Editor’s Note: CSJ Classic takes a look back at a quarterback who may not have been around for long at the Football Championship Subdivision, but made a huge impact, Marshall’s Chad Pennington.
By William Stanley
College Sports Journal
LEXINGTON, KY. — I nervously fixed my mint green tie, and straightened my Speech and Debate lapel pin that I’ve worn since high school. It was a dreary Monday afternoon in April.
It was soon to be the proudest dreary afternoon of my life.
Despite my nerves I had somehow managed to calm down enough to sit down in the living room the apartment I was renting at the time. Lord knows I wanted to jump up and down, unable to contain my excitement.
I was just minutes away from interviewing Chad Pennington, the athlete I grew up idolizing.
Those were the longest few minutes I can remember.
For about a month, I had been in contact with Tom Parlanti, the athletic director at The Lexington School.
Now since retired from life in the NFL, Pennington has served as football coach there for several years.
I should explain, this interview was for a project in one of my classes at Appalachian State. I was expected to obtain an interviewee and film a 20 minute interview for class.
On a whim I used this as an excuse to try to meet Mr. Pennington.
Astonishingly, it worked.
Mr. Parlanti was very helpful with this process, having given my information to Pennington and offering to help should I need any.
He was very patient with me when I called back or sent emails requesting an update. Without his help, it wouldn’t have happened.
For that, I thank him.
As the due date for my project approached, I became less and less optimistic that I would have time to complete the interview.
Then, with just one week left to submit my interview, it happened.
Pennington got in contact with me.
Let me put that in perspective. Pennington, the Marshall great and former starting quarterback for the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins got in contact with me.
A young, inexperienced kid at Appalachian State with absolutely no professional credentials, who was requesting an interview that was for a project, not even for a paper or website, and he took the time to contact me.
Pennington is a busy man, serving at The Lexington School, conducting various undertakings with the media, and dedicating time to his family. Yet, he still took time to fulfill the wishes of a fan.
Now that’s what I call class.
I constructed a guide for the interview in an attempt to counteract my nervousness and keep me on track. In it I was determined to touch on Pennington’s career as best I could, including his days on the Marshall Thundering Herd.
“When I got there my career as a collegiate football player was like a fairytale,” Pennington said. “I don’t think you could write a book better than how it went.”
Originally entering as the fourth string quarterback as a true freshman, Pennington was swiftly called into action.
In a professional career plagued by injury, Pennington’s career ironically began at Marshall due to it.
“By the third game of the year I was starting due to injuries,” Pennington explained.
Pennington is right to call his career at Marshall a fairytale.
Under his unexpected run as starter his freshman year, Marshall reached the FCS, then known as Division I-AA National Championship game, losing to Montana, 22-20, due to some late heroics by that year’s Walter Payton Award-winning QB Dave Dickenson.
He was the first freshman to accomplish this feat and remains one of only two first-year players to take his team to the title game. Eleven years later, Armanti Edwards of Appalachian State duplicated Pennington’s feat and led the Mountaineers to the second of three consecutive national crowns by beating Massachusetts.
Foreshadowing his remarkable composure, Pennington would win 10 out of 11 games as a true freshman before appearing in the national championship game.
Undaunted, he would go on to complete 71.5% of his passes that year, with 15 touchdowns and 2,445 yards to boot.
Perhaps more remarkably, he wouldn’t start a single game the following season.
Pennington was redshirted for the entirety of Marshall’s final season in the Division I-AA, a season in which Marshall would go undefeated en route to winning the National Championship behind the arm of Florida transfer and future NFL quarterback Eric Kresser.
The son of a coach, Pennington understood why he was redshirted.
“It was tough, but with my dad being a coach, I understood why the decision was being made,” Pennington told me. “I knew that I needed a developmental year, it just so happened that I did not have one my freshman year.”
He understood, but he never said it was easy.
“Competitively it was very challenging,” Pennington added. However, Pennington would showcase his leadership skills with his decision.
“I had a choice to make, I could either be a distraction and be a detriment to our team, or show some leadership skills and show that I’m willing to make sacrifices for the betterment of the team as well as myself and go along with it, and that’s what I chose to do.”
Following his redshirted year, Pennington would excel as Marshall made the transition to the FBS level, eventually drawing interest from many NFL teams.
However, the success didn’t get to his head.
I asked Mr. Pennington if he ever felt that he would get drafted, and his response was very humble.
“Not until my senior year,” responded Pennington. “As a matter of fact, I had a bet with my buddies that I played with that I wouldn’t be drafted, so I still owe them a set of golf clubs.”
It was a great bet to lose.
“I just never thought about that,” he added. “I think sometimes as student-athletes you can get in trouble by really focusing on some of those dreams that are out there, and the NFL was kind of a blurred vision, it was kind of a dream.”
I enjoyed talking to Mr. Pennington about his NFL career, but what I most enjoyed was finding out more about Chad Pennington the man.
As a fan, it’s a validating experience to find out that your favorite athlete is a phenomenal person both on and off the field, especially when you idolize them from a young age. During this interview, I gained more insight into the kind of man Chad Pennington is.
He’s a family man.
Showing signs of his family ties from a young age, Pennington decided to spend draft day with his family, instead of going to New York.
“It was a fun experience, I chose not to go to New York,” he recalled. “I chose to have a party at the lake house and enjoy my family and friends. I got engaged the night before, which was pretty cool.”
As a huge admirer of Pennington’s intelligence, I’ve always thought he would make a great NFL coach. Looking for a glimmer of hope that Pennington would return to the league, I asked if he had any plans to coach.
I got a better answer than I’d hoped.
“Well, teams have come calling to be honest with you, and I’ve turned those opportunities down” replied Pennington. “Because I have three boys, they made sacrifices while I was playing, and I want to make sure I enjoy them, that I enjoy my wife, that I enjoy our family, and watch them grow up and be a part of their lives.”
Mr. Pennington would continue by stating, “I know from experience how challenging the coaching profession is, and how hard it is on families, and men have to do it to provide, and I understand that.”
“Luckily I don’t have to do it to provide in all honesty, and so because of that I made the decision to coach youth football, stay at home, be entranced in my boys’ lives. I’m in a great spot at The Lexington School where I’m coaching and handling the middle school football program.”
Why The Lexington School?
That decision was also based around his dedication to his family.
“I can watch all three of my boys progress, and then let them go on to high school and see what they can do, and enjoy watching them as a dad and not have to be their coach.”
I’ve long wanted to see Chad Pennington back on an NFL sideline as a coach, and here he is telling me he has no plans of doing it, yet I was far from disappointed.
As a fan, I’m happy for him and, as I told him, even though I’d love to see him back on an NFL sideline, it’s a very respectable answer, so I can deal with that.
I’m not sure if he chuckled at that statement because he thought it was funny, or if it was a pity laugh.
Either way, I’ll take it.
The interview itself was a dream come true for me. There are not many people that can say they’ve spoken to their favorite athlete of all time.
Thanks to Chad Pennington’s class and dedication to his fans, I am one of those people.
This was an experience I will never forget, and won’t let any of my friends or family forget.
Thank you Mr. Pennington.
William Stanley is a student majoring in communication at Appalachian State University. This is his first article for College Sports Journal.