By Greg Gulas
It’s a day that remains forever etched in his mind.
It’s also a day to which local sports official Gary Jennings refers to as the “make or break” day of his life.
Even so, it’s one that arrived years too late considering the damage that he already had caused his family and not soon enough for his legion of caring friends.
That day — Dec. 26, 1993 — was the moment Jennings’ life changed forever because the man affectionately known as “Fireball” finally came to the realization that he needed help and couldn’t go it alone any longer.
Jennings had bottomed out and was faced with the challenge to either sober up once and for all, or continue his drinking ways and continue down a path of destruction.
Jennings’ decision led to a sobriety that is now at 7,476 days and counting.
While Father’s Days past were simply a taken-for-granted holiday, every one since that decision to come clean has been a blessing and gift for the three-sport official.
“I had been in and out of rehab from 1984-93 and for nine years just couldn’t stay sober,” Jennings said.
“Three months here, five months there, a half year on another occasion but something always happened and I started drinking again,” the 1970 Boardman High School graduate said. “During those nine years I lost jobs, alienated friends and lost the trust of my family.
“It got to a point where I never thought I’d ever get sober; that I would either die or go insane.”
Reaching a crossroad
The fact that Dec. 26 just happened to be his birthday had little to do with his decision. Jennings’ marriage already was shot. He and his then wife Luann were in counseling, but that was more to try and save their union than to cure his alcoholism.
“It was a tough time for everyone. I tried to save my marriage but it was more like a cease fire, never a surrender,” Jennings said. “She did not understand alcoholism and neither did I at the time, so we finally divorced in 1992.
“I’ve tried to make amends, but my sincerity was doubted and with good reason. She still remains a good woman who has always been a great mother.
“I take full responsibility,” he said of their breakup. “We went to counseling but I was unable to do what was necessary in order to repair our marriage.”
Jennings originally sought treatment at Salem Community Hospital’s Care Unit in 1984. However it was at Stella Maris in Cleveland, when he reached his final crossroad, that he was finally able to get his life back in proper order.
His sons — Ryan, 35, and Kevin, 32 — pleaded with him to return to being the father that they once knew.
“Back in ’96, both sons told me that if I didn’t make it this time then please quit coming around because their hearts could not take it any longer,” Jennings said. “That broke my heart.
“I’ve hurt them the most yet, along with my father Russell, who just turned 96, they were the three people in my life who never ever gave up on me.”
He says it’s from his father — a retired machinist from Truscon Steel — that he derives inspiration.
“During my struggle to recover, it was my father who never forgot about me, even when others threw up their hands,” Jennings said. “He was always there, willing to help in any way possible.
“He always said there is a little bit of good in the worst of us and a little bit of bad in the best of all people and while he never talked about ‘unconditional love,’ he gave me his unwavering support on a daily basis,” Jennings said. “I owe him a debt of gratitude; something I could never repay in 10 lifetimes.”
Jennings’ father now lives in Van Wert. The two have planned to spend Father’s Day together for some much needed father-son time.
“If I can become just half the man he has been to me, then I will have accomplished something,” Jennings said.
Next month in Dallas, Jennings will reunite with his sons. Ryan will fly from California to join Kevin for a father-son reunion.
“For me, my father’s personal story is impressive because of where he was to where he currently stands on life’s stage,” said Kevin, an Ohio State graduate who teaches eighth- and ninth-grade English in Dallas. “It’s a story of redemption and I am proud that he credits my brother and me as the two people in his life who kick-started his road to recovery.
“I know that he has many regrets as he looks back and how his drinking took a toll on our family, but he was able to take a negative and turn it into a positive while paying the price along the way,” Kevin said.
Ryan lives in Long Beach, Calif., and works in sales for Fastenal Company, a distributor of industrial, safety and construction supplies.
“My father is my hero,” Ryan said. “To understand where he is at right now and how he pulled himself back up after hitting the bottom of the barrel is nothing short of amazing.
“Many forgot about him and didn’t give him a fighting chance, but my brother and I believed deep down that he would get back on his feet,” Ryan said. “My parents divorced when I was 12 and my brother 9, and we never really understood what was going on. All I know is that I wanted my father back home.
