In many ways, Jonathon Jennings always seemed destined to be a CFL player.
The six-foot, 196-pound passer was a star at Saginaw Valley State, a small school located in Michigan between the 43rd and 44th parallels, making it north of Hamilton but south of Toronto. He worked out for the Detroit Lions, Kansas City Chiefs, and Green Bay Packers after going unselected in the 2014 NFL Draft but, as a Division II quarterback who lacked prototypical size, was always a long shot to make it in the league.
The B.C. Lions announced his signing in April 2015 to little fanfare. The team was four years removed from its most recent Grey Cup but still considered to be a respectable outfit. Travis Lulay was firmly entrenched as the team’s starter, while John Beck, a former second-round NFL draft pick, was expected to serve as the primary backup heading into his second year with the team.
That all changed when training camp got underway in Kamloops as Beck was too ill to participate. With Lulay still recovering from a shoulder injury, Jennings took second-team reps behind Travis Partridge, the third-stringer from the previous year. Jennings and Lulay were roommates for the duration of camp, allowing the young quarterback to use the veteran as a valuable resource to learn Canadian game.
“I had the ultimate mentor who became one of my best friends. I just picked his brain every single night at the camp and he kind of led the way for me,” Jennings told 3DownNation recently via telephone.
“His analytics and the way he saw the game, I don’t know how you could read the field any better than Travis could. His mentorship and how to lead and how to go about being a professional, that was the prime example for me. … Travis showed me the ropes of the CFL game and all the things that go along with being a professional quarterback. Him being there since day one of camp for me was an absolutely blessing.”
The Lions cut Partridge at the end of training camp along with a number of other quarterbacks, including Jordan Rodgers, the younger brother of NFL star Aaron Rodgers who later achieved fame on The Bachelorette. Jennings was officially B.C.’s third-string quarterback behind Lulay and Beck.
It’s rare for quarterbacks so deep on the depth chart to see game action but that’s exactly what happened in Week 13 when Beck, starting in place of an injured Lulay, took a punishing hit to his throwing shoulder from an unblocked Freddie Bishop III.
Jennings entered the game against Calgary just before halftime and threw three interceptions in a 35-23 loss. He felt good about his debut despite the turnovers, which he felt laid the groundwork for future success.
“Rookies are gonna throw some picks and honestly, that’s how I played anyways, I was a very aggressive player. But I felt confident in what I could do. I had some really good passes in that game and some really good completions and was ready for the moment. Sometimes the stars just align and things go well. We had some good talent (in the receiving corps),” said Jennings. “It was fun to get in there and compete.”
Jennings made his first career start eight days later and threw for 281 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception in a 29-23 loss to Edmonton. He started again the following week and threw for 364 yards and four touchdowns in a 46-20 win over Saskatchewan. In the matter of a few short weeks, Jennings had breathed new life into B.C.’s season and become one of the league’s must-watch players. It was only 10 weeks after his 23rd birthday.
The native of Columbus, Ohio started six straight games for the Lions and threw for 1,752 yards, 15 touchdowns, and seven interceptions. The team went 3-3 in those contests and punched their ticket to the West Semi-Final. Lulay started the team’s meaningless regular season finale but was no longer the team’s top pivot, having returned in a backup role behind Jennings four weeks prior.
“It was a whirlwind, everything happened so fast,” said Jennings. “I think the biggest thing for me was having a good supporting cast around me and coaches who believed in me and a team that believed in me as well. It’s unfortunate that Travis got hurt and John Beck same thing, but all of that type of stuff leads to opportunity for a young kid … and I was just fortunate to have that opportunity.”
Jennings started the West Semi-Final against Calgary and struggled, throwing a pick-six to Keon Raymond late in the first quarter. Lulay took over the controls shortly before halftime but it didn’t matter — the Lions were badly outmatched by a team that went 14-4 during the regular season, losing 35-9 at McMahon Stadium.
Despite his postseason struggles, the Lions had a new franchise quarterback. Jennings signed a three-year contract extension during the off-season and was named the team’s starter heading into training camp. It turned out to be a wise decision by Wally Buono, who returned as head coach following the resignation of Jeff Tedford.
Jennings threw for 5,226 yards, 27 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions in 2016 and was benched only one time over 18 games. The Lions finished 12-6 on the year and beat Winnipeg in the West Semi-Final before losing to Calgary the following week.
Though his production was overshadowed by West Division rivals Bo Levi Mitchell and Michael Reilly, Jennings had reached CFL stardom. He was still only 24 and appeared to have plenty of development ahead of him. The sky was the limit, provided he didn’t leave for the NFL.
The rate at which Jennings took the CFL by storm was almost unprecedented given his age and relative inexperience. However, his meteoric rise didn’t lead to an eventual plateau of excellence but a spectacular crash down to earth, albeit for reasons beyond his control.
Jennings led the Lions to a 2-1 start in 2017 but took a hit from rookie defensive tackle Davon Coleman on his first throw against Hamilton in Week 4. He left the game due to an injury to his throwing shoulder and, though he played again four weeks later, he never truly returned to form.
“After that shoulder injury … I just never threw the same. I never, ever threw the same after that to this day. It was a shoulder separation. It seems like a super simple injury but it was on my throwing shoulder and it just completely changed the way I threw. My accuracy changed a lot and that’s something that really propelled me in the first part of my career,” said Jennings.
“When you talk about making downfield throws and putting things in tiny windows, I had power and I had accuracy and I could put it where I wanted it. From there, that kind of changed. I could still throw the football obviously but it wasn’t what I was used to.”
