Rashad Jennings and his father credit one another to helping “save each other’s life.”
The former NFL running back is currently competing on season 24 of Dancing with the Stars, and tells PEOPLE that he forces himself “to pick up a new craft, art or learn something new every single off season and dance was on my list to do at some point.”
On Monday evening, 32-year-old Jennings will dance a contemporary number with pro partner Emma Slater for Most Memorable Year to the tunes of Katy Perry‘s “Unconditionally,” which came as a personal request from the free agent.
“It’s a heartfelt song. … the words and the lyrics display how I think a lot and embody how the relationship is between me and my father,” he tells PEOPLE. “With Katy Perry, there’s so many things in the song that she says about, there’s one part where she says, ‘Oh no, did I get too close? Did I almost see what’s on the inside?’ That’s my dad. Like, did I almost see all your insecurity, your dirty laundry? Because he’s so prideful, he don’t want anybody to get close to him. So he runs.”
Growing up, Jennings describes himself as an “overweight, chubby, asthmatic kid with these big red rim glasses” and a low GPA average. At one point, he found himself “on my deathbed in the hospital with an asthma attack.” As a result, he couldn’t be around smoke or dogs.
“My dad used to drink all the time; he used to smoke all the time. And I hated it. And that was part of the reason why my asthma was so strong was because my dad used to smoke around me all the time,” he tells PEOPLE.
When Jennings got out of the hospital, the athlete says that his father took his smoking outside, but over the course of time, he began to smoke inside again.
“There was one particular day from smelling the smoke, I walked up to my dad’s room, I opened the door, he was sitting in this corner drinking and smoking like he always had done and I asked him — this is that 0.6 overweight, chubby kid — I asked my dad, I said, ‘Hey dad, can you stop smoking and drinking and be there for me?’ and he took a puff of his smoke, sip of his drink and he looked at me really arrogantly and said, ‘Rashad, what do you want to do when you get older?’ I said, ‘I want to play running back in the NFL.’ And he took another sip of his drink, puffed a smoke and said, ‘Do you think you’ll honestly be able to make it to the NFL without drinking and smoking yourself?’ ” Jennings recalls saying at the age of 13.
“And with tears in my eyes, I remember looking at my dad and telling him, ‘Just to prove you wrong, I’m never going to do it.’ That’s why I’m 32 today and I’ve never drank alcohol a day in my life and I’ve never smoked a day in my life. And that was just to prove him wrong. By him watching his little overweight chubby kid son, asthma, 0.6, fifth string running back saying he wanted to play in the NFL because he watched that little boy grow and turn into a man, that that caused him to quit smoking and drinking himself,” he says.
“The doctors told him that if it wasn’t for him quitting drinking and smoking when he did, he wouldn’t be here today. So me and my dad both feel like because of that one little challenge that I took, even though it wasn’t a challenge that I took it that way, we both feel like we saved each other’s life in a way,” he says.
Jennings’ father suffers from Diabetes and as a result of it, had to have both of his legs amputated. Though Jennings earned a full scholarship to Pittsburgh University to play for their football team, he received a phone call at the age of 19 during his time there about his father having to get his leg amputated, which resulted in him moving closer to home. “Family was all I knew I had. They made so many sacrifices for me. I thought to myself I’m going to leave this bigger school and transfer to a smaller school to be home,” explains Jennings, who transferred to Liberty University.
“All the things that I’ve been able to achieve have been because of the loving family, and we all counter balance each other when somebody’s struggling, one person picks them up,” says Jennings. “And so I truly feel like this song of unconditional love that we all have for one another in our family, but especially between me and my dad and I.”
Although Jennings only heard his father say “I’m proud of you” once while growing up, they’re in a healthy place now.
“We’re great. My dad is a character. He’s full of joy,” says Jennings. “He definitely says he’s proud of me now. I’ve seen him open up and cry with some things and be honest and vulnerable. That fight though, to get there with him was never easy. We all had a breakthrough with it.”
Though Jennings is dedicating the song to his father — who will be flown out for the live show with Jennings’ mother on Liberty University’s private jet — he says that his mom is “is the best” and “she’s the hero.”
“I’m dedicating this song to my dad just because of the uniqueness of our situation, but I’m a mama’s boy,” admits Jennings.
“The most memorable year for me is 2015, that’s when I was able to buy my parents a home. I was able to customize it enough for my dad to get around, but also put every single little thing that my mom always wanted as a little girl that she couldn’t have because they didn’t have money. That’s been the most humbling thing I’ve ever done,” he explains.
In addition to the love of his family, Jennings also credits his faith to helping get him through tough times.
“God has given me a certain way of looking at life and has given me a unique work ethic. He’s put me in different positions to have a voice and there’s nothing special about me, I just always find myself in special positions,” he says.
Going into tonight’s dance, Jennings wouldn’t be surprised if both he and his father’s eyes well up.
“I wouldn’t be shocked if during the dance I do tear up,” says Jennings, who adds that he hopes his story will encourage families tuning in.
“I hope this story really inspires families across America to see and understand what it looks like when families truly stick together and pray together. Where there’s unity, God commands a blessing and that’s what our family has,” he says, and adds, “because no matter what, we’re each other’s backbone.”
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At the wrap of his emotional performance on Monday night, Jennings shared a tearful embrace with his father and mother, who were sitting in the audience, and earned a standing ovation from attendees.
“I think you missed your calling. You are a born dancer. That was incredible,” Carrie Ann Inaba told Jennings while he awaited the judges’ scores.
Julianne Hough was also emotional after watching his dance. “Your relationship with your father is so beautiful,” she told him.
Jennings earned a 39/40 for his contemporary performance.
Dancing with the Stars airs Mondays (8 p.m. ET) on ABC.