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Rashad Jennings has food for your brain

Giants running back Rashad Jennings (23) during the

Giants running back Rashad Jennings (23) during the first half of a game against the Jets at MetLife Stadium on Friday, Aug. 22, 2014. Credit: Lee S. Weissman

Most NFL players spend their meetings going over X's and O's. The Giants' running backs? They spend a good deal of time on the Whys.

Starter Rashad Jennings opens every day's gathering with a philosophical thought, a hypothetical question or an idiom or proverb to discuss. The brain-stretchers range from seemingly simple probes -- Why does one become better? Do you believe in committed relationships? -- to ethical conundrums about who gets to eat the last meal in a group that is lost in the woods and doomed to starvation.

These aren't just running backs. They're thinking backs. And they're going deep.

"If you don't push somebody, they're going to stay the same," Jennings told Newsday, referring to running the meetings like Philosophy 101 classes. "If you don't give somebody a new tool or thoughts to open doors, they're going to stay the same. I think asking philosophical questions helps a person open up, show you their colors."

Besides, he said, "it's fun."

Jennings added, "That's the best way to get to know somebody is asking them questions, seeing how they respond, seeing where their filter is, if they look at the glass as half full, half empty, or are they just going to drink it?"

The other running backs have embraced the challenge.

"We get into real depth. All of us kind of have that mentality," fullback Henry Hynoski said. "Rashad was the one who first started bringing that to the room and everybody kind of followed him. 'Hey, you know, let's express our thoughts too.' It's pretty neat."

This year's group of running backs is completely revamped. None of the three main ballcarriers was on the Giants' roster on Opening Day last year. The team brought in players who can perform on the field, but it seemed to purposely be building a kind of think tank at the position. They want their running backs to be electric and eclectic.

So there's Jennings and his mind games, but he also plays the guitar and dabbles as an amateur magician. There's rookie Andre Williams, who is writing a memoir of his thoughts and recently had a patent approved for an athletic shirt he designed to help support the shoulder.

"We're a well-rounded group of guys," Hynoski said. "Peyton [Hillis] has been around the league for seven years and he said this is the best group he's ever been with. I think that's a testament for a guy who has had as much experience and exposure to the league as he has. It's not just that we're teammates, we're friends. We're good friends."

An NFL locker room isn't always thought of as a seat of higher thought, but Jennings, in his sixth season, said he's never been rebuked or dismissed by a teammate because of his probes. To the contrary.

"Most of the time I end up finding players start crowding me because of it," Jennings said, noting that he shares his questions with the defensive and offensive linemen. "They're like, 'Rashad, give us something! We ain't thought about nothing today.' "

The bigger question is how any of this will help the Giants win games, beginning with Monday night's opener in Detroit. Can they go full throttle thanks to Aristotle? Or will they be Descarte-ed off the field?

"It gets your mind going, it gets you focused," Hynoski said. "It jump-starts you into the meeting. You're thinking hard like that, and then now it's time to apply it to our plays, apply it to our offense . . . I think that's why we understand each other, we get each other, and that's why we're having the kind of success we are right now and hopefully carrying it on in the future."

Jennings added that football isn't only about studying opponents but studying teammates.

"Any way you can get close to people, open up somebody to where they're not guarded and silly, to break that barrier of 'grrrr' the way guys are sometimes, that lets you know who you're playing beside, how their heart beats," he said. "I gotta know how I can get a fire up under every single one of them. One might be hootin' and hollerin' and head-buttin' them. One might be reminding them about family. Another might be reminding them about everybody who told him what he couldn't do as a young kid . . . You have to figure out what makes everyone work. How the heck am I gonna figure it out if I ain't digging?"

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