“That really changed my life and helped me out a lot,” Jennings told TGI. “That was a real turning point for me. Sitting in that jail cell will do it.”
Unfortunately that wasn’t Jennings’ first brush with the law.
In college, Jennings was nailed for driving with a suspended license and also brought up on “drug and dope charges.”
“My first time they allowed me to go to school during the day and jail at night,” he explained. “I had to do that for 60 nights.”
Now, four years later, Jennings is on top of the world, having defied the odds and caught on with the receiving-rich Giants. Heck he even caught a pass on opening night against the Colts.
Jennings quickly gives the credit to one woman – his longtime girlfriend, Natasha Gonder, whom he’s been dating since college.
“I love her,” Jennings smiled. “She stood by me and she’s a big reason why I’m here today.”
Give Gonder the credit, but a whole bunch of speed certainly didn’t hurt Jennings either.
“I knew it was going to be tough to make the team but I knew I had a chance because of my speed,” said Jennings, who earned three letters in track at Florida State. “I knew if I could make a play or two, they’d pay some attention to me. I knew it was going to be hard, but I had faith.”
Jennings, who didn’t play one down of college football, fashioned himself after the lead character in the movie Invincible. In the film, Vince Papale, who never played college football, overcame the odds to make the Philadelphia Eagles’ roster in 1976.
“It was like a dream come true,” Jennings said of making the final 53. “It was like a real blessing. Go check out that movie Invincible. There are some similarities. He didn’t play college football and worked so hard.
“That was real inspirational. Watching that movie was real touching to me. It kind of reminded me of Mike Jennings. So I kind of think of myself as the ’06 Papale.”
After that short stint with the Niners in ’02, Jennings also spent time on the practice squads of New England, Baltimore and the Giants, including the entire 2005 season.
While Jennings’ perseverance is to be lauded, he also showed plenty of skills this summer. He caught eight passes for 86 yards, ran twice for 17 yards and returned eight punts for 87 yards, including a 57-yard touchdown at Baltimore.
That electric punt return, which sparked a New York comeback victory in its preseason opener, is officially what put Jennings on the map.
“That just really helped with my confidence,” he said. “Football is a lot mental, probably 90 percent mental. It showed me that maybe I can do this.
“Everybody gets their time to do things. With hard work, having faith and getting a little lucky, put that all together and I’m here.”
“We think that the development of Jennings is pretty obvious – he’s come along,” Tom Coughlin said. “He’s an effervescent, energetic guy. I like the energy.”
Jennings showed that energy on the field against the Colts, catching a six-yard pass from Eli Manning during the first quarter of the season opener.
“It was a simple thing,” Jennings said. “They gave me an opportunity to make a play and I’m just happy I came up with it.
“I felt real good and it was a dream come true. But I tried to act like I was in practice. When the ball came I caught it just like I was in practice.”
Going forward, Jennings knows that he just has to be ready to do whatever’s necessary.
“Whenever they call ‘1-5,’ even if that’s out in practice to help out the defense, or if injuries happen, I just want to be someone they can call on,” the 5-11, 175-pounder said.
Before his play did the talking, Jennings was known this summer for his flashy smile, quick-witted quotes, southern charm and of course, the wheels – his 1995 Chevy Caprice with 26-inch rims.
“I’m a country boy from Duval County in Jacksonville,” he said. “That’s how we do down south. We put big wheels on Chevys. That’s how I ride. That’s how I’m going to ride forever.”
With his fun-loving act having worked this long, Jennings has no intentions to change.
“A lot of people look at me like I’m different, but that’s nothing new,” he said. “That’s just Mike Jennings, man. I’ve been that way all my life. Now that I’m with this team, there are more eyes on me. But that’s just been Michael Jennings from day one. I just like to have fun and live life. I’m just a guy that loves Jesus. I’m a Christian guy that likes to have fun.”
But coming to New York has certainly opened Jennings’ eyes.
“Believe it or not, the media attention has been even a lot for me,” he laughed. “I like the attention but I think it’s been too much. I’m taking it all in stride.”
Now comes the question that must be asked – with Jennings as untraditional as they come and his coach, Tom Coughlin, the polar opposite, how have the two gotten along? According to Jennings just fine.
“Coach just told me to be professional,” Jennings stated. “As long as I do what I need to on the field and don’t get in any trouble, everything will be ok.
“One thing about Coach Coughlin that I love is that if you’re a hard worker and get your job done your relationship with him will be real good. Don’t be late and everything will be cool.”
While things were far from cool for Jennings four years ago, he’s found the straight and narrow and a happy home in the Big City. And there’s no doubt that Natasha Gonder must be smiling because her boy finally made it.
“She was so happy because she’s been with me through so many things in the past, like going to jail, getting cut and a lot of different things,” Jennings smiled. “It’s been a long ride but we made it through.”