When Greg Jennings steps back onto the field this Sunday, it will mark the end of a challenging nine-week roller coaster that tested the Packers receiver's faith and fortitude.
It hasn't been the season the 29-year-old Jennings envisioned when he reported to training camp in late July. From the start, there was a minor elbow injury and then a concussion he sustained in an early August scrimmage. But it was a groin injury, one he suffered during a Week 1 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, that extinguished the seven-year veteran's plans for a productive full season at the tail end of his current contract with the franchise.
"Nothing's ever guaranteed or promised to any of us and for me, the norm was being healthy, being able to go out there and perform," said Jennings, who eventually underwent surgery for the groin injury on Nov. 1.
Losing the one thing you're really good at in life -- even if only temporarily -- can be a humbling experience, though in a way, it was something Jennings had been prepared for.
"My mom always told me that God has given us all gifts, but he can take them away just as easy," said Jennings, one of four children to the pastor of the Progressive Deliverance Ministries in Kalamazoo, Mich.
Jennings said he learned this lesson first-hand around age 11 at his father's church, where he accompanied the choir on his drums. Jennings' sister played the keys, while another sister was a vocalist and his brother filled in where needed, but Jennings considered himself the real star of the show.
"I'd brag to my friends about it; I closed my eyes when I played," recalled Jennings. "There was nothing you could tell me that I couldn't do on the drums. No one could tell me anything, and if anyone did say anything, I'd cop an attitude."
Jennings' mother, a missionary who worked closely beside her husband, warned her son of the dangers of arrogance, and the next time he sat down to his set at church, Jennings said his ability to play well had left him.
"All I could do was just stay in rhythm with the beat," he said. "I couldn't do any extra. Nothing. I couldn't do anything but just stay in pocket, so to speak. The lesson of humility hit me very quick. To this day, I still cannot play the drums like I had as a kid."
It's a memory that kept Jennings grounded as the season began to unfold amidst speculation and uncertainty. Everything happens for a reason and God has a plan for me, Jennings kept telling himself.
When Jennings was placed on the inactive list in Week 4, there were hopes some rest would allow the still-undetermined injury to heal on its own.
"There were times where I felt like I was making progress and then there'd be three or four steps back," said Jennings. "The entire process was very frustrating because you think it's one thing and it's not. I remember saying 'Something's just not right,' every other day. Something just wasn't adding up."
Each day, Jennings walked into the training facility to same barrage of questions from his teammates. "Guys were asking me 'What's my status? What's my status?' It was tough to have to tell them that I was still down. It's tough because you feel like you're letting your team, your guys down. In a sense, that's your family for a period and I felt like I wasn't holding up my end."
The silver lining was the time Jennings got to spend with his family, who came to stay with him in Wisconsin while he tried to mend. A bright spot came with the birth of his fourth child and first son, Aice Gregory, on Oct. 5, who joined sisters Amya, Alea and Ayva. The six-pound, 13-ounce Aice was born four weeks premature and had immediate issues breathing on his own. Aice spent his first week in the hospital's NICU with his parents close by.
"Being injured was almost a blessing in disguise," said Jennings. "I was able to be at the hospital every single day and night with him and my wife. It was almost pre-ordained, like [God] was saying, 'OK, I'm going to sit you out for a period so you can deal with what's going to be happening here.'
In the weeks that followed, Jennings drove his girls to school and to their extra-curricular activities. There were tea parties and trips to the movies. But the game never stopped calling.
"There was the good of that and then Sundays would roll around and Daddy would be standing on the sidelines or at home and not at the game and the questions would start. 'Why isn't Daddy playing? When will Daddy get better?'"
Finally, in Week 7 and the Packers at 3-3, Jennings approached the team doctor and trainers.
"I said I needed to see somebody about the core-muscle injury sports hernia deal," said Jennings. The next day, Jennings was sitting in Dr. William Meyers' office in Philadelphia.
"After the functional examination, he pretty much told me there right on the spot that I had a rectus abdominis tear," said Jennings, who was instructed that surgery could have him back in play as early as three week's time. "Dr. Meyers made it very easy for me to make the decision to either have the surgery or to wait."
Jennings knew if he postponed the operation, his injury would be an ongoing issue. There was also a good chance the receiver's performance would suffer on the field, and that was something Jennings would have no part of. Though it would be Jennings' first surgery ever, as well as the first time he'd be put to sleep with anesthesia -- which made him a little uneasy -- he knew it was the right choice.
"Everything happens for a reason and no matter how much we try to understand why something happens, sometimes it's just not for us to know," said Jennings. "I didn't know where this surgery fit in, but I kept thinking eventually everything would come together and I'd see the big picture. It was like a puzzle, except there was no picture on the box to refer to."
The surgery, which was postponed two days to make way for Hurricane Sandy's path, was performed on Nov. 1, and Jennings dove into rehab a few days later. On Thanksgiving, Jennings' parents and siblings came to Wisconsin to celebrate the holiday with him and his brood -- an added boost to his growing confidence.
By Nov. 25, an upbeat Jennings was standing on the sidelines in New Jersey, ready to join his team. Coach Mike McCarthy cautiously didn't allow Jennings to suit up that week (Jennings said it was challenging to watch his team struggle against the Giants the way they did), but the all-clear was given earlier this week for Sunday's game against the Vikings.
Just how much of Jennings we'll see in Week 13 is a question. He's expected to be on a limited play count. What happens to him after this season is another one. For better or worse, the team has adapted to his absence and others have stepped up to fill the void. Still, quarterback Aaron Rodgers will probably be grinning behind his helmet the first time he gets to fire a rocket to one to his favorite targets this Sunday. And, with the Packers 7-4, the playoffs are still in the realm of possibility.
"It's interesting how everything played out," said Jennings, who had signed a three-year extension with the team in 2009, reportedly worth upward of $26 million. "This is the time of year when players are most called upon to perform and make plays and to be that playmaker or game-changer for their team. Ironically, I'm coming back feeling probably better than most guys across the league: no bumps, no bruises. I'm just ready to go. "
Contract extensions just aren't on Greg Jennings' mind at the moment. All he sees is the number five.
"The way I'm approaching it -- and this is what I told my teammates -- is that I have five games," said Jennings. "Football hasn't ended for me and I'm not even looking at playoffs. I just know I have five, guaranteed, regular-season games left and that's all I care about. I'm not thinking future, I'm not thinking playoffs. I have five chances to perform and to contribute for my team.
"It's kind of like a new lease on life, a new beginning," he added. "I get this opportunity to perform at a high level and that's my expectation, that's my standard, that's my mindset, and that's what I'm going to do."