The NFL is getting younger, football careers are getting shorter, and no position on the field is more expendable than the running back.
These are common refrains around football circles these days, and all for good reason.
A Wall Street Journal story in February of this year noted that from 2008 to 2014, the length of the average NFL career dropped by about two and a half years. A story in The Ringer from September noted that the average age (as tracked by Football Outsiders) dropped from 27.2 in 2006 t0, last season, 26.6. The plight of the running back, meanwhile, has been discussed at length by just about every publication out there (including this one).
Enter New York Giants running back Rashad Jennings.
At 31, in the middle of his eighth year in the league and still (despite battles with injuries) contributing effectively to a playoff-bound Giants team, Jennings represents something of an anomaly in football.
When asked why, he offered a compelling answer.
“I always like to say that there’s a difference between NFL players and pro athletes,” Jennings told Business Insider this week while promoting the Heart of a Giant Award, which he presented to a high school student in suburban New York.
“NFL guys are the guys that come in with a lot of talent, raw, could play right away, dominated at the college level, but get into the pros and suffer some injuries, or can only play for a couple of years before the lack of professionalism catches up with them. And a pro athlete is someone who comes in with some talent but has a work ethic that propels them to sustain an actual career.”
Considering Jennings’ path to the Giants, it’s safe to call him a pro athlete first and an NFL player second.
Jennings refers to himself as a former “chubby kid” with asthma, who in high school didn’t see the field until his junior year. After one season at Pitt, he transferred to Liberty University in the NCAA FCS division, where he set a conference rushing record. Then, at the 2009 Draft, he was selected by the Jaguars in the seventh round, with the 250th pick.
Eight years later, Jennings has rushed for over 3,000 yards, scored 20 touchdowns, and — as the nine-win Giants push toward an NFC Wild Card spot — stands on the verge of his first playoff game. This may not be the most glamorous stat line, but as the league gets younger and careers get shorter, Jennings just keeps on working hard and doing his thing.
“I take care of my body” he said. “I’m a student of the game. I study it. I understand the opponent. I know the job that has to be done. I’m a gluten and dairy free guy. For the last eight years. I feel it’s a big benefit on my energy level.”
More important than any of those things, though, is the fact that Jennings is something of a Renaissance man.
“I literally can’t just think about football. Life wouldn’t make sense,” he said. “I’m a true autodidact at heart. I love to learn, I’m attracted to it. I pick up a new craft every offseason just to expand my mind. Whether it’s archery, poetry, learning how to make sushi. I do it all. I picked up fencing this offseason. It’s part of my personality. I love what I do. But I like life just as much.”
He went on:
“One day when I’m done playing ball you’ll see me all over the place exploring all the other gifts God has given me, and trying to make a difference on another level. But right now I dedicate my time and my effort and energy to being the best football player I can. I don’t go out to clubs, I don’t drink I don’t smoke, I don’t play video games. I might spend my hour instead of video games reading a book, I might spend my hour instead of in the club I might be learning a song on the guitar. I might my priorities straight.”
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