There were superstars all over the place – many of the game’s top players, on both sides of the ball – when Rick Jennings II got on to the practice field during training camp as a rookie for the Oakland Raiders in 1976. There was Ken Stabler at quarterback. There was Fred Biletnikoff and Cliff Branch at wide receiver positions. There was Mark van Eeghen at fullback and Dave Casper at tight end. There was Art Shell at left tackle and Gene Upshaw at left guard. There was John Matuszak at left defensive end and Otis Sistrunk at right defensive end. There was Phil Villlapiano at left outside linebacker and Ted Hendricks at right outside linebacker. There was Willie Brown at right cornerback, Skip Thomas at left cornerback, Jack Tatum at free safety and George Atkinson at strong safety. There was a lot to learn for Jennings, an 11th-round pick of the Raiders out of the University of Maryland in the 1976 NFL Draft. He had to learn a new position, as the Raiders moved him from running back to wide receiver. He learned about the game from those all around him – veterans who had years and years of experience.
“Cliff Branch was a competitor. And if I needed to know that I was good enough for the NFL, Cliff Branch pushed me, to make sure that I showed it on the field. But more importantly, I had the confidence to know that I was good enough,” said Jennings, who was elected to the Sacramento City Council in the June 2014 Primary, representing District Seven.
“Once (Branch) learned that he belonged there, he exceled. He taught me the same thing, of how to excel. Cliff Branch, Charles Phillips, George Atkinson and Jack Tatum taught me my toughness. They taught me that you don’t take anything from anybody. You fight until you get the job done, that you ultimately want to get done in order to win the game, to have a winning season, to get us into the playoffs and ultimately win the Super Bowl. They toughened me up from a kid in college that was playing a game, to a kid that was playing for a career.”
There was something else that Jennings learned in those days: “Commitment to Excellence,” the Raiders’ slogan, that was founded by Al Davis, the team’s owner, who passed away on Oct. 8, 2011 at the age of 82.
“I think everything that I’ve done in my life, I’ve been successful, because that team, and that organization, taught me the commitment to excellence,” said Jennings. “Now, people think that’s just a slogan or something that somebody just says. But when you truly commit to excellence, you’re committing yourself to the best in everything that you do. And that’s what they taught me. And that’s what they expected. Every single day, you should show it, and you should demonstrate it, in how you practice, how you play, how you carry yourself, your family life, your community life – everything falls under that umbrella of excellence. And so when you make that commitment to excellence, you’re making it in your work, in your church, in your community, in your home, in your personal life. In every aspect of life, you’re making that commitment.”
“And so, I’ve taken that to everything I’ve done – the Center for Fathers and Families, my life in politics, my 44 years of marriage, my ability to be a father for the last 41 years. Everything I’ve done, I’ve committed to excellence.”
Jennings was part of a championship team, as the Raiders won Super Bowl XI, 32-14 over the Minnesota Vikings on Jan. 9, 1977 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, completing a 16-1 season.
He played for head coach John Madden. His position coach was Tom Flores. The Raiders won the AFC West Division title. They beat the New England Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs, 24-21, and they won the conference championship, 24-7 over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“They were able to take that commitment to being good to another whole level, because everybody was working together to get to that same place,” said Jennings. “The carryover of being a part of something like that – it took me to another level that I had never known before.”
“Everything else I’ve done in my entire life, from the time I was in my 20s, to where I am today, is I work well with people. I work well in going towards greatness and to excellence.”
Jennings and Charlie Phillips, a defensive back out of USC, were good friends on the Raiders’ team.
“He and I were best friends. He was a guy that whenever I needed someone to talk to, and someone to look up to and someone to encourage me, that was Charles Phillips,” said Jennings.
Jennings said it was Madden, a Hall of Fame coach who had a 103-32-7 regular-season record, who taught him about accountability. Madden, a longtime network TV announcer, passed away Dec. 28, 2021. He was 85.
“On Sunday, you better show up to play. He held you accountable,” said Jennings. “And Tom Flores always just really taught you work ethic.” Jennings recalled a conversation he had with Davis one day, after the Raiders switched him to wide receiver.
“Al Davis switched me to wide receiver. I went up to Mr. Davis, being an East Coast kid, believing I could speak to anybody the way I wanted to. I said to him, ‘You know, if you really wanted a wide receiver, you should have drafted one.’ I said, ‘I’m a running back.’ And he looked at me and he said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were an athlete.’ He said, ‘An athlete will play any position I ask them to play. They don’t care about what position I ask them to play. They care about being on the field of play.’ He said, ‘Are you an athlete? Or are you just a running back? Because if you are just a running back, I’ll trade you or release you from this team, so you can go be a running back wherever you want to be.’ That’s when I started walking backwards. ‘Mr. Davis, I am truly sorry about this stupid conversation from a kid from D.C. who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I truly apologize.”
