October 18, 2022
Amplify Inclusion Podcast
Welcome to Amplify Inclusion, a podcast where we share authentic stories of inclusion in action.
Coach Ken Jennings shares his personal story and how his experience drives his commitment to helping others. Listen now or view the full transcript below.
This episode was co-produced and engineered by Subframe Sound with music courtesy of Nealle DiPaolo. This season is made possible thanks to generous support from the Fred J. Brunner Foundation, Enterprise Fleet Management, First Bank Chicago and members of the Aspire community.
Welcome to Amplify Inclusion. I’m Clare from the nonprofit, Aspire. Thanks for joining us for stories and conversation about disability inclusion. Today my guest is Kenneth Jennings, also known as Coach Ken, founder and CEO of the Gridiron Alliance Foundation. In 1988, Ken was injured while playing in a high school football game and became paralyzed from the neck down. Ken is a longtime activist, working to mandate catastrophic injury insurance for high school athletes, and helping to pass the Rocky Clark Law in Illinois. Ken is a recipient of the 2015 Governor’s Volunteer Service Award. He’s also a motivational speaker, a peer mentor at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab, co-host of the Chicago Coach’s Corner sports talk show, and has been a high school football coach for over 25 years. I had the chance to speak with Coach Ken, and learn more about how his experience drives his commitment to helping others. Here’s our conversation. Ken, I’m so glad to have you with me today.
Well, thank you, I’m glad to be here.
You know, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing your story and getting to learn a little bit more about you and was really excited to have you on so that we can share your story with the listeners of our podcasts and hear about all the great work you’re doing. So I’m hoping we can just start off
by going way back to the beginning, even before 1988. And I’d love to have you just tell me a little bit more about yourself. So who was young Kenneth Jennings?
Oh young Kenneth Jennings before all this. Young Kenneth Jennings was a shy kid, only time I was vocal was on the football field. But before that I grew up in the projects of Wentworth gardens. And it just- for a lot of us, we just didn’t see a way of getting out. And for me, my way of getting out was going to be through football. I used to pray in the morning, asking God to let me get my family out the projects through football. So I remember the first time I fell in love with football, I was about 10 years old. And my brother and some of his friends was out playing this game called Throw Up Your Tackle and take the football throw it up real high and there’s one person down there. And do you have about seven, eight other people coming at you to try- to try to tackle you. So I get out there and the first time they do it, they throw the ball up there and I catch it. As I look back down, I see all of the guys running toward me. I threw the ball into the air and ran my but back in the house. [laughter] So you threw it out to me again, when I caught it I
looked down and I start weaving and dodging to get between everybody and got to the other end of the field without being touched. Ah, it was like, that was the first time that I fell in love with football. So we growin-up in projects, it was hard seeing friends, losing friends to gang violence, and lost about three friends like that. And that’s hard. It makes it- make you they’ll do two things. You either one- try to work harder to get out of the situation. Or two- you just don’t fall into it and accept it for what it is. And I didn’t want that. That was not what I wanted in life. I wanted more. I used to wake up in the morning run five miles and well- two and a half miles in the morning, and two and a half miles at night. Around the projects every day. And I wanted more I couldn’t- I was not going to sit back and, what was in front of me thinking that that was supposed to be my existence. So, young Kenneth Jennings and- I guess we got more in common than what I thought.
Can you tell me more about how your high school journey started and how it was going with football and kind of then tell me about the accident?
