Kids won’t be able to reach any plateau of success without understanding the significance of reading,” said Jennings. “As a professional athlete who had to overcome those obstacles, I now get a chance to come back and share my story and hope to motivate them to read.”
Jennings’ involvement in reading education isn’t limited to PLAY60/READ 20 events. Since 2010, the Rashad Jennings Foundation has organized “The Reading Challenge,” which similarly aims to get kids excited about reading. Over 176,000 books have been read over the last five years through the program, according to the Foundation website.
For Jennings, a big kid himself who sports a SpongeBob SquarePants backpack, spending time with students gives him an opportunity to do something he loves.
“The most enjoyment is just seeing the kids smile,” said Jennings. “When I see a kid smile, I see myself, and it reminds me how blessed I am to be here.”
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