He was a punter out of St. Lawrence University and maybe there have been more unlikely great Giants than Dave Jennings, but it is hard to think of one today, the day when we get the news that Jennings is dead, much too soon, at the age of 61. Dead after battling Parkinson’s for such a long time, his physical skills and his wonderful mind finally crushed by the disease in the end, Parkinson’s finally taking everything from Dave Jennings except his immense dignity.
His really was such a wonderful and unlikely football life. Because as skilled a kicker as he was, Dave Jennings was never supposed to get anywhere near the Giants’ Ring of Honor. But there he was on a December night less than two years ago, Giants against the Packers, old and frail before his time, driven out on the field along with Alex (Big Red) Webster, himself failing and failing badly by then.
So he came out there on a golf cart with Alex Webster and then had some St. Lawrence buddies to hold him up by his elbows, Giants cap on his head, hearing the cheers from Giants fans once last time. At least Dave Jennings, No. 13 for the Giants and later for the Jets over in Jersey, was still standing for that. He had at least made it to a moment like that and a night like that.
St. Lawrence guy. Punter.
“Even after that,” his dear friend Bob Picozzi, once a sportscaster in Connecticut and now one of the longtime voices of ESPN Radio, was saying Wednesday afternoon, “he was still Dave. It was over the last year that the decline became as terrible, and as terrible to watch, as it was.”
Picozzi recalled talking to Jennings a year ago, on his 60th birthday, celebrated at a family place in Vermont, not so far from Dartmouth College. “He was still able to get around then, still had his faculties. But when I went to see him for his 61st birthday at his house (Upper Saddle River, N.J.) two weeks ago, it was the first time I came away thinking he no longer knew who I was.”
I asked Giants owner John Mara on Wednesday when was the last time he remembered talking to Jennings when he was still the Jennings we all remembered.
“A long time,” Mara said. “This has been very sad.”
It had also been a long time since Jennings, who stopped doing Giants radio broadcasts in 2007, had been able to live alone in the house in Upper Saddle River. It was four years ago that Linda Morris, one of Jennings’ best friends, Joe Morris’ ex-wife, came over to visit him and found him bleeding in his bed, having fallen and given himself a concussion.
Dave Jennings punts his way to four Pro Bowls with Big Blue before finishing career with the Jets.
It was then that Jennings realized and his friends realized that he could no longer live safely alone in his own house, even a house he loved as much as he did, the same house in which he finally and mercifully passed away. Before long Jennings, who was the greatest punter in the history of the Giants, who was always one of the smartest and best guys in the locker room – Giants or Jets – had aides with him 24 hours a day.
“Every one of the last half-dozen or so times I saw him,” Bob Picozzi said, “I left thinking that would be the last time I saw him.”
Jennings used to say you didn’t die from Parkinson’s, that you died with it. But over these last months especially, he had become Parkinson’s prisoner, a victim of the disease and dementia. It is why Picozzi, his friend for 35 years, referred to his death as a “blessing.”
“All of us who loved Dave Jennings had been praying for this day,” he said.
Jennings went to four Pro Bowls as a punter and missed being on the Giants’ first Super Bowl team by a couple of years, and finished out his career as a Jet. But he ought to be remembered as much as a fine, classy, understated radio broadcaster as for the way he could kick a football and make it do what he wanted and go where he wanted it to. He happened to be terrific on the radio, on both the Jets broadcasts and later working with Bob Papa and the late Dick Lynch for the Giants.
I told him one day in the press box at the old Giants Stadium that I didn’t understand why he hadn’t become a star color analyst on television for Fox or CBS. Jennings smiled and said, “I do. I’m a punter.”
“They used to talk about Q ratings for broadcasters, maybe still do,” Bob Picozzi said. “No punter was ever going to get himself a big Q rating. Wasn’t going to happen.”
And maybe here is something else that held Dave Jennings back: He never had an act, never drew attention to himself, never thought the broadcast was supposed to be about him. He knew the rulebook as well as any announcer I’ve ever heard, knew it the way his friend Mike Breen – whose own father suffered from Parkinson’s – knows the rulebook for NBA games. He knew the game and knew what he was watching and somehow managed to talk about all that without turning himself into a shouter or a clown or microphone hog. He was just smart. And completely himself.
He always knew he was going to be a broadcaster someday, had started co-hosting a radio show with Picozzi on WNHC in Connecticut in the late 70s. You could always go to him for good and smart and knowing conversation, in the Giants locker room, then later when he was with the Jets. He was always able to communicate, which made the ending to his life even sadder and more terrible.
Dave Jennings, dead at 61. We lose a great old Giants kicker named Pat Summerall in April. Now Jennings. At least he lived long enough to make it to the Ring of Honor. Somehow stood tall that night, even if he needed help to do it. He knew as well as anybody in the place there was a way for great Giants to act.