Throughout the past three months, Rashad Jennings has mastered the art of dance through competing on Dancing with the Stars. But beyond the skills that he gained and showcased in the ballroom, he’s learned an exponential amount about himself.
“I’ve really been getting to know myself. It’s an emotional journey, truly, because the intimacy of each song that you have to get inside of and find that place to truly bring out the art of dance, it is emotional,” Jennings, 32, exclusively told PEOPLE ahead of the DWTS finale on Tuesday evening, when the NFL running back was crowned the season 24 Mirrorball Trophy winner.
The athlete specifically noted the emotional number that he danced during week four of the competition, alongside pro partner Emma Slater, in honor of his handicapped father who had both of his legs amputated as a result of Diabetes.
“Having that special number for my dad really was — regardless of whatever happens, regardless of any score — that was more than a dance to me. I got to do something special for my family that made life kind of go full circle for me,” said Jennings.
Immediately after completing the tearjerking number with Slater, audiences watched Jennings walk directly over to his parents, where he fell to his knees and embraced his wheelchair-bound, weeping father who was flown out to watch the live performance for the “Most Memorable Year” night.
“After he cried, like holding him after the dance immediately, and hearing him cry, it was touching,” Jennings said about his father. His mother, who sat beside her husband and also witnessed the live performance firsthand, “laughed and cried at the same time” when she watched her youngest son complete the heartfelt contemporary dance.
But beyond the impact that the dance, which was performed to Katy Perry’s “Unconditionally,” made on him and his immediate family, the Rashad Jennings Foundation founder is grateful for how the dance touched families across the U.S. who witnessed the reconciliation between the father and son.
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“What was neat from that experience, not only from my family, but the responses and comments that I got after that of people saying that not only did they majorly shed a tear for my trials, but they also shed a tear because it made them go to their own place, and look at their family and be thankful for what they have,” he continued.
Said Jennings, “I think that was the most touching thing. Because I felt like, for a second, I felt like an artist that I got to paint a picture for people to dive into however it emotionally changed them.”
Although his time on DWTS has come to an end, Jennings will continue his dancing journey on the upcoming Dancing with the Stars: Live! — Hot Summer Nights tour.