A shooting derailed Bradley Jennings' draft prospects in 2002. Now he's back in the mix.
By JAMAL THALJI
Published April 22, 2004
They called him "Monster."
A punishing tackler at Florida State, Bradley Jennings hoped the nickname would stick in the NFL. The draft, and the middle linebacker's boyhood dream, was weeks away. Then came March 30, 2002, when a jittery carjacker surprised Jennings before a jog in his Carol City neighborhood. Before he could give up his keys, two bullets pierced Jennings' right shoulder.
An NFL career no longer was possible for the then 24-year-old. Instead, Jennings found himself a disabled, unemployed, married father of one. Now when he thinks back to that year, two nights haunt him: The night he almost died, and the night his pro career did.
"My family still wanted to throw a get-together (draft day)," said Jennings, who went undrafted. "But everybody was crying that day. It was almost as if I was gone, like I wasn't even alive anymore.
"My mom and dad, as hard as they worked, they were just torn apart about it. I was mad too, I was real disappointed, seeing how hard they worked all their lives to help me (make it), seeing how close I was to making it.
"My dream's always been to star in the NFL. All I need is a shot, and I know I'll make it."
"Monster" is about to get his shot.
* * *
Jennings once dreamed of being a star. Instead he became a statistic.
According to the 2002 Census Report, 43.6-million Americans were uninsured that year.
Jennings, a gunshot victim, was one of them.
"FSU told me they weren't responsible because I wasn't on the team anymore," he said. "I didn't have school insurance and I didn't have football insurance. I was in a bind."
His assailant fled after the shooting, without taking anything, and Jennings said he was never caught. Jennings went from an NFL signing bonus to financial debt. He still owes more than $12,000 for his hospitalization and helicopter transport. "It cost him a first-round draft pick," said his agent, Scott Hall, of Upper Level Sports Management Group Inc. "At least a $3-million signing bonus, maybe a total of $4-million over a couple of years."
The pain never went away either. "It sort of felt like somebody took a big nail and took a hammer and just drove it into my shoulder," Jennings said. "It didn't go away for a long time. Then I went through my depression stage, stressing out and worrying about everything."
He was in pain on his wedding day, April 13, 2002, when he married his Carol City High School sweetheart, Carmen, now 24. He no longer could work out for NFL teams without risking his life. The draft came and went.
"I planned my wedding day and my wife and I decided we're still going to go through everything and just keep our heads up," Jennings said. "But the hardest thing was when I didn't get drafted, when nothing was happening for me."
Jennings, Carmen and their son Bradley, now 4, returned to Tallahassee. Jennings finished the last credits needed for his social science degree. "Then I joined the job force," he said. Or tried to. Finally Chiles High hired him as a part-time tutor. To make ends meet, he coached football at Rickards High with his arm in a sling.
"I couldn't stand up at the chalkboard for more than 10 minutes," he said. "I was trying to write, and the kids were like, "Mr. Jennings, what's wrong with you?'
"But thank God for that. It was good, working with those kids. It was sort of like God was showing me things in my life to appreciate."
* * *
Jennings never gave up on his dream. But how to make it happen? He had to rehabilitate his shoulder himself. He relied on the charity of FSU team doctors and high school trainers and the techniques and stretches he invented.
"I started to see little improvements, and even though I was still in pain, it gave me faith," Jennings said. "I loved to exercise, so I did everything I could do. I started swimming. I couldn't even freestyle, just dog paddle a little."
Jennings tried to keep his head up. He stayed away from pro and college football, even when it was on TV. His weakened condition made him too ashamed to visit his parents, Jean and Casandra, in Carol City. "I didn't really have any money to go back," Jennings said, "and some of it was I didn't want to go back."
In December 2002 friends from Miami dragged "Monster" to the high school football championships at Doak Campbell Stadium. It was Jennings' first visit to the stadium where he started for three years, led the team in tackles for two and was All-Atlantic Coast Conference as a senior.
"I had never been in those stands before, watching anyone else play," Jennings said. "I almost broke down. I couldn't take it. It was just too hard. I got up and started to leave."
His high school coach, Walt Frazier, grabbed him.
"He asked me, "Well, what are you going to do Brad? Give it another shot?' "
"Yeah Coach," Jennings said. "I want it bad."
* * *
Jennings went after his dream again. After the couple had their second child, Brandon, now 1, the family moved to Jacksonville eight months ago. Jennings found work with his agent and rehabbed at the High Intensity Training Center.
Once a player passes through a draft without being picked, he is a free agent. Jennings wanted teams to call him after the 2004 NFL draft.
In January he came to Pasco County without his family to work with speed trainer Johnny Walters at the Trinity YMCA with FSU linebackers Kendyll Pope and Allen Augustin. They spent months building speed and strength, mastering the drills NFL scouts measure prospects by.
In 2002, the 6-foot-3, 255-pound Jennings, slowed by knee surgery, ran a 4.96-second 40-yard dash and benched 225 pounds 25 times. At a March 16 pro day workout for scouts, a slimmer, 235-pound Jennings ran a 4.64 and benched 225 24 times - the most of any FSU player at the workout. Now the Saints, Giants and Jets are among the interested teams.
"Anybody who can come back from what he's come back from is incredible," Walters said. "But the big thing is, he hasn't played for two years, and that's what's going to hurt him."
Jennings also has to convince an NFL franchise that a healthier, more mature, more determined 26-year-old working family man is a better prospect now than two years ago.
"I think the experience, from being out this long, has just made me hungrier, really," he said. "It makes me want it more."
In February, Jennings stopped by the University of Miami's pro day to remind NFL scouts he is back. Packers linebackers coach Mark Duffner remembered Jennings from two years ago.
"He said, "Are you ready? How's your shoulder feeling?' " Jennings said. "I said, "Coach, I'm ready. Whatever you need me to do, I'm ready.' "