Aug. 18, 2008
By Bob Gillespie, The State
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Immortality used to be a rare thing in life and sports. But that was before the Internet generation's version of "forever" came about.
Even so, Stanford Jennings admits to being surprised when he learned earlier this year that the highlight moment from his nine-year NFL career, nearly two decades later, is again available for public viewing.
Welcome to the wonderful world of YouTube, Mr. Jennings.
If you're not old enough to remember Super Bowl XXIII, simply Google "Stanford Jennings" and follow the link to a one-minute video of his 93-yard kickoff return against the San Francisco 49ers, one that -- minus 34 seconds -- nearly made the former Cincinnati Bengals' running back/return specialist a Super Bowl MVP.
"Yeah, someone made me aware of that," Jennings, 46 and Midwest regional manager for sports shoe giant New Balance, said with a chuckle from his Atlanta office. "They said, `You know you're on YouTube?' and I said, `What?'"
Even on a computer screen, the moment is as electrifying now as then. Jennings takes the 49ers' kickoff and darts straight up field -- no jukes or cuts, just flat-out speed -- and into the end zone. Then, without fanfare, he trots to the Bengals' bench, where coach Sam Wyche gives him a congratulatory pat on the backside.
What tempers Jennings' enthusiasm for this blast from his past is what came next. San Francisco staged a late drive, Joe Montana passing to John Taylor for a touchdown to pull out a 20-16 victory with 34 seconds left.
And so, Jennings said, he has watched the YouTube video exactly once.
"I have a tape of that game, but I've never watched it," he said. "I know the outcome, and I couldn't stand that."
Jennings, whom his high school coach, legendary John McKissick of Summerville High, calls his best player ever, was all about results, not moments. And he produced results.
In three seasons with Jennings at tailback, Summerville lost only two games (his sophomore season), and he led the Green Wave to back-to-back Class 4A state titles in 1978-79. Then he moved on to Furman, where the Paladins won Southern Conference championships each of his four seasons.
He left Furman as the school's leading career rusher (3,868 yards and 39 touchdowns; he now ranks third) and was a surprising third-round draft pick by the Bengals. The Super Bowl stands as his Kodak moment in the NFL, but there were others, too.
"The real highlight might've been the night before," Wyche, now a volunteer coach at Pickens High, said. "His wife (Kathy) had their first child in Greenville. The guys from (Greenville's) Channel 4 somehow got a satellite feed and sent video of the mother and baby, so during our team meeting the whole team got to see them."
Today, the "baby," daughter Kelsey, is a 19-year-old sophomore at Furman. And son Jamie, 13, is the one who gets the biggest kick out of his dad's YouTube fame.
McKissick, in his second half-century as South Carolina's football patriarch, remembers Jennings as the son of Walter and Fannie Jennings, "hard-working people" who toiled on Evans Salisbury's dairy farm and taught their children the meaning of an honest day's labor. He also recalls the 10th grader who was a strong runner, not the fastest but always the most driven.
"I remember us being behind in a game at Middleton (High) his sophomore year," McKissick said. "He was so determined to win that doggone game, he wouldn't go down. After we won, I thought, `We've got something good coming here.'"
Summerville's star was its quarterback, Perry Cuda, a Parade All-American who went to Alabama (and later USC). But big schools did not recruit Jennings, one of three backs who split time and produced about 600 yards rushing each.
For Jennings, the choices boiled down to Furman or The Citadel, and the military aspect of the latter didn't thrill him. Too, Furman's Dick Sheridan, who already had won a SoCon title in 1978, and then recruiter Bobby Johnson preached the team concepts Jennings liked.
The Paladins went 36-9-2 and ruled the Southern Conference during Jennings' stay, but made their real reputation as giant killers. In 1982, Furman shocked South Carolina, 28-23, when teammate Ernest Gibson blocked a punt that was returned for a touchdown; a year later, the Paladins upset Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
"When I think about Stanford back then, it's as someone who was clutch," said Gibson, who says he rode Jennings' coattails to his own NFL career in New England and Miami. "When games were close or we were down, you always felt he was going to do something."
Playing at Furman, Jennings didn't imagine a shot at the NFL until scouts started showing up. He had seen The Citadel's Stump Mitchell make it to the NFL, and "I thought, `OK, Stump is from the Southern Conference, a similar career. It could happen to me, too,'" he said.
Wyche, also a Furman graduate (the two now are members of the school's board of trustees), didn't have to sell Jennings to his bosses. "Paul Brown (the Bengals' founder and first coach) would say before every draft, `I don't want to hear how this guy is a great athlete or whatever; tell me about the football players,'" he said.
"Stanford was that. He was an extremely smart player, had good speed, good hands and the size (205 pounds) to play fullback as well as tailback in our no-huddle offense. Plus, he was a special teams star."
Jennings' 2,752 yards in kickoff returns stood as the franchise record until 2000.
"I wanted Stanford to handle the ball in crucial situations," Wyche said.
Wyche had the same mindset in 1992 when he became coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He set out to bring in older players to establish a work ethic, including Jennings.
Jennings played in 11 games that season and then called it a career. Today, he remains close friends with former teammates Boomer Esiason and former USC receiver Ira Hillary.
He never worried about missing the chance to play against USC and other I-A schools every week. But Jennings did get some satisfaction a few years after he left Summerville, when then-Clemson coach Danny Ford recruited and signed his younger brother, Keith, who would go on to play for the Chicago Bears.
"I can remember Danny getting all over (assistant coach) Jimmye Laycock, (saying) `I can't believe you didn't recruit Stanford. Go offer his brother a scholarship,'" McKissick said, laughing. "And Keith was in the ninth grade!"
In 2006, Jennings was inducted into the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame. That night in Columbia, he and his fellow inductees relived great moments from their careers. Then he drove home to Atlanta, content with his career and his life, figuring that was that.
And then came YouTube.
"It's hard to appreciate, because it's always the same outcome (to the game)," Jennings said, chuckling. "But that comes around every year at Super Bowl time, when the networks show highlights. I'll usually relive it with someone I work with.
"It's unfortunate we didn't win the game, but people in Cincinnati ... that was a big play for them. They keep it alive."
Now, thanks to the Internet, "forever" is a click away.
About Stanford Jennings
HIGH SCHOOL: Summerville High
WEIGHT: 205 pounds
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Played seven seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals and one each with New Orleans and Tampa Bay before retiring in 1992... . Was a three-time All-Southern Conference player at Furman, leading the Paladins to four conference titles and finishing as the school's all-time leading rusher (3,868 yards, 39 touchdowns)... . The Paladins were 36-9-2 during his four seasons, upsetting South Carolina (1982) and Georgia Tech (1983)... . Earned All-State Class 4A honors under John McKissick at Summerville, leading the Green Wave to state titles in 1978-79... . One of four Furman players to have his jersey number (27) retired.