Lessons From the Heart

  • November 16, 2009 09:47 AM
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By Dan Shrensky for MSNsportsNET.com
November 16, 2009

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - The dreams of children should be about Christmas and brightly-wrapped presents. They should be about endless summers, with time spent playing with friends or lazily lounging. They should be about imagination, friendships, love, learning and wonder.

  Danny Jennings throws down one of his two dunks during Sunday's season-opener against Loyola.
All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo

Danny Jennings’ childhood dreams never had a chance. From toddler to his school age years, Jennings was much more focused on surviving.

The 6-foot-9 WVU basketball freshman is past the days of bouncing back and forth between his biological mother and various foster homes in and around New York City, but he’s just beginning to use his experience as a positive force.

He recently developed a five-minute speech entitled “Looking for the Light” as part of Carolyn Atkins’ “Speaking to Communities” course in the College of Human Resources and Education. He delivered the speech Nov. 10 in front of classmates, friends and members of the community at the Jerry West Room in the Coliseum and presented it at an area middle school. He intends to use the story of his struggles of finding a stable home environment as a child to teach others perseverance and perspective.

“Did you ever have one of those days when nothing goes your way and you want to give up? Well, I had a whole childhood of those days,” Jennings’ speech begins.

Jennings was first separated from his mother at age 2 when she sent him to live with a family friend. The move began a cycle of physical and verbal abuse that seemed to follow Jennings through moves to various foster homes and reunions with his mother.

There were periods of happiness but Jennings felt unwanted, unloved and unwelcome. He remembers having his mouth washed out with soap and being punished for bed-wetting by having to stand in a hallway one night. One foster parent pushed him down a staircase and locked him in the basement because he was crying. He was back with his mother at age 8, but she decided to place him back into foster care after two years because she said he was too difficult to care for.

She kept his younger brother and sister.

“That hurt,” he said.

Jennings’ final stop in the foster system was his best. His foster mother, Cora Darby, made him attend church regularly, encouraged his participation in sports and, most importantly, gave him discipline, love and structure.

“She adopted me and I call her ‘Mom,’ Jennings said. “But I’ve forgiven my biological mother and I’m trying to maintain a relationship with her.”

During his speech, Jennings broke down in tears and, when it seemed like he would not be able to continue, collected himself and finished his speech. When he finished, the crowd gave him a standing ovation.

“Someone told me that people who hear my story are in tears or are shocked,” Jennings said. “I know it makes people who see me think of me differently. They don’t know what I’ve been through.”

Despite his horrific upbringing, Jennings said he’s not reluctant to tell his story publicly.

“I feel like I’m giving a testimony,” he said. “Some people take for granted what they have. I think people will appreciate things more when they hear my story.”

On the court, Jennings figures he can handle any adversity that comes his way. His biggest obstacle right now is earning court time behind an experienced and talented cast of veteran teammates.

Rather than redshirt, though, the 260-pound Jennings thinks he can contribute immediately.

“I think I’m just going to keep getting better. I’m confident I can play,” he said.

Jennings transformed that confidence into a 9-point, 12-rebound season-opening performance against Loyola Sunday afternoon in the season opener. He provided a spark off the bench in the first half when the team was struggling and got the team and the crowd energized.

His 12-rebound effort was the most ever by a WVU freshman in his college debut. Jennings' spirited play was sparked by a video Huggins showed Jennings of former Cincinnati player Eric Hicks. Huggins told Jennings he wanted him to play like that.

"He said he was inspired by it," said Huggins.

Assistant coach Larry Harrison says the young player is adapting quickly to WVU and his teammates.

“Dan is a kid that’s searching for love and was searching for someone who would care for him,” Harrison said. “He found a home when he came here. He’s got great support from Coach (Bob) Huggins and all the coaches and his teammates.

“He’s got a great personality,” Harrison continued. “You wouldn’t know what he’s been through to look at him or talk to him (casually). His teammates love him.”

Harrison admits it might be hard getting Jennings minutes, particularly once the Big East schedule starts, but is eager to watch the player’s progress.

“He plays hard and aggressive,” he said. “Dan just needs to make the most out of every opportunity he gets.”

He’s off to a good start after Sunday’s performance.

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