Rashad Jennings is on stage at New York’s Gotham Comedy Club. Football fans flood the room, along with athletes and celebrities. TV personality Dr. Oz, pop artist Charles Fazzino and former on-air personality of The Howard Stern Show “Stuttering” John Melendez are in the house. The running back from Forest, Virginia, cannot help but recount his long journey.
“The person you see right now is not the man I always was,” Jennings says. “I was a short, overweight, chubby kid with glasses, asthma and 0.6 GPA who grew up with a reading comprehension deficit. I have clearly had to overcome a lot of adversity and hurdle a lot of jumps.”
Jennings, 30, is the type that never takes anything for granted, despite a Giants running back with more than six years of NFL experience under his belt. This past Monday, his organization, the Rashad Jennings Foundation, hosted the first annual “GIANT Night of Comedy.”
Jennings smiles ear to ear, explaining why he created a foundation. The story started in his 2009 rookie year with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“I’m in the locker room and I’m going to throw stuff away in the trash can,” he says. “I notice the NFL trash can ain’t no regular trash can. There’s some nice stuff going on in the trash can, so I’m tempted to go pull stuff out of the trash can, but teammates don’t know me yet, so I’m like, I don’t want to do that.”
The RJF’s cornerstone is its reading challenge. Jennings manually gets autographed memorabilia by making sure his teammates sign their gear and keep it out of the garbage. Jennings proceeds to take the signed items to schools, where he meets with librarians. Students are then given the opportunity to win the merchandise by reading. When a student reads a book, and passes a subsequent test on the book, they are entered into a drawing for the gear being given away at the school.
“Football is secondary in the importance of what life is,” Jennings says. “We all know that. People might not want to hear that and I understand and respect it. When you really think about it, even if you do have a long career, relative to life, it’s short, so utilize this position, but then excel.”
Among those Giants and Jets, who face each other Sunday — in attendance, Prince Amukamara joined Jennings on the red carpet.
“I think society kind of puts us in a box of being football players, but we’re actually humans that have other desires and other things we want to do, and one of them for sure is giving back,” Amukamara says.
“Rashad’s been a pioneer in the locker room for us to use our celebrity platform to give back.”
New York provides opportunities for Jennings that athletes in other cities may not experience. New York Knicks center Kevin Seraphin joined players from the city’s two football teams. Broadcaster Bruce Beck served as a co-emcee and SNL cast member Pete Davidson was part of the comedy lineup.
That is good reach for a player who has never had more than 167 carries in a season.
Along with kids, Jennings also notes he gives back for his father, who had a leg amputated due to complications with diabetes.
As players who spent their weekends in the trenches, the Giants and Jets expressed relief to be in the presence of laughter. “I feel like comedy is medicine,” Jennings says. “It’s a universal language. We all understand it. I think it’s a way to express yourself.”
Amukamara’s biggest laugh comes when asked if Jennings is actually funny: “His humor can be dry sometimes similar to Will Ferrell’s, but then he could be like Kevin Hart, so he’s pretty diverse.”
On Sunday, Jennings gets back on the field, as the Giants and Jets remove their comedy hats for football helmets. Both teams are on the playoff bubble, so laughter will probably be reserved for another time.
In the grand scheme of things, Jennings was glad to get away from it all earlier in the week. Jennings’ football career has a definite endpoint. His foundation does not.