By Ernie Palladino
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Of all the roles he played in life — punter, radio analyst, press room friend — Dave Jennings’ greatest was that of a teacher.
Not the person who stands in front of a classroom. Jennings taught something just as important as math or English to a far wider audience, lessons that inspired anyone who cared to sit up and pay attention.
He taught us all how to deal with adversity. And thank goodness those lessons didn’t die when the Parkinson’s disease he battled the last 20 years finally overcame his 61-year-old body Wednesday.
Life deals all of us our share of challenges. Few handle them as well as Jennings. This was a man who saw a disease sap the vestiges of movement that made him a great Giants punter, knew what lie ahead of him, and still went on with life as normally as Parkinson’s would allow. He never complained. And unless you questioned him about it, he would never bring it up.
His personality was easy and laid-back, and that probably had a lot to do with how he handled life. He’d show up to practice, always preparing for his next broadcast with Bob Papa and Dick Lynch — another teacher in the Jenning’s mode who suffered and died in 2008 from leukemia that few knew he had. Always with a backpack slung over his shoulder, a smile on face, and soft words as he watched his former team go through its paces.
His walk before the Parkinson’s took it away might have reminded a stranger of a college kid strolling a grassy quad between spring classes. But his eyes and attention were keen, and he took in everything he needed to turn the ambiguous into clarity for his Sunday audience.
So much has been made about how he knew the rulebook better than anyone. He knew life plenty, too. And he knew that the breaks don’t always fall your way. You just have to do the best you can.
It happened that way with his playing career. He got stuck on some bad teams from the time he came out of St. Lawrence in 1974 to his final year with Big Blue in 1984. Real bad. He only experienced two winning seasons, including the 1981 playoff season under Ray Perkins, when the franchise’s fortunes finally started to turn from the wasteland of the ’70s.
You know a team is awful when the punter becomes its only star. But Jennings never complained. Instead, he went to the Pro Bowl four times. Just handled the adversity, went about his business. In later years, you never heard him complain about missing out on the Super Bowl or the playoff checks.
He became a top-notch analyst, good enough to go on a national stage. But his lack of universal star power — even the great punters don’t get the recognition of quarterbacks and linebackers and such — deprived him of any chance to land a network gig. But he didn’t rail against the TV execs. He just continued to do his job as always, a consummate pro.
Then came the Parkinson’s. At least publicly. The disease actually had started on its mean, destructive curve 10 years before he let anyone outside his immediate family know. He only let the rest of the world in on his secret in 2005 when he could no longer hide the outward effects.
The speech grew a little labored, the easy gait grew a little more tentative. But it never became a major talking point with him. He went to work. He looked toward the next day. He showed absolutely zero respect for the disease.
“You don’t die from Parkinson’s,” he said back then, “you die with it.”
Parkinson’s may have been the only thing Jennings ever disrespected in his life. It eventually got him in the end. It does those things. But while he still could, Jennings gave it a run for its money.
In doing so, he taught a lesson greater than any rulebook issue he ever cleared up on the radio.
He taught us how to stay classy in the face of real adversity.
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