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The Big Read: ‛I may not see you perfect but things are perfectly seen’

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“Difficulties are meant to rouse, not discourage. The human spirit is to grow strong by conflict.” — William Ellery Channing

It is so that everyone experiences difficulties in some aspect of life, whether they be self-inflicted or externally manufactured beyond one’s control.

Many surrender to the pressure and dive into self-pity, some are ambivalent to such situations, while others accept any manner of debilitation as a challenge to be overcome no matter the suggested prognosis.

Mark “Burger” Jennings is certainly not one to surrender, nor is he among those merely satisfied with keeping trouble at bay. No, for the former local and overseas professional goalkeeper, who readily dived at the feet of onrushing attackers, stands as one who is more than willing to tackle any foe.

These days, however, Jennings’s tackling occurs only in the figurative sense, mostly as a result of being confined to a wheelchair as a double, lower-leg amputee with prostheses for feet, his own having to be removed because of circulatory problems after contracting a severe case of Type II diabetes.

Add to the list of bodily deficiencies kidney failure, which demands he spend two hours, three days a week hooked up to a dialysis machine at King Edward VII Memorial Hospital, frequent overnight stays at the same venue and his being legally blind — and in need of someone to guide his wheelchair — and the situation would appear all too dire.

But let no one blow the whistle or cry foul for this one-time warrior of the football pitch, for his remains a life of enrichment, not merely of himself but unto those that surround as he continues to cut a swath as a bundle of energy — perhaps not at fever pitch, but via a still ebullient, restless spirit that refuses to yield its momentum as a contributory mind, body and spirit to the community he loves.

Via the radio waves, television and his four-wheeled pulpit, he continues to pour forth encouragement in voice, as well as charitably contribute funding in support of the sporting and advancement activities of many of the island’s young people.

Just how has Jennings managed to maintain a zest for life amid the hardship? Much was learnt along the travels of this 56-year-old “pond dog”, who was much educated in the field of the disenfranchised both during his own youth as well as from several trips to St Jude’s Hospital in Tennessee, where he saw all too many bright youthful lights dimmed and doused by unmerciful ailments … lives of unfettered tragedy, suffering and gone all too soon.

There were also the radiant smiles and beaming countenances of life-held satisfaction he occasioned as a volunteer worker with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, where wishes finally came true, albeit for an ephemeral moment before ultimate darkness swallowed the dream.

“Having done the things I did in terms of being involved in the Make-A-Wish Foundation and St Jude’s Hospital, I’m able to actually put myself in their shoes and find a level of acceptance and contentment even in my losses,” said Jennings, while being interviewed under the shadow of that all-too-foreboding KEMH edifice on Point Finger Road.

“I may sound crazy but I’m grateful for where I am and am able to better see things around me and place greater value in life and in being alive, rather than simply take things for granted — and that’s because of the experiences and exposure I was granted in being around those kids who never even got the chance to enjoy many of the physical gifts I once did, and never complained.

“I was free to do so many things and enjoy so much before I was afflicted with my health issues. I mean I was in Georgia, making just $30,000 a year coaching and involved in things I enjoyed. But over there, that’s plenty to do a lot of things. In Georgia, one can truly manage with what seems so little over this side of the water, and the camaraderie and helpfulness among the communities made it all the easier.

“I’d gone school farther north on a football scholarship at Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science, got a business degree and figured I might go and conquer the world, but being in Augusta and being around those kids and within those family-feeling, helpful-type communities of like-minded people, it gave a real appreciation of the things that are truly valuable in life and that continues now to this day, whereby all the bells and whistles are not nearly as satisfying as the collective fellowship.

“Being disabled now I’m reminded of all those kids at St Jude’s and Make-A-Wish and how life and sound limbs should not ever be taken for granted.

“These things, disabilities that you and I have, many people call problems, but I don’t call them problems. I call them challenges. I call them challenges because at the end of the day, even with the situation with me being legally blind, I may not see you perfect, but things are perfectly seen.”

“There was something Reverend Goodwin Smith always told me when me and Donald [Norford] used to go up his house to watch the Lakers on satellite. He’d say, ‛Don’t let your circumstances overbear you. Step back, take a breath and look at where you’re at.’”

Perseverance and a willingness to accept instruction have long been key aspects of Jennings’s story, although on occasion he might be faulted for exhibiting levels of stubbornness — alas playing the goalkeeper position is not for shrinking violets and nor is it such for one afflicted with myriad health complications.

Jennings was never the most naturally gifted of athletes, or the most svelte to step inside the lines, hence the nickname “Burger”, borne of his prowess at wolfing down quite a few patties on the trot at the old burger stand at Devonshire Recreation Club, home of the Cougars, for whom he became a regular between the sticks.

“I used to like eating the hamburgers at Devonshire Rec, and people would buy me hamburgers thinking I couldn’t eat that many, but I’d eat three or four, so they started calling me Burger and the name stuck,” he explained with a wide grin.

