Chad Pennington: What might have been

Marvin WestFeature, westwords

We realists are not big on “What might have been.”


On occasions, I do wonder if anybody’s life would have turned out differently had Chad Pennington played football at Tennessee.

The Volunteers didn’t need him when he was coming out of Webb School. They had Peyton Manning with Tee Martin in the pipeline.

At the time, Chad had done little to alert us to things to come. Webb coach David Meske used the wing-T and favored run over pass. The system certainly did not feature what Pennington did best.

That never seemed to bother him. He had a firm grip on reality. He was an accurate passer but his arm was not a cannon. He made quick decisions and could run fast enough when survival was motivation. He played basketball but not at the all-star level. He was a good guy with friends. He was an excellent student. His spare skill was fishing.

Pennington had a choice of colleges. Middle Tennessee State and UT-Chattanooga recruited him. He went to camp at Marshall University, his parents’ alma mater, and coach Jim Donnan offered a scholarship. Chad accepted.

In August 1995, he was fourth-string quarterback, about to be redshirted for the second time. He had repeated eighth grade when he enrolled at Webb. His dad and mom, teachers, coach Elwood and Denise, were thinking academic foundation more than athletic maturity.

Circumstances changed at Marshall. Two QBs were injured. Chad was promoted to leader of a team that reached the NCAA Division 1-AA championship game.

He sat out the next year while a new coach and a transfer quarterback did their thing. After that humbling experience, Marshall got another new coach and Chad got his job back in 1997, the year the school moved up to Division 1-A.

The next year, Pennington led the Herd to a new experience, a bowl game, a rout of Louisville. He was MVP.

As a senior, his team went 13-0 and back to the Motor City Bowl and a victory over BYU. Career numbers were 13,423 yards and 115 touchdowns. Perhaps you recall that Pennington was fifth in voting for the Heisman Trophy. You may not have known that he earned a degree in journalism, had a 3.83 grade point average and was a finalist for a Rhodes scholarship.

Pennington was a first-round draft choice of the New York Jets. He and his college girlfriend, Robin Hampton, married in 2001. He famously brought along his Jets’ playbook on their honeymoon.

Study was valuable. He passed for nearly 18,000 yards and 102 touchdowns in 11 NFL seasons. Highlight was his second contract, a Jets’ record $64.2 million, not all guaranteed.

Chad and Robin used some to create the 1st and 10 Foundation with the mission to enhance communities where they have been. The foundation has awarded well over a million dollars to a variety of organizations.

Included: Boys and Girls’ Clubs, Little League programs, Junior Achievement, Boy Scouts, wildlife foundations, Coalition for Kids, Knoxville Kiwanis Youth Foundation, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, food banks, Salvation Army, Zoo Knoxville, Second Harvest, veterans’ services, Joy of Music, Helen Ross McNabb Center and Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

In 2008, Chad was runner-up to Peyton as most valuable player in the league. There was another memorable moment when he cut his own pay by $6 million to help his team get past salary cap issues.

Through the years, he took a lot of hits and was too often injured. Twice he was NFL comeback player of year. He was honored by peers for exemplifying leadership, dedication and commitment to team and community.

Pennington once used his journalism background to scold New York media, telling them it was not their right but, in fact, a privilege to cover the Jets. That went over really well.

In retirement, the young Penningtons wanted to be close enough to relatives and to Marshall. They’re both active alums. They sought a nice place to raise their sons, Cole, Luke and Gage. They chose Woodford County, Kentucky, a long pass from Lexington.

Chad became a consultant with the NFL Legends program which helps players deal with life after football. Legends is beginning to connect with new talent as it comes into the league. Chad is also a member of USA Football’s advisory committee.

The NFL brought him in during the combine to address the transition from college. One of his projects was Baker Mayfield.

Pennington, known for his common-sense approach, advised Mayfield to remain humble, to not buy into the noise of being the No. 1 pick.

“My first piece of advice came from a place of transparency and honesty in saying that, ‘Baker, you have to remember who you are, a guy who was twice a walk-on, and without your work ethic and your talent, you would probably be a graduate assistant somewhere.’”

Pennington says what he does is simple sharing, giving little bits of experience that may help along the way. He says he is thankful for his career but is more grateful for how God is using him to help others.

“His glory and not mine.”

Pennington has coached his sons’ teams, from flag football to middle school. He is now coach at one of Kentucky’s smallest high schools, Sayre School, enrollment 259. His salary is modest. What he is doing is giving back some more.

“The game of football is a perfect platform to assist in developing student-athletes in every aspect of their lives.”

Alas and alas, the script said no way but I imagine Chad Pennington would be a nice fit in the University of Tennessee alumni association. What say you?

Marvin West invites reader reaction. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com.

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