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EXCLUSIVE: 'DWTS' Frontrunner Rashad Jennings Reveals the Emotional Story He Plans to Tell Through Dance

by Desiree Murphy 11:20 AM PDT, March 29, 2017
Photo: Rashad Jennings/ETonline

Behind Rashad Jennings' impressive football stats and newly acquired dance skills is a story that will truly touch your heart, and one he hopes to share through dance.

The 32-year-old NFL star, who is currently competing on season 24 of Dancing With the Stars, may have a seemingly permanent smile on his face in the ballroom and on the field, but in an exclusive interview with ET, he admits that behind the scenes, it hasn't always been that way.

Growing up in Forest, Virginia, Jennings, the youngest son of Albert and Deborah Jennings, felt he was never destined for greatness. A career in football seemed nearly impossible for Jennings, who described himself as "an overweight chubby kid."

"I never was a kid that had talent," he tells ET. "Rolling out of bed [every day] with no talent. I grew up with a 0.6 GPA. I was overweight, I had glasses, asthma. With the history of a running back, the odds were against me."

Photo: Rashad Jennings/ETonline

"When I was an asthmatic kid, I actually was on my death bed. I was hospitalized when I was 13," he shares. "I could barely blow through a peak flow [meter]. I mean, forget trying to play a sport, I was fighting for my life."

"After a week in the hospital, I finally got out and the doctors made strict rules about me eating, not being able to have a dog, not being able to run, not able to be around cigarettes," he continues. "My dad used to smoke a lot and drink all the time. We started doing everything right, but at one point, he started smoking cigarettes again back in the house. I would smell it and start getting sick. I remember going up to my dad and saying, 'Dad, can you stop smoking and drinking and be there for me?'"

"One day he was sitting in his chair in his room," Jennings adds. "He took a puff of his cigarette, took a sip of his drink and he looked at me and said, 'Rashad, what do you want to do when you get older?' Again, this is me, overweight and with asthma. I looked at him and said, 'I wanna play running back in the NFL.'"

Flash forward a few years later, and Jennings beat the odds, proving everyone, including his father, wrong. He joined the Jefferson Forest High School football team as a fifth string running back, where he was later approached by collegiate football scouts hoping to add him to their roster after getting word of his impressive defensive plays. At the time, Jennings felt it was kind of a way to get back at his dad for being so hard on him over the years.

"He once asked me, 'Do you think you'll be able to make it to the NFL without drinking or smoking yourself?'" Jennings remembers. "It was, like, arrogant. With tears in my eyes I said, 'Just to prove you wrong, I'm never going to smoke or drink.' I'm 32 now, and still have never smoked or drank a day in my life."

Photo: Rashad Jennings/ETonline

Once Jennings was feeling more confident in his own skin, he transferred to Lynchburg Christian Academy, where he worked on his grades, fitness, and of course, football. When it was finally time for him to attend college in 2005, everything really started to look up for him -- he became a starting running back his freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh, the fourth true freshman to ever do so at that school. But one semester later, he had to press pause on his dreams when he received a phone call about his dad's health.

"My freshman year at Pittsburgh University, I got a call from my mom and she said, 'Rashad, you know your dad has diabetes. Well, he has to get his leg amputated,'" Jennings recalls. "I was 19 years old at the time, and family is all I knew and all I had. I wanted to be home to help take care of the house, help take care of Mom, and help move Dad around and everything."

Jennings quickly made the decision to transfer to a smaller school, Liberty University, in order to be closer to home and his family. "I had finally made it to college at a big school and then had to transfer," he says. But there was no way one setback was going to stop him from excelling now.

Photo: Rashad Jennings/ETonline

With 3,633 yards, 42 touchdowns and 5.7 average yards per carry under his belt at Liberty, his dreams of playing football professionally came true when he was drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the seventh round of the 2009 NFL draft, where he played for three years.

Photo: Getty Images

But another tragedy struck in 2013. When Jennings was playing with the Oakland Raiders, he learned that his dad's other leg had to be amputated, again due to diabetic complications.

While Jennings admits his relationship with his father hasn't always been perfect, the two have become much closer over the years. "By him saying those things to me as a kid, it kind of propelled me to be the person I am today," Jennings shares. "And him watching his little knucklehead kid prove him wrong, made him quit smoking and drinking overtime. We have the best relationship just because of that."

Jennings feels it's his duty to live an active lifestyle, one he can achieve that his once athletic father no longer can. He's already done it on the field, running for his father all those years in stadiums across the nation, his most recent being with the New York Giants, the team he's played for since 2014.

Photo: Getty Images

And now, he's using his legs to dance for his dad on Dancing With the Stars. When ET asks if there's any story he could tell through dance, he says it would undoubtedly be this one… and he has faith that his pro partner, Emma Slater, will choreograph a routine that will perfectly encapsulate his journey.

"I should have never, ever, ever, ever made it to the NFL," he insists. "So, to be in a position where I'm dancing with Dancing With the Stars on ABC, this is just -- I'm still shocked."

"I want to dedicate a song to my father," he adds. "Both of his legs had to be amputated, so for me to be able to dance for him, it's just like when I think about playing football. My father doesn't have legs, so I get to run, for him. Obviously he can't dance, so to be able to dance for him I think would be every emotional for me."

Photo: Rashad Jennings/ETonline

And according to Emma, it's going to happen.

"Rashad is a wonderful, incredible person," she tells ET. "His story is amazing, about that kind of unconditional love that he has for his dad. He's made his life dedicated to bringing his dad back in a sense … it was just so heartfelt when he told me, so I knew that that was something that's going to be in our season."

"We're definitely going to pay ode to his dad and the kind of unique relationship they have," she continues. "Because it didn't start off the way it is now, so I think it's really quite unique and tells the story of who Rashad is today."

Jennings says that today, he's "kind of a living witness" of loving family, and "keeping God in your life, consistently trying to do the right things [so] that good things will come back to you over time."

Photo: Rashad Jennings/ETonline

Aside from dancing and picking up new hobbies -- like poetry, magic tricks and guitar -- during each off-season, the athlete, who is currently a free agent after being released by the Giants last month, proudly promotes his Rashad Jennings Foundation, which aims to educate and inspire youth everywhere to go after their dreams, no matter what the odds may be.

"I do a lot through my foundation to try and encourage kids because like I said, I shouldn't be here. I realize that and I understand the awesome responsibility that I have to my community," he explains. "I also understand that it's nothing special about me -- I'm just in a unique, special position. I always take time to try to unmask myself, especially from the helmet, and I really get to unmask myself now [on DWTS] and kind of be a light or magnifying glass towards things that are important in the world. Hopefully people will see that and be encouraged by that."

For years, he's been encouraging his fellow NFL peers and loyal team of family, friends and supporters, whom he's dubbed "The Shad Squad," to do the same by giving back and using their platform in a positive way. That's why when it came time for he and Emma to decide on a team name, #TeamShadSquad felt like a natural fit.

Photo: Getty Images

So, yes, by taking one look at the NFL star, you'll see an athlete with an incredible build, a man of many talents, and one with a seemingly permanent, genuine smile on his face. But next time you see him on that ballroom stage, remember that there's so much more than meets the eye, and he's dancing for not only his dad, but for all of those who have faced adversities on the road to achieving their dreams.

"My story is long, there are so many areas of the story that I'd really like to get out to fans," he says. "I hope people get to see all the elements and sides to me that may be, stereotypically, the football industry may not appreciate."

"I'm excited to allow people to see authentically the other sides of who I am outside of football," he adds. "And hopefully I keep getting voted on, so they get to hear it all!"

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