February 27, 2024

The Athletic has live coverage of Texas vs. Washington in the College Football Playoffs by the sugar bowl.

He’s come farther than any star player in college football over the past two years — 3,064 miles and two wins to the College Football Playoff — but on a dreary Monday in Seattle in April, Michael Penix Jr. showed much more than tangible measurements of the depth of his journey. It’s one that even his parents didn’t fully realize at the time. But now, days before Penix leads no. 2 Washington in the CFP Semifinal Sugar Bowl against no. 3 Texaseveryone can appreciate it.

Penix had a spectacular debut season for the Huskies in 2022, leading the nation in passing and helping turn a 4-8 team into an 11-2 squad that ranked No. 8 ended. , he reignited a sports-mad city. A week after that April morning, three quarterbacks — all younger than him — would be selected with the first four picks of the 2023 NFL Draft, but Penix said it wasn’t a difficult decision to return for another season not to school.

“I felt like I had more to do here,” he said The Athletics then. “I wanted more – not just from myself, but from this team, for this team, for this university and for this city. We will do better this year and correct some of the mistakes we made last year.”

Penix finished eighth in the Heisman Trophy voting in 2022, but shook his head when asked if the award was also a motivator for his comeback.

“No-uh.”

“Is it Playoff or bust?”

“Yip. It is me.”

Now 23, Penix is ​​a brilliant mix of so many things that seem so opposite. He is the oldest son, described by his parents as very introspective, but he likes to be silly and dance the latest viral dances in his kitchen. On the field, he is fearless and hangs in the pocket until the last heartbeat for a receiver to break open deep downfield. Off the pitch, he can be vulnerable, transparent and refreshingly candid. For 10 minutes that April morning, after speaking bluntly that 2023 was Playoff or bust, he became emotional.

“What’s the hardest thing you’ve been through?”

He paused for 15 seconds. He stammers. His voice broke.

“2021.”

In 2020, Penix led his former school, Indiana, to its best football season in 53 years. The Hoosiers 12 ended. He was named team MVP even after a torn ACL ended his season in Game 6 of the eight-game COVID-19 shortened season. But in the next year, Indiana finished 2-10. The Hoosiers’ plumb line was only part of what rattled Penix.

“It was more like, the guy was done with his ACL repair, and then his doctor called him and said, ‘You’re technically not cleared the week of the game,’ and put those fears in that person,” Penix said. Speaking in the third person, he tried to convey the extent of his fears: That 2020 ACL injury was different from his other season-ending injuries. Unlike his 2018 ACL injury and his 2019 shoulder injury. Very different.

“It was difficult. I was scared,” Penix said tearfully. “It’s hard. I was scared to play, but I still tried. It was just a lot. In my head, I said if I got hurt again, I was going to stop playing football.”

He leaned on his family and loved ones to persevere. His two younger brothers are “part of the reason I never quit,” he said. That’s what made this particular return, this part of his journey, so much sweeter.

“Do you have a deeper appreciation for the game since it was so close to being taken from you?”

Penix leaned forward and nodded his head eagerly.

“I just love the game so much now,” he said. “I didn’t want to give it up, but of course it was difficult to go through what I went through. But I couldn’t give up because I have so many people who depend on me and look up to me. So, if I can play, I would play. Unless the doctor said I couldn’t. The bowl game last year (an Alamo Bowl win vs Texas) made me emotional. To be able to do what we did last year was special.”


Penix Jr. and the Hoosiers succeeded in the pandemic-plagued 2020 season but struggled in 2021. Photo: Marc Lebryk / USA Today

A few days before Penix and his parents headed to New York City for the 2023 Heisman presentation, just after the quarterback capped a 13-0 regular season with the Pac-12 title, his parents admitted that they were unaware of the depth of their eldest son’s emotional struggle with his injuries.

“Honestly, the first I really knew he had to do with it was when I watched the Pac-12 special (in September) where they had that interview with him,” Penix’s mother, Takisha, said. said. “It was the first time I saw him open. He internalizes many of his emotions. I feel like watching that interview, I learned a lot about what he went through. We always encouraged him to keep fighting. Don’t give up. Push forward. I think he just didn’t want us to worry.”

That Pac-12 Network special Penix detailed the depths of his dealing with the uncertainty of his recovery.

“There were times when I’d wake up the day of the game,” Penix said on TV, “I’d wait until my roommate left, and I’d just lay on the floor, and I’d just cry to God, and pray that He would protect me that day because I knew where my head was at that time, and it wasn’t really fresh. It was a lot of tears. It was very good.”

Takisha Penix said they chose not to dig back in with their son at this time. “I didn’t want to bring it back, especially now during the season,” she said. “He poured out his emotions at that time. I don’t feel it’s the right time.”