Jennings was with two teams, the Raiders and San Francisco 49ers, during the 1977 season. He played running back, wide receiver, punt and kick returner, and defensive back in his career.
“I played whatever they wanted me to play. I only played a short three years. But it was long enough for me to tear my knees up and accomplish a dream that I had, which was playing in the NFL. I never had a dream of winning a Super Bowl. But I got lucky and happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
Jennings has a Super Bowl ring from the championship season he spent with the Raiders.
“I generally wear it for other people to be able to see it and put it on their finger and take a picture with it. And especially with kids. I want them to always realize this can be your dream, too,” he said.
Jennings went to the University of Maryland in 1972 on a football and track and field scholarship. He ran sprints in college, including the 100 and 200. He graduated with a degree in criminal justice.
“Cliff Branch and I used to argue all the time – who was the fastest. We’d run these races and you could never tell who won the race. He declared he won them. And I declared I won them,” said Jennings.
“Cliff was one of the best receivers to ever play the game.” Branch was selected as the Senior Finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2022. Branch died in 2019. He was 71.
Over the years, 28 from the Raiders organization have been selected for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, located in Canton, Ohio.
Life after football
After his football days were over, Jennings went to work for Xerox Corporation, first as a sales rep, and then as a sales planning manager, as a sales manager, as a district manager, and as a regional manager. He was with Xerox Corporation from 1980 to 1992.
Jennings teamed up with Kevin Johnson, to run St. HOPE Academy. It was founded by Johnson, a former Mayor of Sacramento (2008-2016) and former NBA player (1987–1998, 2000), in July of 1989.
“I started moving into the nonprofit sector, to be able to help kids like somebody had once helped me,” said Jennings, who was with St. HOPE for six years.
According to www.sthope.org:
“St. HOPE began in 1989 as an afterschool program in a portable classroom at Sacramento High School.
After 13 years, St. HOPE realized that an after-school program simply wasn’t enough to dramatically improve the academic outcomes of children, that it would be necessary to establish and run our own schools.
“In 2003, St. HOPE Public Schools was founded as a preK-12 independent charter school district that provides high-quality education to nearly 2,000 students.”
The mission of St. HOPE, according to www.sthope.org, is “To revitalize Oak Park through Public Education and Economic Development.”
According to www.sthope.org:
“St. HOPE, established in 1989, is a family of nonprofits committed to revitalizing Oak Park through high quality public education and economic development. St. HOPE runs PS7 Elementary School, PS7 Middle School, and Sacramento Charter High School. The mission of our charter schools is to graduate self-motivated, industrious and critical thinking leaders who are committed to serving others, passionate about lifelong learning and prepared to earn a degree from a four-year college.”
Jennings was elected in 1996 to the Sacramento City Unified School Board and served for 12 years.
He was elected to the Sacramento City Council in the 2014 June Primary and represents District Seven – Greenhaven, Pocket, Detroit Boulevard area, Delta Shores, and a large portion of the Valley Hi community, according to his bio.
Jennings was appointed Vice Mayor for the City of Sacramento in 2016 in Mayor Kevin Johnson’s last year as Mayor, according to his bio. In addition, according to his bio, in 2017, Mayor Darrell Steinberg asked Jennings to serve again as Vice Mayor in his first year as Mayor.
“In both his terms as Vice Mayor, Rick gladly accepted the opportunity to serve the community he is so passionate about,” Jennings’ bio points out. As a Councilmember, Jennings serves on the following Multi-Jurisdictional Joint Powers Authority (JPA) boards on behalf of the City of Sacramento:
- Sacramento Area Council of Governments.
- Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency.
- Sacramento Public Library Authority.
- Sacramento Regional Transit
- Center for Fathers and Families:
Jennings has served as Chief Executive Officer of the Center of Fathers and Families, a nonprofit organization, since 1997. Jennings is very proud of the work that Center of Fathers and Families does in the community, serving over 1,000 kids in after-school programs. He calls it a very successful organization.
“It’s making a significant difference for our kids,” he said.
The Center for Fathers and Families, founded in 1994 by Dr. Matthew C. Crain, Ed D, is a nonprofit agency “with a strong history of responding to the needs of fathers and their families by offering programs and services that lead to family growth, enrichment, and empowerment,” according to its website, www.cffsacramento.org.