So my sophomore year I played roster, and at that point it was, I found myself. He was extremely shy. Didn’t say much, didn’t talk much. Unless I was on the football field. Got through my sophomore year, um my junior year is when I was gonna be starting. And the day I got hurt, I was actually starting both ways. That was my first game. Finally started in middle linebacker and quarterback. I usually always started a middle linebacker but this time it was just on both sides of the ball. And I was looking forward to it. But the week before, I had injured my back, also an opening kickoff of the game. But you know being a player back then you don’t leave the game. So I finished the game, but my back was hurting so bad and that teammates had to take my equipment off. And all that week I was just not feeling comfortable. Like I shouldn’t play and on the day of the game, the routine that I usually have- I didn’t do my same routine. I, you know, most athletes are superstitious, but I didn’t do my my- my usual things that I do. And opening kickoff went down. We kicked the ball off to them. And I was on the opposite side of the field for the ball got kicked. So it kinda left my lane. And as he’s going down the sideline, I hit him like around the ribcage area from my head coming across in front of him. And as I hit him as I started sliding down, his back came up and caught me under my chin, and snapped my neck back, causing me to shatter my 3rd and 4th vertebrae. Rendering me a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down. And it was for me it was instant. I fell on my back. And like all football players will- all athletes when you get knocked down, first thing you think about is getting up. So I did like I always did- I got up and ran to the sideline. But I ran mentally- physically, I was still staying there. Try it again, same thing. And at this point I’m like, “Okay. Somethings seriously not right.” So, teammate, he runs off to the sideline tell the coaches that something’s wrong. And they run over there. So I call it the pen test. They took my shoe off, and start rubbing a pen up and down my feet, and asked me, did I feel it? I’m like, No. Then they come up to my legs and my thighs, I’m still telling them “No, I don’t feel anything.” So they come up my stomach, my chest, my neck, I didn’t feel anything til they touched my face. And at that point, I got tears coming down my eyes. But wouldn’t none of the people look at me because they knew how serious it was. So I’m trying to look up at everybody. And wouldn’t nobody look at me. So they got a helicopter to fly me from the far south side to Northwestern hospital. After they give me to Northwestern hospital, I stopped breathing.
You stopped breathing?
Yes. So as they was trying to resuscitate me, I had an out of body experience. I’m literally in the upper right hand corner, watching them, and the appearance of white and peace and everything, watching them frantically trying to come on-shoulder pads off me, my helmet off me, giving me the bamboo bag, started giving me chest compressions. I’m watching all this and not worried about a thing. I’m sitting there just as calmly watching this. And for me, I think that was a feeling judgment on whether I should still be here, or go to what next life or whatever life is after this. And I’m just blessed I had a chance to still be here to do a lot of things that I’ve had the chance to do.
Wow. Does it still feel very vivid to you the memory?
Yeah. And then I actually leaving to my bedroom. I got two or three freeze frames of the accident. If you’d like- “why do you- why you want to have it up there? It’s kind of gory, don’t you think?” I’d say no. For me, every time I get a chance to go passed it. It gives me an opportunity to reflect from where I was and what I have and that was a long fight to get back to here.
There was a Chicago Tribune article in 2016. Around the anniversary right, of your injury, and you described the day of the injury as the day you were reborn.
What did you mean by that?
On that day, the original person that I am was no longer. Like I said, I was a shy kid. I wasn’t vocal. I was more to myself, I was more introvert. After that happened. All that changed for me. When I hurt- got hurt they told me I wouldn’t be able to talk. I’ve spoken in front of 1000s of 1000s of people. Told me I couldn’t breathe on my own and I’ve been doing that through the blessings of God. Told me I couldn’t have kids, I got a a daughter that’s 27, got a son that’s 30. So everything they told me I wouldn’t be able to do God has blessed me to be able to. So I celebrate that day because for me, I truly feel like I was reborn on that day. All the characteristics I had before, are totally different from that. In some ways I had to, cause I understood when I got home, I was gonna have to be able to teach my friends and family on how to work with it. So I had to be willing to take charge. I had to be more aggressive in the things that I did. And sometimes things like that is just bestowed upon you. You gotta- you either gonna take it and go sink or swim with it. And as much as I hate swimming, I didn’t mind swimming for that. [laughter]
What were some of the- the new ways that you learned to navigate the world?