“You hate to see your kids go through stuff like that,” Michael Penix Sr. said. said, “but at the same time it was a blessing in disguise. If he hadn’t gone through stuff like that, he wouldn’t be where he is now.”

Penix is ​​currently preparing for the CFP semifinals game with Texas, the next step to winning a national title. The Huskies lead the nation in passing again. They is a tough team who follow the lead of their biggest star. The Huskies, riding a 20-game winning streak the past two years, are 10-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less and 9-0 against Top 25 teams.

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“He seems to be a guarded young man, and won’t let anyone in his circle — you have to earn his trust,” said Yogi Roth, the Pac-12 Network analyst who interviewed Penix during that emotional special . “What he did for his entire team proved that adversity can make you dramatically stronger. Before, when he was in Indiana, he talked about how he was on his knees crying and praying to God to protect me. No man will be able to play so freely, but now he plays as freely as anyone in America. Watch him make it bow and arrow and all these big throws. There’s something about resilience and how it can give you a freedom that can be a superpower.”

The beauty in Penix’s story, as it sometimes is with college sports, is the development of players as people, not as finished products when they’re 18 or 19 years old. In evaluation, whether in recruiting or in the eyes of coaches or NFL scouts, players are often defined by what they can’t do or what people think they are not.

In reality, Penix’s evolution is about someone who is almost the opposite of what he looked like two years ago.

“Being able to be present and available for my teammates is definitely a big thing for me,” Penix said The Athletics this week. “Something I took full advantage of. I have had times where it was taken away from me. I feel very confident now. I am surrounded by a group of people who, when times are tough, will be there to support me and the rest of the team. I’m in a much better place and doing everything I can to help my team win football games.”



Head coach Kalen DeBoer and Penix reunited in Seattle after spending the 2019 season together in Bloomington, Ind. Photo: Joe Nicholson / USA Today

Penix has not only been supported in Seattle, but has provided support to his teammates, many who have come through their own challenges and from a disastrous 4-8 season in 2021 that led to the arrival of head coach Kalen DeBoer.

Edefuan Ulofoshioa sixth-year senior linebacker and the leader of the defense, leaned on Penix as he recovered from an upper-body injury that sidelined him for the first half of the 2022 season.

“He inspired me to really stick with my rehab and my work ethic and gave me the confidence to come back and be better than I was before I got hurt,” said Ulofoshio, a former walk-on who was drafted is as the team’s most inspirational player in 2023. “That rehabilitation process is definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through. You can lose your mind in it, because as an athlete the one thing you value more than anything in the world is your body, and when you can’t even move your arm or your leg for six weeks, you lose your mind. He saw me go through it. He helped me a lot.”

In Seattle, Penix reunited with DeBoer, Indiana’s offensive coordinator, in 2019.

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“I felt like he just needed a fresh start,” DeBoer said. “I think he knew there were still people who believed in him, and I think he probably made all the doubters believe again, and that’s fun. He’s really one of those guys that if I was his age, as a teammate, I could see myself hanging out with him. He’s just very loose, but there’s a switch that gets flipped when the pads come on – where you can tell it’s really important to him.”

His parents have not been able to attend every game yet, but they have been enough to meet so many people who have come to tell them how their son has inspired them.

“I feel it also brought him closer to God,” said Takisha Penix. “I see a difference in him in how he approaches life now. To be able to experience all these emotions and then get through them, it’s amazing. Not everyone can go through all these ups and downs emotionally and make it through.”

Michael Penix Sr. coached his son in football, basketball and baseball growing up in the Tampa, Fla. He taught his son discipline and preached determination, and to remember that everything happens for a reason.

“Injuries make people mentally tougher,” Michael Penix Sr. said. “Once you get that mental toughness and use it in athletic ability, it’s a mean combination. A lot of athletes when those injuries happen, they can’t develop that mental toughness and it destroys them, but he overcame it. He was blessed.”

Penis didn’t win the Heisman. He finished second GVEsay Jayden Daniels. But Penix made a profound statement when he arrived for the show when he walked the red carpet and revealed the inside of his jacket. In the line were all the names of his Washington teammates and coaches.

“I just wanted to show my appreciation to those who helped me get to that point,” he said. “After everything I’ve been through, the path I’ve taken, it hasn’t been the easy one, and I wouldn’t say I wanted it to happen, but I feel like it’s all shaped me into the person I am. is today I just appreciate every moment I have now with my teammates and just being able to go out there and play the game I love.”

(Photo illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletics; Photos: James Black, Icon Sportswire via Getty Images,
(Brandon Sloter/Image of Sports/Getty Images)


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