“We would accompany him to AA meetings first, because we really didn’t have a choice and then when we became more understanding, wanted to be that support system that he so needed,” Ryan said. “His transformation has been nothing short of amazing and while it will be five weeks before we get together, it will be Father’s Day for all of us as far as I’m concerned.”
The start of a problem
As a youngster, Jennings loved all sports and lettered in baseball for coaches Tom Ferrara with the Spartans and Dom Rosselli during his one year at Youngstown State. With the Penguins, his only pitching stint — a relief appearance — yielded three earned runs, but a grand slam by Mike Szenborn provided him with his only college victory.
“I’m the only pitcher in YSU history that is undefeated with a 27.00 earned-run average,” Jennings said.
Jennings got his nickname “Fireball” while in PONY League, volunteering to throw only when asked by the manager after his team had fallen behind by 19 runs. With friends cheering him on, a wicked curve helped keep their opponent in check which caused friend Ken Clark to remark, “Oh My God, it’s a fireball.”
Jennings played in the local Class B and AA leagues and later spent two years in the U.S. Army where he played for the Fort Hood baseball team. When he returned from service, he worked at Republic Steel, but returned to YSU where he took an officiating class taught by Bill Carson.
“Officiating is what kept me in the game when my playing days were drawing to a close,” Jennings said. “It’s also kept me going and around sports the past three decades.”
Jennings started refereeing basketball and 38 years later, his resume includes 25 regional and two state basketball assignments. As a baseball umpire and football official, he’s worked multiple district and regional games. He has drawn state assignments in all three sports.
Keeping a safe distance from Jennings’ demons remains a day-by-day challenge and one that he has been able to overcome. But he never takes a day for granted.
“Social drinking is how everything started for me,” Jennings said. “I drank like everyone else after a game, but it soon started to take over my life. During an average day, it wasn’t how much I drank, it’s how irresponsible I was when I was drinking. I binge drank, usually to avoid reality.”
Adding prescription pain killers was part of his undoing.
“As I look back, I drank for the effect, not because I liked the taste,” Jennings said. “I drank to numb the pain, whether it was from my marriage, work, family or friends and I just continued to drink.”
When Jennings threw himself into rehab for good, he knew that it would be a step-by-step process, but was ready to rid himself of what was gradually destroying his life.
On the right track
Jennings worked for Copperweld Steel and when it closed in 2001, he went back to YSU and earned his bachelor’s degree in social work.
“When the mill closed, I was offered the opportunity to go back to college on the Trade Readjustment Act,” Jennings said. “During my struggle to achieve sobriety, I met a social worker in Cleveland who really helped me see what alcohol was doing to me and to those that I loved.
“I always said to myself that if I had the chance to become a social worker, I would,” Jennings said. “So I went down to YSU and met with Dr. Joe Mosca, the Dean of Health and Human Services. He not only encouraged me, but motivated me to enroll and pursue social work.”
Jennings has worked for the United Methodist Community Center and was a visiting teacher who addressed truancy issues in the Youngstown City Schools. Currently, he works for the Mahoning County Educational Service Center providing vocational rehabilitation services to students with special needs.
“I love working with students and providing guidance and services in order to help them achieve their goals. It may be the most rewarding vocation that I have ever had,” Jennings said.
His fianc e, Cindy Stevens, has been his rock for the past five years.
“Alcohol affects everyone in some way, shape or form and I understand how it can ruin a family and friendships,” Stevens said. “I’ve known Gary for quite some time and we’ve been together the past five years so I see firsthand his everyday approach.
“He’s helped many along the way and is appreciative of the many that have helped him over the years.”
Jennings received his master’s degree from Case Western Reserve in social work. He regularly attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and credits AA with saving his life.
“The last 20 years have been unbelievable and not even I could have scripted it this way,” Jennings said. “I have been blessed with so many good, supportive people in my life and I owe God, AA and so many others who have touched my life in such a positive way.
“It’s a debt I could never repay and the words ‘thank you’ just seem to fall way short,” Jennings said. “I’m no poster boy for AA, but they really did save my life. That’s why I live by my father’s credo that when you come across someone who needs your assistance, give it to them without expecting anything in return.”