It can bring out both the worst and the best in society. Love it or hate it, there's little doubt that without social media, Anfernee Jennings likely never becomes a 2020 Patriots draft choice.
A mention of him in a fortuitously-timed Tweet by a complete stranger probably saved his football career. It almost certainly saved his left leg from amputation.
"He's had to overcome a lot. That big injury he had? He knows how to overcome adversity," says Richard White, Jennings' former head coach at Dadeville (Ala.) High School. "Anything they throw at him, he'll be able to take it all and overcome it."
New Year's Day, 2018. A redshirt sophomore at Alabama, Jennings was enjoying perhaps his most productive game to that point. During the Crimson Tide's eventual College Football Playoff victory over Clemson, Jennings had been wreaking havoc on the Tigers. With five tackles (three of them for losses of yardage) plus a quarterback sack, Jennings was on his way to making an otherwise routine play to take down a Clemson ball carrier in the fourth quarter.
Just as Jennings planted his left leg in the turf, a 'Bama teammate accidentally struck his knee, causing it to bend unnaturally backward in what could be described as a < shape. After helping him off the field, medical staff initially diagnosed Jennings as having suffered a posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) tear – a severe, but by no means uncommon sports injury.
Later that night, while scrolling through his Twitter mentions, Jennings came across one in which the composer attached a still-photo of Jennings' injury at the precise moment of impact. Unnerved by the gruesome sight, Jennings showed the picture to one of Alabama's athletic trainers, who decided that further examination was necessary.
By the next morning, tests confirmed that Jennings had damaged arteries and was experiencing blood clotting. A severe situation had turning into a dire emergency requiring exigent action. Doctors later told Jennings that had another eight or 10 hours gone by without the issue being addressed right then and there, they might have been forced to take more drastic measures – amputation.
Months later, as a fully recovered Jennings prepared to start the 2018 season for Alabama, he remarked to reporters, "Thank God we got on it... And thank God for that fan, whoever tweeted that picture."
The procedure that saved Jennings left him with a scar from his inner left leg down his calf, a small price to pay for the ability to resume playing football. The 6-2, 255-pound outside linebacker went on to play the remainder of his college games at a very high level, capped by an All‐Southeast Conference First Team selection last season. This past April, New England made Jennings their third overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
His ascent up the football ladder comes as no surprise to White, who's known him since Jennings was playing in junior high.
"He was very aggressive, a big kid," White recalls. "You could tell he could still grow, but he was already bigger than most of the kids his age. Most boys at that age are timid and hold back a little bit. He was NOT that way. He had size and he ended up playing as a freshman a little bit. Then sophomore year, he broke into the starting lineup for us. Played defensive end and tight end."
In the state of Alabama, folks generally take their football in one of two varieties: Auburn University or the University of Alabama, and there is little love lost between the rival sides. Dadeville, with just 3,200 folks, may be little more than a speed trap about a half-hour's drive north of Auburn. Yet residents there, like everywhere else in the state, know where their allegiances lie.
Many years ago, White, an Auburn grad, spent two seasons as a walk-on linebacker for the Tigers, but Jennings, he recalls, grew up a rare breed with an affinity for both schools. Even more unusual, though, were Jennings' skills on the football field. While plenty of White's former players ended up advancing to some level of college football, only a couple eventually achieved NFL heights, and even then, only briefly.
The more Jennings played for White, however, the more interest he drew from major college programs. To White's chagrin, his alma mater took notice of Jennings a little too late.
"Once Alabama offered [him a scholarship], there was no backing out then. Once ['Bama head coach Nick] Saban and [then-Alabama defensive coordinator] Kirby Smart came by and put the charm on him," White chuckles, "I don't think anybody else could have done anything [to change his mind]."
The timing of Jennings' horrible injury at Alabama nonetheless came at the most opportune time for him to recover and not miss a snap on the field. He deserves no less, according to White, because of the type of young man Jennings is.
"Anfernee's a humble kid. He comes from humble roots. Very conscientious in everything he does. He's not a party-type kid. Never gave us any trouble. Never in trouble with the law. Always a very respectful young man.
"Very meek kid," adds White, "until he walks between those white lines on the football field. You better have your head screwed on because he's going to try to take it off. He's relentless in everything. Hard-nosed kid, gave everything he had, even in the weight room. He didn't take a day off. Most teenage kids you have to force into the weight room. Anfernee was never like that. We always had to chase him out when we closed up at the end of the day."
White kept close tabs on his former star player during his years at Alabama, watching Jennings' games on television every weekend. With the free-agent losses New England suffered this offseason, coupled with a relatively young and inexperienced depth chart at his position, the Patriots rookie could figure into the linebacker mix once players are allowed to resume training at team facilities. And with the way White describes him as a person, he shouldn't take long to fit into the culture here in Foxborough.
"He's football-smart. I think he's going to be one of those contributors right off the get-go. He's that ready, I think. He's played at the highest level for one of the better teams in the country. Good leader. Led by example, but he could be vocal at times. He's not very vocal, but could be when he needed to be. He's someone you want your kid to emulate."
Without question, Jennings is someone he wants his own son to emulate. He acknowledged as much when introduced to local media via conference call shortly after he was drafted.
"The last two years, I learned a lot about patience, working hard, and dealing with adversity. I know that you can overcome anything you put your mind to and work at. I took advantage of my time here at Alabama, in the classroom and I feel like on the field. I really grew as a player and matured on and off the field.
"I just look forward," Jennings remarked, "to being the best version of myself each and every day and being the best father I can be, best teammate I can be, best player... But I'm just thankful for this opportunity, once again, and I can't wait to get to Foxborough and get to work."
And to think that he wouldn't have this chance without that one Tweet from a person who, to this day, remains unknown to Jennings.
View photos of Patriots LB Anfernee Jennings in action during his time at Alabama.