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You would have forgiven Jonathon Jennings if he felt his pro football career was over; but that’s not how he rolls. The native of Columbus, Ohio insists he never felt sorry for himself or thought about what he should do next while working as a warehouseman following his release from Saskatchewan in 2014. That being said, the product of Saginaw Valley State knew he would have to take advantage of his next shot. It would come at the BC Lions free agent camp in Washington DC in the spring of 2015. So what kept him motivated following his release from the Roughriders? It’s simple: he just loved the game too much.
“I had that burning desire to play still,” Jennings said. “I knew I loved the game and it was something I’ve always dreamed of doing. I felt like I had the skill to do it so I was going to keep trying until someone told me I could not try anymore.”
What a difference a couple of years can make. From moving boxes in 2014, to competing for the third string Quarterback spot last season, to being the week one starter Saturday night against Calgary. It has no doubt been quite the whirlwind for the 23-year old pivot. Despite his fast rise to the top, Jennings still has the mindset that he has to compete harder every day to stay on the roster. “ I always approach it the same way,” Jennings said. “I am trying to beat myself every day, be better than the day before and continue my progression as a quarterback.”
Small sample size or not, last year’s numbers were still rather impressive for a kid who had not previously seen any pro game action; 2004 yards, 142 completions and 15 touchdowns in six regular season starts. Despite the good credentials, Jennings is not satisfied yet. “I’m super hungry. It was a frustrating year because we thought we were going to be better. Each year contributes to a new desire to be that team you expect yourself to be. We’re excited to go out there and see what we have.”
Part of Jennings’ demeanour and work ethic can probably be traced back to his college days. After no Division 1 schools came calling, he arrived at Saginaw Valley State in 2010 and would turn heads in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference over his four-year career. As a senior, he was named the conference’s Player of the Year after recording 31 touchdown tosses and an impressive 3,284 passing yards. Like his 2015 season with the Lions, Jennings impressed with the Cardinals despite being pressed into service on short notice.
“I had a good time at Saginaw Valley,” Jennings said. “I came in as a freshman half way though the season and started the rest of my career there. It was great. We had very supportive fans and a really good team.”
Travis Lulay is also adopting the mindset of an unproven rookie following an offseason of training that has him feeling as healthy as he has ever been. The wily veteran is also embracing his new role of mentor/backup, and even says the emergence of Jennings has helped him maintain his edge and competitive fire. “Part of why I still enjoy the football thing is seeing guys come in, relating to them on a personal level and getting to know their stories,” the Montana State product said. “A guy like Jon who sat out for a year, was working in a warehouse and just hungry for an opportunity and then showed up with no knowledge of the game and now he’s one of the most promising players in our league. It’s fun to see other guys experience that for themselves and look back and draw the parallels to my own story.”
You don’t have to go back that far to when Lulay was in a similar situation. It was the spring of 2009 when Lulay was looking for work following a stint on the Seattle Seahawks practice roster. He signed with the Lions following an appearance at their west coast free agent camp in his hometown of Portland. Less than two years later, he was thrust into the role of starting QB after the club cut ties with Casey Printers, and Buck Pierce was dealing with injuries of his own. “It seems like only yesterday I was the youngest guy in the QB room,” Lulay recalls. “I showed up wide-eyed and didn’t know what the nickel was (12th player on the field) and now I’m the savvy vet talking about plays from five years ago.”
The 2011 Grey Cup Most Outstanding Player is also on the verge of a pretty significant milestone: He dresses for his 100th career game in Saturday’s regular season opener against Calgary. “It makes me feel a little old,” Lulay said laughing. “Had I not been through a few injuries the number might have come sooner but I cherish it. I’m having as much fun as I have ever had. 100 games is a pretty cool benchmark.”
Jennings and Lulay may be nine years apart in age, but off the field they seem like old high school friends. That says something about the overall commitment to winning and being good professionals. A lot of times when you have two quality guys competing at the same position, especially quarterback, there is always the possibility of egos getting in the way. Not with these two. Jennings ackowlegdges it all adds up to their desire to win and entertain the fans that show up every week. “The fans are what we play for,” Jennings said. “They make us and we are all excited about getting out there and putting on a show for them.”
In a league where many believe you need two solid quarterbacks to compete, you can bet the Lions are in good hands as we kick off 2016. The fact these two have become really good pals certainly helps the cause.
Matt Baker: firstname.lastname@example.org