Rashad Jennings understands firsthand the effects of childhood bullying, and is making it his priority to set a positive example to the next generation of leaders.
The Dancing with the Stars finalist spoke at Bright Star Secondary Charter Academy in Los Angeles on Wednesday morning, where he answered students’ questions and opened up about how he overcame the odds as an overweight, fifth string running back with a 0.6 GPA in high school and advanced to the NFL.
Speaking exclusively with PEOPLE, 32-year-old Jennings reveals that he was bullied as a teen, which is one of the reasons that he now wants to be an uplifting role model to students in the way that he leads his life.
“I was definitely bullied,” Jennings tells PEOPLE. “I was made fun of a lot because I was a 0.6 GPA, chubby kid with glasses and all that good stuff. But I was just goofy enough not to show people how I was feeling inside. That’s why I say you never know what somebody’s dealing with behind their eyes, because I personally just don’t do a good job of showing my struggles unless I tell it. It doesn’t come off my face.”
Jennings, who will compete against Normani Kordei and David Ross next week for the coveted Mirrorball Trophy in the DWTS season 24 finals, recently binge-watched Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, which opened his eyes up even further to the negative impacts of teasing and bullying.
“There’s so many different metaphors in [13 Reasons Why] of how a kid can get to that position and you don’t even realize it — in a matter of a couple months how from home life, maybe no attention or don’t feel comfortable to open up, every kid’s been there,” says Jennings. “It makes you stop and analyze how a couple decisions that you can make and how you speak to somebody could push them right over the limit.”
Thankfully, despite being bullied in his teen years, Jennings says he never contemplated taking his own life “because unlike the show, I did have outlets and people that listened.”
“It just reminded me of why I enjoy talking to kids about the importance of uplifting each other and being wholesome,” Jennings says reflecting on the Netflix series, and adds, “because you don’t know — you never know what somebody’s dealing with in their heart and behind their eyes. We don’t have that ability.”
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Although Jennings humbly believes that “there’s nothing special about me, I just always find myself in special positions,” he is using his celebrity and voice for good.
“Kids need to see something worth mimicking. I know that I do too. I personally need to see something worth mimicking to give me encouragement to stand on the things that I believe in and know to be true,” he says about the importance of speaking to students. “To give them a hope that dreams come true, hard work pays off, that you can become anything that you desire, because sometimes you forget that in everyday work. Even adults — we forget that. We quit striving because we’re comfortable and that’s another type of failure to me.”
“For these kids, especially in high school, they are looking for substance,” he continues. “You don’t know if you’re planting a seed in somebody’s life or watering it. I never know which one I’m doing, and so I’m always conscious to do one or the other.”
Jennings is the founder of the Rashad Jennings Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that partners with players from all 32 NFL teams to give back to youth through literacy, mentorship and health and fitness programs. To date, the RJF has served over 30,000 children nationwide and has been a finalist for the NFLPA’s prestigious Byron “Whizzer” White award, an award presented to an NFL player who goes above and beyond to perform community service in their teams cities and hometowns.
Dancing with the Stars‘ season 24 finale airs Mondays at 8 p.m. ET and Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. ET on ABC.