How Firm a Foundation

Former Minnesota Viking Greg Jennings talks football, family, faith and charity

In 2013, the Twin Cities sports media reported on a border-crossing deal that would bring accomplished NFL wide receiver Greg Jennings to the Minnesota Vikings after seven seasons with the Green Bay Packers. But Jennings has brought more to Minnesota than his athletic ability. He and his wife Nicole, who now reside in Edina with their four adorable children, have brought their faith and charitable hearts through the generosity of the Greg Jennings Foundation. And this year, the foundation will hold its eighth annual Greg Jennings Celebrity Golf Classic in Minnesota on June 22 at Rush Creek Golf Club in Maple Grove.

If you don’t know much about Greg Jennings, here’s a primer: He grew up in Kalamazoo, Mich., a talented multi-sport high school athlete with dreams of becoming a professional basketball player. That’s right—basketball was Jennings’ first love, and he was wooed by recruiters for college basketball and football teams. Jennings chose football partly because he believed his 6-foot frame might be a liability in professional basketball, a sport filled with towering competition. His providential choice has led to numerous college and professional football career highlights including two NFL Pro Bowl appearances, a Super Bowl championship and an NFC championship with the Packers.

Jennings is also the son of a pastor. He chuckles describing how he and his siblings helped fill many roles in their father’s small church while they were growing up. They could be musicians, ushers and custodians, and not just on Sundays, but also during weeknight Bible studies. “As a kid, so much church was overwhelming at times,” Jennings says. “My upbringing was a challenge in that way, but I wouldn’t change it because of the foundation it laid.”

Greg and Nicole speak highly of Greg’s parents and how they’ve never seen them argue. Nicole refers to her mother-in-law as a deeply spiritual person who doesn’t let anything rile her. Greg believes much of his mother’s confidence and serenity can be attributed to one of her favorite rejoinders: “I know who I am.”

And clearly, Greg and Nicole Jennings know who they are. “Both daddies work on Sundays,” Nicole says, referring to her father-in-law and her husband. Because of Greg’s career, his family doesn’t regularly attend church during football season. “We are Team Jennings on Sundays during the season,” Nicole says. “But we know it’s important to teach our beliefs to our children,” and the children look forward to attending their grandparents’ church whenever they’re in Michigan.

The couple’s faith is clearly an important component of their life. “We have good spiritual mentors here even though we haven’t called any place our church home yet,” Greg says. He acknowledges the Bible’s exhortation, “Do not forsake the assembly of the saints,” but adds “for us it’s just as important to develop [faith] relationships outside of normal church attendance.”

When asked about coaching and roster changes within the Vikings organization since he’s come on board, Greg says, “It was tough to see Coach Frazier go, but I need to continue focusing on what I need to do for my family’s stability. Changes happen in all professions and [Coach Frazier] landed in a great place.”

As for Greg, he continues to seek opportunity to be a light for others on the field and in the community.

The couple co-founded the Greg Jennings Foundation in 2008 because they believe all are blessed with something they can give to help others. When Greg noticed many kids in Kalamazoo were not taking advantage of a scholarship program that covers up to 100 percent of college tuition for public school graduates, he says, “We wanted to know how we could help bridge that gap.”

Nicole says she began reading books about how to start a foundation and then brought on advisors to help them achieve their goal of changing lives. The principal function of the Greg Jennings Foundation is to raise money to partner with and financially aid existing organizations whose values align with the foundation. But Greg is quick to point out that his vision goes beyond monetary generosity. “The real way to affect or impact a life is to be there,” Greg says. “The most important piece to me is to be present.”

The couple’s initial focus was underprivileged families, and one of their first collaborations was with Habitat for Humanity. “We helped build two homes back in the Milwaukee area,” Nicole says. “It was remarkable to see lives changed– a family of four who’d been living in a two-bedroom apartment now has a home. Those parents wanted better for their children and we helped.”

Greg, who Nicole says is easily moved by the plight of others, was at first reluctant to have the spotlight on their foundation’s charitable endeavors. But people encouraged him to leverage his celebrity to bring attention to those in need and show the public some of the positive things athletes can do for a community.

The mission of the Greg Jennings Foundation has since shifted to specialize in the areas of youth and education. “People perish because of lack of knowledge,” says Greg, who admits to often quoting the Bible. He adds, “Material gifts can be taken away or lost. But no one can take [education] away.”

Nicole manages much of the foundation’s efforts, but a grant committee selects award recipients from a pool of applicants from Kalamazoo and the Twin Cities. “We rely on our committee of well-versed individuals to find outstanding organizations in the most need,” Nicole says. Some 2014 Twin Cities area grantees included Agape Child Development Center, Boys & Girls Club of the Twin Cities, Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and Hospitality House Youth Development.

Gregg Bell, director of corporate and foundation relations for Catholic Charities, says, “When we heard the news [Jennings] was coming to the Vikings, one of our researchers looked into him.” What they discovered was a man of good character with solid values. Bell recalls his first conversation with Greg and Nicole. “They were so curious about Minnesota and what it’s like here and what philanthropy is like here. You could tell family is important to them.”

In 2014, Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis was awarded $10,000 from the Greg Jennings Foundation. The grant will be used specifically for the Northside Child Development Center and will concentrate on the needs of 7- to 12-year-olds, many of whom deal with poverty, broken homes, domestic violence and lack of adequate nutrition. The center’s goal is to address the social, emotional and academic needs of these children. Greg and Nicole share that value with Catholic Charities: If families are strong, kids can be strong. “It’s great for kids to know they have community support,” Bell says. “In 2013, Greg took our kids and some kids from Catholic Charities to see Free Birds.” He brought his whole family, and all of the kids were given VIP treatment. “His presence tells a lot about his character.”

The Jenningses’ commitment to the Twin Cities continues to grow beyond football and charitable giving. The couple is building a home in Edina’s Rolling Green neighborhood. “We are extremely happy here,” Nicole says. “Our kids are excelling in school and our home in Michigan is on the market. But [transitioning] is still a process.”

Part of the process first involved warming up their four children to the idea of moving to Minnesota. Their eldest daughter, who was just 7 years old when Jennings inked a deal with the Vikings, embraced the idea after Greg took her on a special daddy/daughter shopping trip to the Mall of America. Once she discovered the American Girl store her ambivalence transformed into enthusiasm for Minnesota, Greg says with a smile.

And why Edina? “It just happened,” Greg says. “We needed a place [during football season] for a family of six and a nanny.” Finding a place big enough was difficult, but the couple laughed off suggestions that their large family should live in a hotel. After an exhaustive search, they found a home in Edina. “We knew nothing about Edina or the neighborhood,” Greg says. But once they settled in, they began to learn more and say they love the location. Nicole says, “We did not move here with the intention of living here year-round. Once we got here and got settled, we found that our kids’ schools were much better, we had a bigger city that we liked, and it just fit.” Greg adds, “It’s easy to get everywhere, and our welcoming neighbors proved it’s all good.” Then Greg and Nicole nod to each other with a knowing look and acknowledge that nothing just happens. “We are God-driven,” Greg says.