Running back Rashad Jennings takes underprivileged kids to college, how cornerback Prince Amukamara ended up at the Bar Mitzvah, and the Ravens’ epic mishandling of Ray Rice
There isn’t a lot that Rashad Jennings isn’t interested in. The former Raiders/new Giants running back has his hands, and his money, working on everything from treating juvenile asthma to rescuing abused animals to reading initiatives for young people in Lynchburg, Va., his hometown. Someone once told Jennings, now a sixth-year pro, to slow down with all the bright and expensive ideas when he was a rookie in Jacksonville. After a few months, he ignored that advice.
“They would say Rashad, ‘You’ve got to focus on football,’ and I tried, but the more I let my heart spill out, the more football made sense,” he says. “This is actually my fuel more than it is draining.”
There’s a lot to say about Jennings—he maintains a strict gluten-free diet, he often sleeps in a hyperbaric chamber and he regularly quotes C.S. Lewis, the theologian and playwright who died in 1963. After rushing for a career-high 733 yards in Oakland last year, the 29-year-old signed a four-year, $14 million deal with the Giants.
But here’s our favorite factoid: Every February, Jennings identifies a high school in an impoverished community, rounds up some 40 kids and takes them to his alma mater, Liberty University, to participate in the school’s College for a Weekend program. Jennings took his first group two years ago, and his second group—from Jacksonville’s Ed H. White High School—went this offseason.
“This was the kind of trip that definitely changed the trajectory for a good number of kids,” says John Grab, an algebra teacher at White High. “Paths changed.”
Grab attended Liberty with Jennings and then joined Teach for America, which sent him to White, where more than half of the students are on free or reduced lunch. Jennings, who began his career in Jacksonville, asked for about 45 kids to take to Liberty this offseason. “Most of these kids had never seen a college campus,” Grab says. “They don’t have opportunities like that here.”
The students took the 12-hour bus ride to Lynchburg, stayed in dorms, and interacted with college students while Grab and Jennings stood by. The celebrity chaperone had a similar experience in high school, when he was an overweight senior who would graduate with a 0.6 GPA and require home schooling in order to attend college.
“I went to Pittsburgh for a big high school football camp,” Jennings says, “and I remember leaving that day, and when I went back home I told everybody I was going to get my grades right so I could go to college.
“I knew that if they see what I saw, it’s going to motivate them.”
So far, so good. Grab says several struggling student have pulled a 180 in their studies, and those who were good students but dubious of their college prospects are now confident.
“For the first three weeks after they got back that’s all they talked about,” Grab says. “It’s pretty cool to see how you can change the atmosphere.”
On the heels of the league’s $765 million concussion settlement, eight former players are suing the NFL and accusing team doctors of having allegedly administered dangerous cocktails of painkillers without properly warning about possible health risks. The focus is largely on the use of Toradol in decades past. There are some terrific accusations here—including that teams lied to players about their injuries—but at its core, the suit claims that players were misled about painkillers the same way they were misled about concussions.
That this suit has been filed against the NFL, and not the individual teams or their doctors, is curious. That former players are shifting blame for their pain treatment choices from themselves to the NFL, begs even more questions. It’s not hard to understand the concussion lawsuit, which argued (correctly) that the NFL had pushed bogus science regarding a little-understood malady for decades. It’s harder to understand the painkiller suit, especially after hearing from former players who did and didn’t use the drugs.
Former Cardinals and Rams defensive back Aeneas Williams, a Hall of Famer and now an advisor in St. Louis’ front office, says he never took painkillers while playing because he feared side effects such as renal failure—which is listed by one of the former players now suing the league, claiming it to be a consequence of medical neglect.
“Personally, I’d never dealt with any painkiller use. If I was in pain or I went through injury, it wasn’t something that was demanded. I always avoided it if at all possible. It never really became a part of what I needed to play the game,” Williams says. “Somewhere along the line, I always knew that no matter what the medication was I believed there were negative side effects, as with any medicine.”
Other former players, such as offensive lineman Ross Tucker, did take the treatment.
“I didn’t exactly know what Toradol was,” Tucker wrote in a column for the Sporting News. “I definitely didn’t know some of the potential risks associated with taking the drug. I didn’t ask because I didn’t care. I cared about making the most of a great opportunity to be a starter in the NFL, an almost insurmountable task for a kid who’d been an undrafted free agent out of Princeton University and had barely made the team the year before.”
Most players will fall into the Tucker category—those who wanted and needed the shots to play. And it didn’t take an Ivy League education to understand that a drug which brought one back from the grave on Sundays could be doing long-term damage to the body.
Maybe the particularly incendiary portions of the suit will gain traction, but it’s more likely the NFL will take the same approach as it did with the concussion defense, arguing that players can’t prove the NFL is responsible for their ailments. If the case yields even a $1 settlement for players who didn’t anticipate Toradol side effects, it would be too much.
Perhaps you saw the series of Instagram videos shot by New York Giants cornerback Prince Amukamara last weekend, featuring him raging on a Bar Mitzvah dance floor with dozens of amped-up teens. If not, you should check it out. Like a lot of people, I wondered what the heck Amukamara was doing at a Bar Mitzvah. Turns out he was paid to be there.