The website, www.cffsacramento.org, adds:
“CFF’s 26-year history of responding to the needs of fathers and fatherless families has positioned us as a knowledgeable leader in the fields of education, family empowerment, and father involvement. Our vision is to reestablish the important institution of fatherhood while promoting the theme that “Fatherhood is Forever” by working to reverse the trend of absentee fathers. Fathers play a vital role in the lives of their children. Without the influence of a responsible, committed, and nurturing father, children are more likely to live in poverty, have poor educational outcomes, and get involved with crime. Fathers must understand the critical role they play. The Center provides resources and support to help fathers stay involved and help their children and family thrive.
“We also strive to equip each member of the family with the skills, information, and resources necessary to promote a strong family life, which in turn promotes stronger, healthier communities. To see this vision to fruition, beginning in 2007, CFF expanded our services to include the ‘Making After School Time Enriching and Rewarding and Successful’ (MASTERS) program. MASTERS serves 1,100 low-income children and families each and every school day by providing homework assistance, enrichment activities, recreation, and health and wellness, Hands on Mentoring and education.”
Jennings’ bio points out:
“Under Rick’s leadership, CFF has become a true family resource center, serving over 1,100 at-risk youth each day with after school programs and 200 adults weekly with classes in parenting, anger management, and domestic violence, as well as financial literacy and health services.”
The Center for Fathers and Families is a longtime Morton Golf Foundation grant recipient.
The Morton Golf Foundation is a nonprofit organization that raises funds for golf programs in the Sacramento community, according to mortongolffoundation.org.
“The Morton Golf Foundation funds programs offering a healthy outdoor recreational environment that stresses the building of lasting personal relationships while seamlessly instilling life’s core values for the youth, disabled, and under-served communities of Sacramento,” according to mortongolffoundation.org.
Introducing kids to golf and getting youth involved in the sport is a key program for The Center for Fathers and Families. The organization takes the game right to the schools.
“When the Morton Foundation talked to us about taking golf to the kids, without the kids having to come to a golf course, that’s exactly what you’re looking for. Because they can stay right in their backyards. And they can learn the game of golf,” said Jennings.
Thanks to the Center for Fathers and Families, those who stick with the game, to the point that they are ready to play on a course, will get to use the facilities at the Haggin Oaks Golf Complex and Bing Maloney Golf Complex, both in Sacramento.
“We try to get them involved. Those who really fall in love with the game, we try to get them into one of the golf clubs that are designed just for youth,” including First Tee – Greater Sacramento, said Jennings.
“We just try to keep them in love with the game of golf, maybe get them starting to play tournaments and things like that.”
Jennings is very appreciative and thankful for the support of the Morton Golf Foundation, an organization that provides educational scholarships and the Junior Golf Development Grant.
“I love the Morton family. I love their commitment to helping kids to get into this game of golf,” said Jennings. “I just thank the Morton family for what they’ve done to grow this game of golf. I’m so proud of all of the Mortons for what they do for this community and what they do for everyone that they touch.”
Jennings has a love and passion for golf. He also wants to do all he can to help bring more juniors into the game, helping give them opportunities to learn all they can about the game and to start playing.
“If I had learned golf as a young kid, if someone had introduced it to me, like we’re introducing it to the kids, I would have never played football. That’s how much I love golf,” he said.
Jennings plays at William Land Golf Course in Sacramento. He also belongs to the Sacramento Area Black Golf Club.
According to its website, www.sabgc.org:
“Sacramento Area Black Golf Club, founded in 1953, is formed to recruit, organize, develop, promote, support Junior golfers and Junior Golf Programs, to promote interest and enjoyment in the game of golf by learning and respecting rules while developing skills in the sport of golf. ALL GOLFERS are welcome!”
“To me, golf is the greatest game in the world,” said Jennings. “It teaches you about touch and feel and how to be delicate in some situations and how to be aggressive in other situations. It teaches you how to be strategic and really set a plan of action as to how you’re going to go from one place in life to another place in life, whether it be on the golf course, or whether it be in your personal life.
“I really want to make sure that people understand how important it is to bring the game of golf into marginalized communities, find a way to bring the game of golf into communities that are not near golf courses, find a way to get kids to the golf course. Too many kids are growing up without purpose. And without purpose, you end up going in the wrong direction. Kids need purpose. Everybody can’t be a professional football player. Everybody can’t be a professional baseball player. Everybody can’t be a professional basketball player.
“My challenge is to everybody in the community: if you play golf, and you know something about the game of golf, make sure the kids that don’t have the same access, at least get an opportunity to be introduced to the game of golf. There are not a lot of kids of color on the golf course. And that’s one of the things that we want to change.”
- Marty James is a freelance writer who makes his home in Napa. He retired on June 4, 2019, after spending 40 years as a sports writer, sports editor and executive sports editor for the Napa Valley Register, a daily newspaper in Napa County. He is a 1979 graduate of Sacramento State and a member of the California Golf Writers & Broadcasters Association. He was inducted into the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Hall of Fame in 2016.