New Year’s inspiration: Kenneth Jennings pushes on 27 years after devastating football injury

Kenneth JenningsIn 1989, I did a three-part series on Kenneth Jennings, chronicling his new life after suffering a devastating football injury during a high school game. It truly was one of the highlights of my career. I never saw him down or complain about his situation.

Twenty-seven years later, he has the same approach to life. Here’s a link to my story in today’s Chicago Tribune.

Take a few moments to read the story and please share with others. There is plenty we all can learn from Mr. Jennings.

An excerpt:

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Kenneth Jennings doesn’t see any reason why he shouldn’t celebrate the day he took his final steps and moved his arms for the last time. He even has a term for it.

“I just celebrated my 27th re-birthday,” Jennings said.

On Oct. 8, 1988, Jennings, then a junior at Simeon High School, suffered a broken neck during the opening kickoff of a game against Corliss. The catastrophic collision left him a quadriplegic. He faced a future unable to move anything from the neck down. And it wasn’t supposed to be a long future. At the time, doctors only gave him 10 years to live.

Jennings, though, never views that day as the worst in his life. Quite the contrary.

“People say, ‘How can you celebrate a tragedy?’” Jennings said. “I say, I was reborn on that day. Everything I had was taken away from me. I was like a newborn. I had to relearn everything. How to talk; how to breathe on my own; a new way of life. Every year that I’m still here, (his ‘re-birthday’) is a way of thinking that God gave my life back to me. How do you not celebrate a gift?”

In more conventional birthday terms, Jennings now is 45. It has been nearly three decades since I wrote a three-part series about him for the Tribune in June, 1989 chronicling his transition to a new life with his work at the Rehabilitation Center of Chicago.

Initially, I thought it was going to be the most depressing assignment I ever covered. The kid just had his life shattered. Instead, Jennings’ unfailing upbeat approach produced the most moving and inspirational stories of my career.

As so often happens, after the initial burst of publicity, a person fades from view, never to be heard from again. People, though, should hear the rest of Jennings’ story.

Jennings now dedicates a good portion of his life to giving back. He returned to his old school this fall as an assistant football coach at Simeon. With the help of caregivers, he lives alone in a house on Chicago’s South Side. But Jennings often has company, allowing troubled inner-city students to crash in his extra bedroom if they have nowhere else to go.

Jennings also has a foundation, Gridiron Alliance, whose mission is to ensure high school athletes have insurance to cover the huge expense of catastrophic injuries. Jennings was instrumental in getting Illinois to pass legislation providing the coverage in 2013. In April, he received the Governor’s Volunteer Service Award.

“Life is not about us,” Jennings said. “We all need to get help. God has brought many people in my life. I’ve had so many people help me. Why wouldn’t I do it for others?”

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