Although he lived a stone’s throw from the Den, Jennings’s initial foray into the game came at North Village at the junior level, where he was subject to the no-nonsense methodology of the late Harold “Doc”) Dowling and the more lenient but no less effective Danny Griffith.

“I came up at North Village where Doc Dowling and coach Danny Griffith were my youth coaches from Mini-Minors on up, playing at The Desert [the old Bishop Spencer School field],” he said. “The reason why I became a goalkeeper was because Doc and Danny put me there because I was bigger than the other kids.

“I was a little burly, not fat, that’s such a harsh word, so me being a bit burly they put me in goal because if they put me at right back, I’d get tired every five minutes and have to come off, so in goal I went.

“And once I got in goal, I figured the position to be a lot easier to play because I didn’t have to do a whole lot of running around. All I had to do was stop the ball and dive a bit here and there, which wasn’t too bad and better than having to run up and down the field.”

He also was fortunate to receive tips from one of the best goalkeepers the Island has ever produced, Sam “The Cat” Nusum, who was the North Village and Bermuda No 1 before heading off to the North American Soccer League, where he had a successful professional career with Montreal Olympique, Vancouver Whitecaps and the illustrious New York Cosmos.

“As I went along, I got better at it and at one point Village’s senior team came to the Desert to train and I was able to meet top players Ralph “Gumbo” Bean and Sam Nusum, who on occasion would give me tips on technique and how to position myself in the goal. But coach Danny was also a goalkeeper himself and he really helped me out with developing my game.

“The best part for me was being able to play the game with my friends. In Bermuda, we start out just having fun, playing with friends and then being able to go a bit farther to playing with primary and high school friends.

“I played a little with the national under-17s, under-19s and under-23s, and [Bermuda coach] Gary Darrell afforded me the chance to participate as a No 4 goalkeeper for practice and training purposes. Although I never was able to tour with the national teams, the experience was invaluable.”

“I was more a practice squad player at the senior national level but was able to get on the pitch and play at the lower national levels. I was able to participate in a few Concacaf tournaments, one in Guatemala, one in the US, so I have a couple of them to my résumé.

“Then at university level I played at Philadelphia College of Textiles & Science, which was at the Division One level and had one time or another featured fellow Bermudians Robert “Bobby” Durham, who was a schoolteacher of mine, Gordon Cholmondeley, Dale Russell, Johnny Nusum, “Nibs” Lewis.

“Bermuda had a really good relationship with Philadelphia Textile and due to what those guys had demonstrated on behalf of Bermuda, the path was made fairly easy for me to walk into a Division One team because they were household names.”

Others that matriculated there were David “Muda” Lambe, Dwayne “Liquid” Bean, Quilton Joell, Alfie Smith and former Bermuda captain Edgar “Dilly Dick” Smith, with Nusum, Durham, Cholmondeley, Russell and Jennings all enshrined in the school’s Sports Hall of Fame.

“At first I wanted to get into teaching, but then I thought it better to be able to get involved in social areas, and I’ve been able to do that,” added Jennings, who enjoyed stints with Miami Fusion of the NASL and England’s Middlesbrough, then of the top flight, spending his time playing among the reserves.

“It’s really satisfying to be able to lend of oneself and hopefully leave a positive mark in the development of youngsters. My first degree at Philadelphia Textile was in the area of business management, with a minor in business law because, although I went to a textile school, we don’t have textiles in Bermuda, so my coach suggested I get into the area of business.

“When I went to Augusta, I got involved in criminal justice and social work, in which I received my master’s degree and got involved in social work, helping people. I worked with an Augusta attorney, Victor Hawk, where I got more involved in law and in the business of helping people in bad situations. As a result, I later got involved in the Make-A-Wish Foundation in Atlanta, being able to contribute to kids having their wishes granted through meetings with sports celebrities like Jeff Gordon, of Nascar, and others who would come and surprise them with answers to their wishes

“At St Jude’s I met with Danny Thomas and on a few occasions his daughter, Marlo Thomas, who’s the chief spokesperson today and the wife of famous talk show host Phil Donahue. We even did a few infomercials with a soccer ball for St Jude’s Hospital back in the day, the late Eighties, so it was a lot of fun being able to do some work in the helping field.

“I just liked that part about working and helping, and my thoughts were that if things ever go wrong or awry in life, I’d be able to look at things from a different perspective, one of greater understanding. It also allowed me, at the time, to better appreciate life in general.”

It was during another of his Peach State forays, turning around a hitherto inept Augusta State University soccer outfit into a Division One championship contender — they lost in the championship tournament to South Carolina Spartanburg, who had fellow Bermudian Darrin Lewis among the coaching staff — that Jennings was recruited to join Augusta Arsenal Soccer Club as programme co-ordinator.

And with the club’s mission being to develop each player to their potential through quality instruction in a challenging, competitive and enjoyable learning environment, Jennings simply could not resist the calling, quickly becoming a fixture at the club.