Amukamara is one 850 current and former NFL players working for Thuzio, a New York-based online portal that connects companies, brands and individuals with athletes for a fee. Former Giants running back Tiki Barber launched the project in 2012 with the help of current CEO Jared Augustine, a 2003 Delaware grad who got his start selling kitchen cutlery via in-home demonstration.
I called Augustine to find out what Thuzio’s all about.
Who uses Thuzio?
“About 10% is what you saw with Prince; somebody inviting a player to a Bar Mitzvah or another party. For the most part, we deal with corporate functions. You can imagine you’re a sales leader pursuing an account and you can’t get this person to give you a meeting, and you find out they’re a New York Giants fan and you invite them to dinner with Harry Carson—they’re bound to show up. There’s also brand promotion. Burger King, for example, will hire a group of athletes to promote their Eat Like a King campaign on Twitter during March Madness. That’s 90% of the booking, and it’s everyone from Fortune 500 companies to your local car dealership.”
How much have you grown since the 2012 launch?
“Of that 850 players, 40% are active players. We have at least one guy on every team. Business has grown 20% month over month with all of the sports. Football has to be that or higher. It’s the core of our business. There are so many players on every team and they’re so recognizable, so the opportunity to connect with pro football players is larger. We saw our greatest transaction volume leading up to the Super Bowl, with a 30% jump from December to January, and I do think that is something that will be repeated year in and year out.
Who’s the biggest draw?
“Tiki Barber, our co-founder. He charges a very reasonable rate for these sorts of interactions. How much does a high priced attorney get paid? $800 an hour? Well, if I’m a former player and I can make a similar rate, and eat dinner with interesting people in the business community, that’s a good gig. On the current player side, Prince has been terrific. [Giants punter] Steve Weatherford has been booked frequently. The top three current NFL players in terms of volume are Muhammad Wilkerson, Eric Berry and Steve Weatherford.”
To what to you attribute the rapid growth and success?
“I think that probably no one had approached the talent from a technologist perspective. It’s always been business professionals focused on playing contracts and shoe deals, but we saw a demand and a surplus of talent, yet no place to build. We asked the question: What is going to make the customer really comfortable in this process? And what makes them comfortable is transparency in pricing and understanding what each individual talent is good at, whether it’s attending a dinner or delivering a keynote speech.”
Or partying with 13-year-olds.
1) New Giants running back Rashad Jennings watches a lot of tape, studying how different runners fit in various offenses. In no particular order, he’s ranked the top four NFL backs: Marshawn Lynch, Matt Forte, Arian Foster and Adrian Peterson. Jennings is such a film buff that he can describe what makes an effective inside zone runner unique from an outside zone runner with the kind of passion for minutiae that’s typically reserved for coaches. You’ll notice one thing about his list: Not one of his favorites is under 220 pounds. Jennings himself is 231.
2) Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams wrote a beautiful column for The MMQB on Thursday in which he spelled the ways his mother changed his life and the improved the lives of others while battling breast cancer, a family epidemic. One point that I want to make: The NFL should be ashamed that only 8% percent of its sales of “pink merchandise” goes toward cancer research, as reported by Business Insider last October. If the league is as concerned about doing good as much as they appear to be concerned with strengthening their image, they’ll do better.
3) Consider these two AFC North teams, and tell me which one we should be scrutinizing more. One team, a season removed from a Super Bowl victory, has a running back problem. One of the backs was being investigated for striking his fiancé in a casino elevator, then, last weekend, his backup was booted from a boozy Ocean City bar for being too drunk, and then his backup was arrested the same weekend for punching out a taxicab window while drunk. The second AFC North team—the one that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2002—has a rookie quarterback who, by the looks of it, legally enjoyed some adult beverages with other NFL players in Las Vegas last weekend. Yet it was Johnny Manziel who incited a social media frenzy and somehow warranted a media gaggle, not the wayward Ravens. Go figure.
4) There’s a lot to love about the way the NFL is presented today, with fans having access to broadcasts of every game, the All-22 view provided a day later by NFL.com, and several NFL Films produced pieces which take you inside the game and behind the scenes. But how can any of it ever touch basketball? If you watched Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, you saw permanent pest Lance Stephenson, in slow motion, blowing into LeBron James ear during a pause in action. No matter how many cameras they point at an NFL game, I doubt we ever see something that revealing or hilarious.
5) If you thought Ray Rice’s apology for allegedly striking his fiancé was tone deaf, and if you cringed when the Ravens tweeted out Janay Rice’s apology for her role in all of it, consider this passage from Ravens.com writer John Eisenberg: “More than a decade ago, Rice’s mentor, Ray Lewis, experienced even more serious legal trouble. He ultimately got on with his life, but it took years for sponsors to return to him, for Lewis to change the narrative. In the end, he was one of the faces of the NFL and a powerful force in the community. It became a great story of redemption, but his road was long and tough, and some detractors have never forgotten what happened.” By detractors, do you mean the victims’ families? The apologist culture surrounding the stars of one of pro football’s most successful teams may have reached a moral nadir.