EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Long before he broke from Sunday's pregame prayer and delivered to teammates a pep talk that was half Knute Rockne, half Tony Robbins, Rashad Jennings had acted as a motivational speaker to an audience of one. Himself.
He was a lost 270-pound teenager with asthma, a kid with no clue what to do about his NFL ambitions and his abysmal grade-point average at a Virginia high school -- 0.6, if you're scoring at home. One day Jennings had decided that enough was enough, that he would run and run and run some more until he lost weight and neutralized the asthma attacks that had sent him to the hospital.
The high school benchwarmer made himself an NFL running back that way, and so in the moments before the New York Giants would start saving their season in a 30-17 victory over the Houston Texans, Jennings decided to elevate his team like he'd once elevated his former self.
"Whatever reason you play this game," Jennings told a circle of fellow Giants, "play like that. Whether it's a child with cancer that you want to motivate, play that way. If it's to prove somebody wrong, play that way. If it's to play for this team, play that way. If it's just because your grandma's watching, play that way."
Of course, Jennings had to apply the same pep-talk principles to the man in his own mirror.
"My father has diabetes and he ended up getting both of his legs amputated," Jennings said. "He doesn't have legs, so today I remembered that I do have [mine]."
Those legs carried Jennings, first-year Giant, to a career-high 176 yards and a touchdown on 34 carries, making that four-year, $10-million contract Jerry Reese offered in free agency look like a wise investment. Jennings didn't arrive as any sort of sure thing. He was a seventh-round draft pick who had made only 17 starts and averaged only 419 rushing yards over four seasons before signing up for his place behind Eli Manning.
And then there was that devastating fumble in the Arizona loss last week, the one caused by some unseen gremlin on the ground, the one Jennings said he wouldn't have coughed up 999 times out of a thousand. The running back needed help deleting that memory from his hard drive.
So Sunday morning he spoke by phone with his father Albert, a former high school star and Nebraska signee who had surrendered his major-college dream to help support his family. Albert Jennings was preparing to watch the Giants on the TV inside his Richmond, Virginia, home when he heard his son say the following:
"I want to play for you."
Albert Jennings, retired Air Force man, responded with this order:
"Go kick butt."
Jennings and the Giants had no choice but to kick butt. At 0-2 after losing at home to Drew Stanton, and suddenly feeling the full weight of last season's 0-6, Tom Coughlin was desperate enough to play Biggie Smalls music in practice.
Everyone responded. Jennings, Victor Cruz, Ben McAdoo, the defense, you name it. Each and every one of last week's goats who was present inside MetLife Stadium -- excluding the most conspicuous goat, Roger Goodell -- redeemed himself against a Houston team that is one credible quarterback away from being legit.
But Jennings was the most obvious difference-maker, if only because he kept hearing that pregame order from his old man.
"It's just a subtle whisper in your ear," Jennings said.
"I wanted to play from a different motivation for myself and I wanted the team to do that as well, because we've got so much talent on this team. And the only way to pull it out is reminding every single soul why they're doing this."
As soon as Jennings was done shredding the Texans, his parents turned to each other in their Richmond living room and shook their heads.
"We couldn't believe it," said Jennings' mother, Deborah. "I'm hugging Albert and he's hugging me, and he was in awe. Having Rashad tell him he was playing the game for him meant the world to Albert. He was like a little kid at Christmas."
Deborah was speaking by phone Monday morning with her husband off to a physical therapy session, trying to learn how to get around with his second prosthetic. Deborah was at the Arizona game and couldn't believe her son fumbled away the ball.
"I'd never seen him do that before," she said. "He's got hands like his dad. Like gloves."
He's got the same determination, too. Jennings walked his own talk with his teammates, had his career day, and put a Week 3 smile on some otherwise grim faces. On his way into the winners' locker room, the executive who signed Jennings, Reese, said he hired the back because he knew the part-time starter "was a producer when he got in there. He can run it, catch it, block, and make some big runs into the secondary. He's a pro."
Across the hall, waiting to watch his older son Peyton get his Super Bowl rematch in Seattle, Archie Manning spoke of how much Jennings had helped Eli.
"No matter how the game has evolved," Archie said of the pass-happy NFL, "it always helps when you can run the ball like that."
Cruz described Jennings as "sheer toughness" and a player who is fun to block for, and Coughlin said a productive running back provides necessary balance and "a safer way to throw the ball."
With a decade of wear and tear on his right arm, and with a cast of wide receivers who don't keep defensive coordinators awake at night, Eli Manning needs this kind of help from his backfield. From Jennings, a guy who was never supposed to be seen high-hurdling his way toward an NFL goal line like he did Sunday.
Once upon a time, Jennings was that kid who started running up and down the stairs in his parents' house, running to and from the YMCA nearly four miles away, to try to melt away the pounds and chase the asthma out of his body. He molded himself into a starter as a true freshman at Pittsburgh before transferring to Jerry Falwell's school in Virginia, Liberty, after his sick father endured his first amputation.
Jennings needed to be closer to home, closer to his old man. He became a big man on Falwell's campus, made it to the NFL like his older brothers Bryan and Butch, and finally found his featured back's role with the Giants.
An injured Butch Jennings had been cut by the Giants before the start of the 1995 season, a few months after he was signed. It looks like Butch's kid brother will stick around for a while, especially after he inspired his teammates and then ran wild against Houston in honor of his dad.
"I had to be accountable for it," Jennings said of his pregame pledge.
The running back who listened to a subtle whisper made the loudest noise Sunday, and the 2014 New York Giants are still breathing because of it.