“Teams in America at the time would often emulate English clubs and the founders went over to England and secured a charter from Arsenal and brought it back to Augusta and formulated Augusta Arsenal, which occupies a 30-acre area with seven soccer fields, six lit fields, with over 2,000 kids within age groups ranging from under-10 to under-19, including nine female teams and the rest boys,” he explained.

“The programme was founded in 1982 by a gentleman named Carey Rivers, and I came on as a programme co-ordinator as an aside to my coaching role at Augusta State University. It was really nice being a part of Augusta Arsenal and they even came to Bermuda for several tours.

“In 1995 I formed Augusta Arsenal Grassroots Soccer and brought that back to Bermuda where Arnold Manders was kind enough, because we didn’t have the capital to rent the field, to allow us usage of Berkeley’s field on numerous occasions to hold camps and we were able to make donations on the back-end as a symbol of our gratitude.

“During the course of our hosting the camps, we were able to bring in the likes of Harry Redknapp and Frank Lampard, who we had visit us in Augusta.

“Harry had formerly played in the North American Soccer League with the Seattle Sounders and he became a pen pal of mine, whereby we kept in touch over the years. At one point he asked what I was doing and once I mentioned what I was doing in Augusta, he came over and brought Frank and they ran camps in Augusta under the West Ham banner with which they were both affiliated.

Former Bermuda youth-team footballer Mark Jennings has a positive outlook despite being legally blind and a double amputee (Photograph by Akil Simmons)
Promoting the youth: Mark Jennings on his radio show

“They also brought Charlie George and a few other guys that they played with, including Colin Todd, a former England international. We had such a large campus and the English guys found it useful to host camps of their own and really help raise the interest level for soccer in the area.

“We did that for about five or six years and they went back to England and we lost touch for a while, but then we were able, through XL Reinsurance, with a Mr Alan Palin and Brian O’Hara, bring in Harry and Frank for about six years to do camps at National Stadium and Berkeley Institute, which was a lot of fun.

“That’s when Harry first sought out John Barry Nusum to try to get him to travel to England to play, but his parents influenced him to go the America route.”

Coaching has long been Jennings’s calling. It’s written all over his face as it alights whenever one raises the topic.

“What I liked about coaching was the same thing your father [Myron Bean], Danny and Doc got out of it, which was to provide a safe haven for youngsters to have fun while learning how to play the game and receive life lessons,” he noted. “To be able to mentor them and help them in anything they had a passion for going forward.

The Former Cup Match Players and Officials Foundation make a financlal donation to Mark Jennings from part proceeds of a charity golf tournament (File photograph by Lawrence Trott)

“It’s better when you have a mentor that really knows what they’re talking about and can push you farther along in the game and develop you to some form of niche or demonstrable standard. That’s what Doc Dowling, Randy Benjamin, Jon Beard and those guys were able to do and is the reason why I was able to achieve a level whereby I earned a scholarship, by placing decent football at Robert Crawford School.

“In fact, I believe I was the only player to play in the High Schools All-Star Game twice. The team didn’t have a decent goalkeeper, so Mr Benjamin allowed me to play in my fourth year and again in my fifth year. Mind you, I lost both times, but I played two years in a row and got extra exposure to the scouts and because of those guys allowing me to do so, I was afforded a scholarship.”

Jennings also understands the team concept where one person supports another, covering any potential fault, weakness or disability — and so he has his own these days who aid in his ability to function at optimal levels despite his physical imperfections.

“Losing my feet was another one of those things where I had to stop, sit back and realise, ‛This is what it is!’ as opposed to feeling sorry for yourself. I said how we going to do this?

“Because it’s not just me, a one-man gang, but there’s a support group that works with me and me with them. I have Donald and his wife, Cheryl-Ann, Robert and Lynnette Holder, Lorraine Smith and, of course, coach Danny and his wife and my brother Floyd and his wife, Sonia, Dr Peets and his wife Julie, so there’s a great support system I have in place, which makes things a lot easier and tolerable.

“They help me to manage things as far as housing and living in a comfortable and appreciative manner.

“Losing limbs can be overwhelming for sure, but at the end of the day, this is my reality and I remain grateful. I hung out at the Rec, but even though I didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, didn’t do drugs or things like that, what I did do was eat any and everything, and not properly monitor my consumption and so it was that I came down with diabetes, have renal failure, which are contributory factors to my loss of limbs and sight.

“I didn’t practise good nutrition and this is the price for that in my case. We all have areas where we fall short.

“Where I am today is no one’s fault but my own, but I’m not mad at the world or anybody in it. In my lifetime I’ve done many things, none of which I would have been able to do without the people I’ve surrounded myself with. None perfect but each good and of great value in their own right.

“At the end of the day I’m alive, content in the situation and still striving to achieve more.”

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Published September 10, 2021 at 7:59 am (Updated September 10, 2021 at 7:49 am)

The Big Read: ‛I may not see you perfect but things are perfectly seen’

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