The team wanted Jennings to return to the lineup as quickly as possible and he did so in Week 8 despite not feeling “anywhere near healed.” He was benched twice in a 41-8 loss to Saskatchewan — once for Lulay and once for rookie Alex Ross — in a performance he considers one of the worst of his career.
Jennings finished the season with 3,639 passing yards, 16 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions. For a player once heralded as the CFL’s next great quarterback, it was a very disappointing season. This was reflected in his team’s record as B.C. finished 7-11 and out of the playoffs for the first time since 1996.
Jennings had a workout with the Indianapolis Colts following the 2017 season, which is when he noticed how much his accuracy had diminished. It didn’t seem to matter how much he threw or how much he trained — the arm that had made him a young CFL star was no longer the same. He’s unsure if things would have gone differently had his shoulder had more time to heal.
“That’s the tough part about pro sports is you have to find a way to get back and perform the same way,” he said. “No one really cares about what happened to you, they want performance on the field. The shoulder’s still not the same to this day. I’m not an excuse-maker, so I don’t even like to use that but it certainly changed how I played the game.”
Jennings returned in 2018 under the final year of his contract with B.C., which reportedly paid him over $300,000. He started the first three games of the year but failed to reach 200 passing yards in any of them. He was benched in favour of Lulay by Week 5 and didn’t see the field again until after Labour Day. He finished the season with 1,628 passing yards, eight touchdowns, and seven interceptions and had no intention of re-signing with the Lions.
“It was time to move on,” he said. “It seemed like the tension was kind of growing there and it was just time to go. It was time to move on and try somewhere else and try to rejuvenate the career.”
The Ottawa Redblacks were coming off a Grey Cup appearance following the 2018 season but franchise quarterback Trevor Harris left on the first day of free agency to sign with the Edmonton Elks. Toronto and Winnipeg expressed interest in Jennings but he chose to sign with Ottawa believing they would provide him with the best chance to play.
The first sign of trouble in the nation’s capital came seven weeks after Jennings signed with the team when offensive coordinator Jaime Elizondo resigned to take a job in the XFL. He was never officially replaced as Ottawa’s remaining offensive assistants, plus the addition of running backs coach Joe Paopao, were tasked with filling the role by committee. The results were disastrous.
“It was honestly one of the craziest experiences I’ve ever seen, especially in a pro level. It was crazy, we were looking for any type of answer. … It’s unfortunate because I was looking forward to working with Elizondo and I was always excited watching Ottawa in the years prior with Trevor Harris and Henry Burris. I loved what they were doing but that kind of changed the dynamic of a lot of things and we were looking for answers but obviously couldn’t find any,” said Jennings.
“With the wrong coaching and the wrong type of team and not gelling, things can look really, really bad. And it’s kind of a situation where was it unfortunate for anyone in that spot.”
Dominique Davis started the first four games of the season for Ottawa, leading the club to a 2-2 record. Jennings took over the starting role in Week 6 but was benched in the fourth quarter of his Redblacks debut amid a 31-1 loss to Winnipeg. Ottawa finished the season 3-15 and Jennings posted the worst numbers of his career, throwing for 1,154 yards, three touchdowns, and seven interceptions. He went 0-6 as a starter and was released in January 2020. He never signed another contract.
Now 30, Jennings is now officially retired from professional football. He lives in Westerville, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus located 20 kilometres northeast of the city’s downtown area. He coaches the quarterbacks at a local Division III program at Otterbein University and works in real estate.
He and his wife, Abby, welcomed their first daughter, Ava, in Ottawa during the 2019 season and their second daughter, Charlotte, in 2020. He’s thrilled to have a Canadian daughter, joking that “she’ll take me back up there if armageddon starts.”
Jennings insists that despite the high level of competition between him and Lulay, there was never any animosity between them and they remain close friends to this day.
“We had that type of relationship where we could be professional and still care about each other without the other stuff. … I’m starting to coach a little bit now and the biggest thing that I’ve always done and that I would tell any quarterback coming up is all you can do is control what you can control and the coaches have that final decision. It’s not personal and there should be no personal animosity,” he said.
“We certainly keep in touch all the time. He just texted me and made a joke about me losing my hair. He has three girls and I’m just following his footsteps.”
Jennings also remembers Buono fondly and feels a sense of gratitude towards his former head coach and general manager for giving him the opportunity to shine as a member of the B.C. Lions.
“I always knew that he was the one in the background giving me an opportunity, he’s done that for so many different people in his life,” he said.
“He’s hard-nosed and old school but really straight to the point, he would always tell you exactly what was on his mind. I’m absolutely indebted to him for giving me an opportunity and truly believing me. He always believed in me and he was the one that always wanted me on the field, he always expected good things for me.”
Though he would have preferred to have his professional football career last longer, Jennings has no regrets about anything he did north of the border. He finished his five-year career with 13,651 passing yards, 69 touchdowns, 58 interceptions along with 214 carries for 1,086 rushing yards and nine touchdowns.
“I was blessed to have the opportunity to prolong my career and play professional ball. Me and my wife reflect on it all the time, just how cool it was to have an opportunity in a league that I didn’t truly know much about, got the opportunity to go up there and the stars aligned for me to have a real opportunity to showcase my talent and I’m just thankful for the time that I had there,” he said.
“No career lasts forever. Obviously, I wish that mine would have lasted a little longer but it’s just how it played out. I was still blessed and fortunate enough to be a part of that for so long and be a starter. It was awesome. … I don’t have any regrets. If I drew out the perfect scenario of what I would love for my career to look like, it may look a little different and have a couple of Grey Cups in there but I was truly blessed for my time and and I don’t have any regrets at all.”