I remember, I did a article, probably within a year’s time after I got hurt. And they asked me “how do I see myself now?” And at that time, I’ll say young, black, and disabled. I got three strikes against me. So I gotta work triple time as hard as everybody else. And that’s the approach I took. Going back to Simeon that was my first fight as being an advocate. Because they told me I couldn’t go back to Simeon. I had to go to- it was a high school if you was disabled that’s where you had to go to. And I went there for about a week, and just didn’t feel right to me, it didn’t feel like home. So I asked them, “could I go back to Simeon?” They told me no, they say, “because it’s not assessable” which it wasn’t. But you know, anything’s possible. So, initially, I thought I was going to have to take the Board of Education to court, but we ended up settling to let let uh someone- let someone else come in and make the decision. And they chose to let me go back to Simeon. So Simeon had to make some adjustments, for me to go there. So a lot of my classes at that point was one-on-one classes, which was good that gave me a chance to, before I got hurt, schoolwork was just enough to make sure that I was gonna be eligible to play. After I got hurt, it was like, Okay, well, you don’t got football no more. You got to find out another way to do it. So I became more the truth, I chose to be more educated, because I didn’t have football to fall back on anymore. So I my- my GPA when I got hurt was like a 2.55. And I graduated with a 3.75. So that’s where my focus went to.
Ken, I’m just kind of curious. I’m thinking about all the things you had to learn, relearn, unlearn, and then learn a new way, right? So quickly. And you said that the first- one of the first ways you identified was young, black, and disabled. And I wonder, do you think your perspective of disability has changed over time?
Yeah Yes, and no. Cuz you still have some people that don’t see us. I can say every time and this is like, like what I’m saying is just a little example. When I done have somebody in front of me. And I done yell their name, because I knew him. And they would turn around, look right over the top of me, never look down, and don’t see me. But in societies like don’t see you because they don’t think we can do what other people can’t. When I first decided I wanted to coach, I was going to all the different schools, try to see if anybody would give me a position, wouldn’t nobody hire me. And the whisper was, how you going to coach somebody if he can’t move his arms and legs. My coach always told me football is 90% mental 10% physical. Well, I got the- I got the mental part. So one coach gave me an opportunity. I went up to him, I told him what I wanted to do. He tells me like, be here Monday. He’ll have a hat for me and a whistle. I was there first thing Monday. And since then I’ve personally coached two All Americans, been to five Quarterfinals, and three Semifinals. And every coach they would told me no, I’ve had a chance to beat. So people, they need to see us. Because we one of the fast and rising minorities in the United States. Regardless of what you do, or how you do, or when you do it, you’re going to deal with somebody disabled in whatever capacity it might be. So instead of trying to push us to the side, you know, let us be a part of the party, too. We want to sit- we want a seat at the table. And hopefully they give it to us. And alot of times, when you have someone disabled working for you, they will work harder than anybody else. Cuz they feel like every time they come into the office, they got to prove themselves. But you don’t- never give us a chance you’ll never know.
And most of the time, people will not give us a chance.
You’ve been coaching for 25 years, correct? Yeah. Tell me more about that.
So even like now, when football season get ready to start coming around, it’s like I get that itch. Like okay, time- time to get ready. And back then, it would be physically getting ready, but now it’s like mentally getting ready um as a coach, you know. How am I going coach these kids are
different now? How do I approach the kids? How do I talk to them? Oh, it’s just- I can’t wait. This is- this is my time of year. Like even thinking about I just glow, like woo!
I can see it. I can definitely see it. So where are you going to be coaching new this year?
I’m going to be coaching at Dunbar High School.
On the south side, and I’m not gonna be the head coach. The head coach is one of our former players. So I’m really proud of Chris that he- that he asked me to come coach with him.
How cool that you’re coaching with someone that you coached?
Yeah, that’s, I mean, that’s really cool. I really, I feel good about it, proud, and I- like I said, proud and honored that he would ask me. What that also let me know that he really took in what I was teaching when I was coaching him, if he’s willing to let me to be able to work with his kids, too.
