New York Giants running back Rashad Jennings, left, presents Roosevelt...

New York Giants running back Rashad Jennings, left, presents Roosevelt High School senior Chukwuma Ukwu with the Heart of a Giant Award during a surprise ceremony for Ukwu in the school's auditorium on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015. Ukwu, who played on Roosevelt's varsity football team, was honored for his dedication on the gridiron and exceptional service to his local community. Credit: James Escher

The reporters and photographers surrounding Chukwuma Ukwu stood in awe as the Roosevelt senior fullback fielded questions in his high school’s auditorium.

Ukwu’s ambition, his compassion, how articulate he was and the conviction with which he spoke made quite an impression.

Suddenly, there was a surprise Ukwu never saw coming: Giants running back Rashad Jennings appeared behind him and threw his arm around him. He then made a prediction.

“This young man right here,” Jennings said, “he’s going to be a mayor one day.”

Thirteen hours after the Giants defeated the Dolphins, 31-24, on Monday night, Jennings ventured to Roosevelt High School to present Ukwu with the 2015 USA Football “Heart of a Giant” award, which is given to a Tri-State area high school football player who demonstrated unparalleled work ethic and passion for the game. Ukwu was one of six finalists in a pool of about 115 candidates.

In addition to receiving a $3,500 equipment grant for the Roosevelt football program, Ukwu will be recognized on-field Sunday at MetLife Stadium during the Giants game against the Panthers.

“I’m at a loss for words to be completely honest,” the 6-2, 260-pound Ukwu said. “I watched the game last night and I would never think that in less than 24 hours I’d be next to one of the best running backs in the NFL right now. It really is an honor.”

But Jennings insisted the honor was his, and pointed to Ukwu’s commitment to the Roosevelt community as evidence. Ukwu founded and is president of The Future Rough Riders of America, a student group that aims to help seniors transition after they graduate. It hosts monthly alumni lectures, allowing current high school seniors a window into some of the success stories of Roosevelt graduates. The group also provides mentoring to middle school and elementary school students.

“This is a role model right here that showcases what it looks like as a young man becomes something special,” Jennings said.

Even for a decorated football player, the “Heart of a Giant” award, what it stands for, means more than any on-field accomplishment.

“To be lucky enough — blessed enough, actually — to be able to play in 46 varsity games and win three championships as a starter,” Ukwu said, “is really nothing compared to being able to say that not only have you made contributions to change in your community, but you’ve been chosen amongst Tri-State area football players as one of the hardest workers. That is something I will be able to hold with me for the rest of my life.

“Unfortunately, there’s so many negative associations with this town. And a lot of people don’t understand that every single day people like myself are actually trying to contribute to change.”

For Ukwu, Roosevelt represents more than simply the town that hosted his upbringing. It’s the place he and his family have always known as home.

“My family has been in Roosevelt for the past 50 years,” Ukwu said. “My grandmother has lived on the same Bainbridge Street for as long as I can remember. She’s produced great children that have lived in this community, lived in the schools, and really instilled a strong town pride in myself. And that’s something I really want to resonate amongst my classmates . . . the town pride that Roosevelt once had that we’re really trying to bring back now.”

For coach Joe Vito, Ukwu represents the type of character he hopes the Roosevelt football program helps to churn out.

“We’re trying to teach outside of the football field,” Vito said. “And in the case of Ukwu, we know it’s working, and that’s what makes it all worthwhile.”

This is why Jennings was so adamant about making the trip to Roosevelt to honor Ukwu just hours after absorbing tackles in Miami.

“What we take time to polarize is so often mimicked,” Jennings said. “If we want to mimic anything, let this young man be it.”


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