Jennings Loses Dad, Buoyed By 35 Brothers On CCSU Baseball Team

When Franklin Jennings saw the ball launched from home plate, he figured he'd better get going in a hurry.

The shot off Anthony Godino's bat was slicing between the Central Connecticut right fielder and center fielder Tyler Coleman in a scoreless opening-round game in the NEC Tournament. Wagner had two men on in the fifth inning in the May 26 game at Dodd Stadium in Norwich.

"Me and Ty were converging and I heard him talking the whole way; he said it was mine and I got there," Jennings said. "I overran it a little bit and it just bounced out of my glove."

The Seahawks went up 2-0 on what was officially scored a double, but Jennings made a mental error that could have hurt the Blue Devils' chances of reaching a fifth NCAA Tournament, their first in seven years.

Central came back. In baseball vernacular, it picked up Jennings, scoring one in the sixth, one in the eighth and three in the ninth for a 5-4 win.

"My guys had my back all day," Jennings said.

They have all year. Jennings' father died in January at age 68.

"It's been a tough year, but nothing could have beaten the feeling I had on Sunday when we won, and I know he's watching," Jennings said of his father. "He's looking down and smiling right now."

Jennings is second on the team in hits (68) and has a .333 batting average, so he's done more than his share for the team. When he overran the ball, that stuck with him a bit. When Central scored its first run, his mind went elsewhere.

"Once we came back with one, I thought we were going to come back and at least tie it in the ninth," Jennings said.

The Blue Devils (36-20) won that one and two more vs. Sacred Heart to earn an automatic NCAA bid. They open Friday at 9 p.m. vs. No. 6 TCU (43-15) at Lupton Stadium in Fort Worth, Texas.

Jennings, who bats left but throws right, said he can still hear his father telling him to hit the ball to left field instead of pulling it to right.

James Jennings is the reason Franklin, of Montgomery, N.Y., started playing the game his dad loved. According to his obituary, James was a baseball enthusiast and known as "Coach" to many. He mentored young men, coached Little League and officiated swim meets.

Blue Devils assistant coach Pat Hall, who lost his mother to Alzheimer's in 2015, was one of many who gave Jennings strength. When James was in hospice care, and Franklin and his mother were told James didn't have much time left, Franklin reached out to Hall.

"He was obviously very upset and I just tried to tell him that this was probably the first time in his life he actually had to be a man and make sure his mother was OK, make sure his siblings were OK," Hall said. "That was most important because when he's back here, he's got 35 guys, 35 brothers that will take care of him."

Hall also sent Franklin a text he wanted him to read to his dad.

"The gist of it was 'you raised a great young man,'" Jennings recalled. "'It's going to be tough not seeing you at the ballpark this year, but I know you'll be with us and I'm going to look after Franklin as if he was my own son.' I told my father this before everything happened that Coach Hall has been like a father to me since the moment I stepped on campus and at a difficult time he proved it even more."

The CCSU baseball team also came up big.

"Without these guys, without the coaching staff, I would not be here right now," Jennings said. "When my father passed away I had guys look after me, made sure I went to class, made sure I was getting to practice, made sure that if I was having a tough day, they made sure it was going to be all right." 

And the baseball team attended James Jennings' funeral.

"For a lot of kids, they didn't know Franklin," CCSU coach Charlie Hickey said. "They were freshmen and didn't know his dad. They hadn't recognized or seen him at the games. I said 'We were good people today. We were there for somebody. We were there for his family to get him through a rough patch.'

"Now he's gone out and tried to play every game thinking of his dad and the players have been there in support of him."

Like Coleman? When he heard what happened, Coleman responded, well, like a great friend would.

"I can't imagine what it's like to lose a father," Coleman said softly, dropping his head before practice Tuesday. "You know when that happened we became connected. We've always been teammates, always friends, but once his father passed I felt like I had to be there and just give him the support he needed."

Vince Coleman, Tyler's dad, also has been there.

Senior Day, May 21, was going to be an emotional day for Jennings and everyone knew it. Most of the players knew James and Gladys came to most of the games and surely would have been together for this one. Before the game, Jennings approached juniors Dean Lockery of New Haven and Ryan Costello of Wethersfield, two of his good friends and teammates, and said he was going to need them that day.

Jennings went 4-for-5 in a 17-3 clubbing of Fairleigh Dickinson.

"Tyler's father grabbed me after the game and said, 'You're like another son to me' and I said, 'I know you're not my father but I'm going to give you a father hug right now'… that made me break down a little bit."

After the Blue Devils won Sunday, Jennings sought out Vince Coleman for another father hug. Jennings' older brother Joseph, 31, who lives in Florida, has been to as many Central games as he could. He was at Dodd on Sunday, as was their mom.

And then there's Jennings' niece, 5-year-old Ava Joy. She was at Senior Day.

"She said, 'Uncle, why are you crying?' I said 'I miss Pop Pop.' She said, 'I miss him too' and after that everything was all right. She is our ball of joy. She really perks our family up, but I can't thank everybody around here enough. They've been my strength through all of this. I have my mother and older brother, Joseph. With him and my mom, my brothers here, I don't think and I can be beat."

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