Yeah. What’s your approach to that? What’s your philosophy when you think about the way that you coach and mentor these young adults that you work with? Well, my thing is, God has blessed me with a testimony. One heck of a testimony that got so many layers to it and so many strokes on it. That’s what I used to talk to my kids about. I don’t just talk to him about football I talk to him about life. To let them know, one- football not gonna be here forever. At any given time it can be taken away from you. Also, you know, if you- if this what you gonna do- go to school to play ball, don’t play ball to go to school, don’t just come to the school that that’s what you want to do, to play ball. Use your abilities, and let that rise you to college and get you a college degree, something they’ll never be able to take away from you. So my kids- and they are my kids, because I remember one year I was running for a student-local school council. And they asked me about my kids, I say, Well, I have forty-two kids [laughter]. I say, one biological.
They’re like- huh? I say, my my football players are my kids. So, something happen to them, then I, as a father, I’m going to be there to step in there for them. And I always, we always tell our kids, we’re not done with you until you’re done with us. So they need to come back 20 years later, to ask for some help or need some help. I’m still going to be there, just like their coach I was in high school, that never change. So that’s a lifelong bond that I- you could have with my kids. So in that way they know there’s somebody that loves them, regardless of what they’re going through or what fear they have, they know, Coach Ken still love them. I’m going to be there for them. If nobody else will. It’s like really fulfilling for me just to hear that you were able to reconnect with football in a different way. And that that first love that you found just took a different shape. And it’s still such a central part of your life. I just think that’s really incredible.
And then you’re also doing a lot of work in the community. So I know that you have been, over the years, really pushing for different legislation and rallying around different initiatives related to your experience and issues related to that, right? And I mentioned early on that you helped to get the Rocky Clark Law passed. What was the Rocky Clark Law?
Rocky Clark Law that we had get passed here in Illinois was to get catastrophic injury insurance for high school athletes. Because the problem is most states don’t have catastrophic injury insurance. So a young man or woman if injured playing high school sports catastrophically, there is no insurance to take care of them. And in a lot of circumstances, if the family can’t accommodate them moving back into the house, they have to go to a nursing home. And what kid 16, 17, 18 wan’t to be in a nursing home? You’ve pretty much giving them a death sentence. Because mentally, theyre going to basically check-out. So what the insurance does, it gives them the opportunity to go back home. And the foundation that I have, what we do is help to modify their home. Help them get a vehicle, if that’s something they want to do, so they can get around, move around again. And just continue to build different resources of what they need or whatever they may need to help them get through this difficult time. But part of that is having that law. And unfortunately, it was not at the numbers that we wanted it to be. But it’s a start. Right now, we do have catastrophic injury insurance by high school athletes in the state of Illinois. There’s probably 10 other states that have it. So I’m fighting and fighting and will continue to fight, I’m more likely going to have to go state-by-state to help them push this forward to get that passed in their- in their state, too, to have catastrophic injury insurance.
So you’re trying to one raise awareness about the issue, while at the same time find solutions. And then it sounds like your foundation, the Gridiron Alliance, is there for a family that may experience a catastrophic injury, you’re there to offer that support.
And help them navigate that experience.
Yes, exactly. That’s exactly how it works. So I mean it’s two different things. But the same thing. We want to give these kids every opportunity after this happened to find out what their new normal is and to take that and run with it. They want to go back to school, go to school. If you don’t want to go to school, what- what do you want to do? And let’s put you in that direction to be successful at. Just giving them the resources that they need to do the things that they want to do.
How long has the Gridiron Alliance been in place? When did you start the foundation
It got started about- ’99. And what- it was started with this one guy named Deacon Don, and it was seven guys they got hurt from playing either high school football or hockey. And we all had got together and created this foundation.
Because we all in different areas. I mean, we all dealing with the same thing. And so we was there to support each other. So we like, okay we can support each other. Now we go out here and support others, that’s going through the same thing. So they know that they’re not alone. A lot of time when this’ll happen to you. When you when- you become paralyzed. You feel like you’re alone. I had a friend named Darryl Stingley. He got hurt about ten years before I did. He passed away about eight years ago. But he got hurt playing high- I mean professional football. And I remember the first time I met him, he came into my room and he changed my whole life at that point. He came in my room rolled in like I was going to have to roll in. And first thing, he told, he’s like- don’t blame nobody else, don’t be bitter, because all that’s going to do is take time away from your recovery. So by this time he had came to see me, I was feeling like, okay, ain’t nothing changed. So why am I working so hard, and still ain’t nothing changing? So I started missing some of my therapies. I wasn’t as motivated as I ussually be. And then he started talking about all these things that he was still doing. Like he’d go out- he’d go out to party, go out to eat, speak with kids, there’s still all these things he was telling me- like what? Like hold on, I said you- you do what? I was like, I didn’t think that was possible. But he became my best friend. And my father figure.
