The inspirational stories and performances from Monday night’s “Dancing With the Stars” continue to make headlines, with Mr. T and Olympic gymnast Simone Biles getting the most attention for their touching tributes.
But NFL running back Rashad Jennings’ dance to Katy Perry’s “Unconditional” also ended on such a high and uplifting note that it sent the entire audience into a standing ovation.
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Jennings, who danced to the song alongside professional partner Emma Slater in tribute to his dad, Albert Jennings, concluded his contemporary performance by embracing his father, with the audience responding by standing up in applause.
But it wasn’t just the hug that moved people to both action and tears, as Rashad Jennings had explained in a video package before the dance that his relationship with his father wasn’t always all that great.
Watch the dance and Jennings’ explanation of the difficult relationship below:
“It hasn’t always been the best. My dad was closed off when I was younger,” he said. “Any time you tried to get closer to him he would turn to alcohol. His idea of love was to provide financially.”
This was a dynamic that Jennings said made him feel alone as a child, though having a loving mom helped buffer those emotions. But things changed once Jennings went off to college and began to pursue his dreams of playing in the NFL, as he recalled receiving a life-changing phone call one day from his mom.
She explained that his dad would need a leg amputated after suffering a stroke and battling diabetes. It was news that led Jennings to make a difficult decision: he transferred colleges and headed home. While critics said he was crazy and that the move was akin to giving up on his NFL dreams, he said it was the right thing to do.
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“My dad gave up his life for his family and I felt in college it was my time to give up my dream for him,” he said. “It was bigger than football. It was my family.”
In the end, Jennings said that being close to home helped change how he and his father related to one another. Now, their relationship has transformed, evidenced from the heartwarming embrace they shared at the end of the dance.
“2006 is my most memorable year, because that’s when I began to realize what unconditional love really means,” Jennings said.
In the end, he recognized his dream, going on to play for the Jaguars, Raiders and Giants; he’s currently a free agent, telling E! after his performance that it’s been a dream to play professional football.
“It felt really good to do this number and to dance for my father, and having my whole family here — mom, dad, both of my brothers— the people that were there before all of this,” he said of his dance performance on Monday. “It’s just a dream, to be able to play in the NFL.”
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