Hard to blame Greg Jennings for blocking out some of the details. Because it’s not the kind of football season that forges fond memories.
I don’t mean his current Packers campaign, which has been marred by injuries but appears to be coming around. This forgettable football season happened back in 2004, well before Jennings ever donned a Green Bay uniform. He was still playing at Western Michigan University, displaying all the talents that would turn him into a second-round draft pick and an eventual All-Pro.
Problem was, Western Michigan didn’t have enough talent around him. The Broncos won their first game of the year, then didn’t win again. Ten more times they took the field, and 10 times they lost.
“Are you sure?” Jennings asked Tuesday afternoon when I reminded him of his once-upon-a-time 1-10 record. He knew things got bad, but he didn’t think they were that bad. Perhaps, he politely hinted, I was confusing my history.
But WMU was indeed that bad, and he was there soldiering through it all. I watched the whole problematic parade as the team’s beat writer for a Kalamazoo-area newspaper. There were blowouts and squeakers and late collapses, all variations on the main theme of losing. It cost a good man named Gary Darnell his job as WMU’s longtime coach. It was a rough time for everyone involved with the program, Jennings included.
But it’s also when I knew that, if some NFL team took a chance on Jennings, then he wouldn’t disappoint them. He stood above what turned into a season-long slog.
Not only because of his football skills, though those were readily apparent. WMU scored 33 touchdowns that season, and Jennings had 13 of them. Teams knew he was getting the ball and still couldn’t do much about it. He caught 74 passes for 1,092 yards and put the fear of film-room embarrassment in opposing punt coverage teams.
Pundits still questioned how his smallish stature and those MAC-level stats would translate to the pros. But those who saw him on an everyday basis were confident it wouldn’t be an issue – he was so darn quick, and his routes were so crisp – and it’s why the Packers surprised some folks by selecting him so early in the draft.
And yet, for all his natural ability, where Jennings really sold you was when you looked him in the eyes. Because no matter how bad things got, he met your gaze with poise and purpose.
As one of WMU’s standouts, he inevitably ended up in the team’s postgame press conferences trying to put the best face on a bad situation. Loss after loss kept piling up, and Jennings kept showing up, always answering the tough questions. When word came down of Darnell’s firing shortly before the season finale, he was the player who spoke for the team.
Jennings was still an amateur, but he was acting like a consummate pro. Charismatic. Confident. He should've been nicknamed The Natural.
I was reminded of all this Tuesday while watching him speak to a group of Milwaukee kids. He was at Lake Valley Camp, near the intersection of North 24th and West Cherry streets, delivering his message of confidence with all his characteristic charisma. “Dream big and your results are gonna be big,” he told them, a message he's probably delivered to a million kids about a million times. And he came across as natural as he does in those Old Spice smelf commercials.
One dream now within their reach is a scholarship to study abroad. Jennings has partnered with Milwaukee’s Omanhene chocolate company and the AFS-USA’s Faces of America program to send two students overseas. It’s the chance of a young lifetime, and details of the deal can be found here.
After his speech to the Lake Valley kids, Jennings signed autographs and posed for pictures until well after his allotted time. This was just part of his busy Tuesday schedule, which included Milwaukee appearances for Operation MOVE and the United Way, but his smile was ever-present.
Only one thing had gnawed at him. Jennings still couldn’t believe WMU had lost 10 games in that long-ago season. So, through the magic of a smartphone and the Internet, I pulled up the record books on WMU’s 2004 campaign. There were the 10 straight losses and the final verdict on Darnell. There was the season-opening win, a 42-0 shellacking of a Division 1-AA opponent that portended nothing of the weeks to come.
“2004. Tennessee-Martin,” he said, remembering the win. “I guess that was me.”
Yes it was.
Win or lose, still is.