If we didn’t talk every other day, we talked every day. And he just told me so much about life. So much of dealing with how you see yourself in a wheelchair, it ain’t what somebody else see. So that helped my confidence just skyrocket. So I got back into therapy was working hard, trying to get whatever it is I can get back. And it was like it opened up for me. Like I can do this. And to have him, when he got done, to roll out the room that was the first time that somebody told me, they understand what I’m going through, that actually felt like they understood what I was going through.
You’ve been telling me a few different stories, I’m wondering if all of these are going to be in the book that you’re publishing.
Yeah, I’m writing my um.. And the title of the book is going to be how a- Kenneth Jennings how eight seconds changed my life. And the reason I’m saying eight seconds, because when I got hurt through the first eight seconds of the game. And basically want to give a whole detail of my life from growing up in the projects, running, trying to run my way out of there, getting into high school leading up to my lessons, getting into high school. And then, after graduating high school. I haven’t had a chance to be a part and see a whole lot of different things over the years, I might have grew up a lot faster than what I should have. But I think it all molded me into who I am. I mean, so many stories in the book of even when I was at my I had my lowest that I created for myself being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’m putting it all in there, I’m not holding nothing back. Hopefully, it’s going to be something that’s very inspiring to someone else, to motivate them to want them to do better. Because that’s what I want for everybody. I want to be able inspire and motivate other people. I know whatever it is, I’m able to do, I’m blessed to be able to do it. Because technically, from what doctors say, I don’t suppose to still be here. They gave me a life expectancy of 10 years, and is going on thirty-four years. So
Technically, I guess I’m living on borrowed time. And so every day means everything to me.
Well, I’m really looking forward to when your book comes out, I can’t wait to read it and hear the whole story. And I love hearing all your stories. Anytime I’ve you know had the chance to get to know you through the institute.
I just love hearing you speak and you’re so passionate about the work that you do and and about motivating others, that seems like a very innate part of you to be a motivator to others. So I can’t think of a better and truer name for you than “coach”.
Thank you. Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
Do you have any you know, final messages, you would want to say about just the importance of disability inclusion, things you’d want to our listeners to think about?
Um, I’m gonna give the first cliche- don’t ever give up. You’re capable of doing anythihng anybody else can do, you just might have to do it a little bit differently, or with a little bit of help, because that’s what I tell myself, I don’t believe it’s nothing that I can’t do. I just got to do a little different from everybody else. And when you find that part out, then you roll with it, because I don’t believe in problems. I believe it solutions. And lastly, I’ll just I would just say when you become disabled, and this is something I tell my um patients now that I’m speaking with, become the CEO of your own body. Take charge, because if you treat your body like a company you wind up being successful. If your- if your company is successful, you will be successful. So I had to hire five caregivers. It makes me part of h&r. The payroll is done. That makes me part of um accounting, I have to make sure that supplies are ordered. So I mean, that makes me work with inventory. So all the things that companies do, I do, too. And I have to I have to work that way. I want my company to be successful. And I call it Kenneth Jennings, Inc. And I tell all the patients to do the same thing- become the CEO of your own body. Take charge. Don’t sit back and just let it happen. Make it happen.
Thank you to my guest, Coach Kenneth Jennings. Join us next time for my conversation with Christina McLean, Deputy Commissioner of the Chicago Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. Until then, stay connected with us at AspireChicago.com and be a part of the inclusive movement by rating and subscribing to Amplify Inclusion. This episode was co produced and engineered by Subframe Sound. This season is made possible thanks to generous support from the Fred J. Brunner Foundation, Enterprise Fleet Management, First Bank Chicago, and members of the Aspire community
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