October 4, 2012

Moffat: Als newcomer Jennings relishing second chance


This Thanksgiving, Alouettes running back Chris Jennings may get another opportunity on first-and-goal.  

And quite frankly, it should be a piece of pumpkin pie for a guy who has faced third and extremely long odds for the better part of his life.

As the Als are forced to once again spin the revolving door of receivers due to injury, Jennings has completed a unique double-reverse to the NFL and back, just in time to give rival defences double trouble out of the backfield.

Lost in the ashes of that Steeltown meltdown that saw their former teammate Avon Cobourne rush for 100+ yards in the Alouettes’ goodbye and good riddance to Ivor Wynne game, was Jennings who was brought to Montreal originally in the fall of 2008, saying hello to the endzone for the first time in the CFL.

In hindsight, his four-year dash to the Cleveland Browns, New York Jets and UFL’s Hartford Colonials was a blur for the undrafted University of Arizona product.

However, Jennings, a bulging 5-foot-11, 218-pound load, just doesn’t want to wait another four years for the next score.

“I’ve had some detours,” Jennings said in a low key, matter of fact tone at Olympic Stadium after a team meeting.   

When he first arrived on the Als’ practice roster, he served as backup to the backup Brandon Whitaker behind Cobourne for parts of the 2008-09 seasons.   

“Brandon and I were grinding it out,” Jennings recalls.  “You never know how the game is. Jim Popp gave me the opportunity to go live and fulfill my dream and that’s where it took me. Avon is a great man and a great football player, but Brandon (out for the season with a torn ACL) is a real close buddy of mine.”

Jennings’ football career went against the grain thanks in part to the Popp family’s Cleveland connection.  Jim’s father Joe had worked for the organization (Trestman also worked for the Browns in the Bernie Kosar era) and Jim maintained solid ties.

The Browns asked Popp repeatedly about Jennings, who won glowing reviews from the Als’ GM, eager to return a favour, not to mention ensure no other CFL rival stole his prospect.

Within weeks, a plague of injuries hit the Cleveland backfield and Jennings was a starter in the four-down world. 
“That was an awesome experience and a dream come true,” says Jennings, whose statistical footprint reveals one career touchdown and 220 yards on 63 carries for an unimpressive 3.5 average.

“You have a goal and you can’t let anything alter, take or distract you from that goal.  It took me a lot of detours even to get to Division l (US college ranks) from junior college.   Then I had to go up north to Canada to go to the NFL.

“That’s a lot of detours and you never know how the game goes, but I wouldn’t take it back for anything.”

The next detour was equally unexpected. Cut loose by the Browns in 2010, Jennings pulled an end run on the NFL, finding opportunity with the UFL.  He still had to do the chores on special teams as much as carry the load out of the backfield. The Colonials struggled and never played after that year.

In 2011, the New York Jets showed interest.  In pre-season action, Jennings ripped off the longest Jets’ run since five-time Pro Bowl back Chris Martin.  It wasn’t enough to save his job, as Jennings was cut loose and NFL interest vanished.

“I tried to get a couple of things going for my ‘little people’, my family.  A clothing line and a foundation back in Arizona.”
Jennings’ Facebook profile calls him the CEO of FNAO, a retail company drawing on a bible quote for inspiration: Failure’s Not An Option.

“I just got tired of sitting at the house on the couch waiting for the NFL to call,” Jennings admits. “I reached out to say I would love to come back (to Montreal) for training camp. Popp told me to stay ready.”

He kept himself in shape playing pickup basketball back home in Yuma. Maybe he believed the call would come.  Maybe he didn’t.

“That was like out of the blue,” confesses Jennings of Popp’s call when Whitaker blew out his knee a few weeks ago.

“The closest thing to football is playing basketball because of the back-and-forth continuous movement. I was trying my best.”

Dressing for just the second time since his return to Montreal, Jennings scored his first touchdown with some power running against a Ticat defence that had Victor Anderson stifled entirely.
Talk about your North-South runners, the bigger stronger Jennings carried the ball three times in a drive to score. His 5.2 average (though only on eight carries) is better than Anderson’s 4.1 (Whitaker swerved to a 5.1 mark before going down).

Coach Trestman denies he’s developing a two-headed backfield monster.

“I think it is Victor’s job,” says Trestman.  “We’ve got a long season to play here.  I’m looking at the long haul.  We don’t know Victor as well as we know Brandon, so we want to utilize Chris and get him involved.  It’s to keep them both healthy and physically ready to finish the entire season.

“Chris is acclimated to our offence and we can put him in for a series to run the ball and he can run it effectively.  That wouldn’t be a reflection on Victor or his performance.”

A solid vote of confidence, but Anderson knows the best competition is internal.

“He has to push me and I have to push him.  A spot is never guaranteed,” admits Anderson.

Jennings has also proven capable of getting the chores done. He’s a “wedge-buster” on cover teams and is more than happy to throw himself into the blocking duties in hopes of springing Trent Guy on kickoff returns.  Maybe no coincidence Guy is CFL Special Teams player of Week twice in a row.

This month, Jennings vows he’ll make a fashion statement as he proudly did three years ago in the NFL for Breast Cancer Awareness month.

“Yes indeed my grandmother just passed on to be with the Lord and it just came out of the blue, she was never sick or anything, it just came out of nowhere.

“I’ll be rocking the pink for her…and others.”