Rashad Jennings knows about being ready when injuries take a toll on a football team.
As a high school junior, he was a fifth-string running back who played so rarely that he didn't even bother to keep his helmet nearby on the sideline. Then one game the starter got hurt. Then the second-stringer. Then the third. They put a wide receiver in at running back and Jennings remained on the bench. The starter tried to come back in but got hurt again.
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Finally, it was time for Jennings to play. He grabbed someone else's helmet and ran onto the field. In a span of 14 snaps he scored four touchdowns, two on offense and two on defense as a linebacker. A scout from the University of Tennessee approached him after the game. And just like that he went from the bottom of the depth chart to a college recruit.
"I live by a quote: 'When opportunity presents itself, it's too late to prepare for it,'" Jennings said, citing a John Wooden mantra. "It is a next-man-up mentality."
This time, though, the next man is already up.
As running back David Wilson spends the weekend staring at the possible end of his career as he awaits an evaluation of his neck on Monday, Jennings is firmly entrenched as the Giants' starter. He was brought in this offseason in case Wilson was unable to play in 2014 or beyond. Now it looks like the team will have to break that glass in case of emergency.
Jennings said Wilson's injury situation does not change his approach one bit.
"No other person should elevate or discourage or motivate another individual to work hard," he said. "If I were to say that, I would not be taking ownership of or understanding the opportunity I have anyway. We want him back as soon as he can get back, but I'm going about my business."
That doesn't mean seeing Wilson leave practice on Tuesday didn't make Jennings flinch.
"As soon as I saw him walk off the field," Jennings said, "I started to hurt."
The running backs prayed together. They exchanged supportive texts. But most of all, they are moving forward.
They are a group that was built with Wilson as a "bonus," to use a word general manager Jerry Reese chose this offseason. Besides Jennings, the Giants drafted Andre Williams, re-signed Peyton Hillis and have second-year running back Michael Cox. It's a deep assembly.
"When I signed here and I found out all the guys that were here, the first thing I said was that we have a chance to be a force in the backfield," Jennings said. "It's a bunch of guys that can play. Each one of us very well could be a starter. There's no reason to not have high expectations from the backfield."
Even now, with Wilson in limbo.
While the Giants brace for news that could have Wilson sidelined for an extended period of time, and maybe for good, the injured running back remains with the team. He attended meetings on Thursday morning and those who saw him said his personality was as optimistic and bubbly as ever. In the past few days he has used social media to convey his optimism for a speedy return (something the Giants higher-ups do not share). For the time being, it gives the team a sense of normalcy.
"It was good to see him back in the meeting room, bright-eyed, ready to work and go," Jennings said.
But Jennings certainly knows where his helmet is this time.