Pennington happy to be finalist

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 9, 1999

The Associated Press

When it comes to the Heisman Trophy, the Marshall quarterback and avid angler is glad just to be a finalist.

Thursday, December 09, 1999

Email newsletter signup

When it comes to the Heisman Trophy, the Marshall quarterback and avid angler is glad just to be a finalist. He realizes he’s a long shot to win, in part because the country’s bigger programs get much more attention.

That lesson was learned from former teammate Randy Moss, a Heisman finalist in 1997. Moss caught 24 TD passes from Pennington that year, but little national exposure left Moss fourth in Heisman balloting behind Charles Woodson, Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf.

”Even though a player from a smaller school’s done some good things on the field, there’s always going to be some skeptics and doubters because we don’t play for a bigger school,” said Pennington, who’ll be at Saturday night’s Heisman ceremonies in New York.

”I’m just happy to get to go. … I was hoping to be invited so I could talk about how successful a program we have at Marshall.”

With Pennington, Marshall (12-0) finished as one of three undefeated teams and has the longest winning streak in Division I-A at 16 games.

The Thundering Herd won three straight Mid-American Conference titles. They play Brigham Young (8-3) on Dec. 27 in the Motor City Bowl, their third straight trip there.

”He’s won 34 football games in three seasons of Division I-A football. There’s no quarterback that’s ever done that,” Marshall coach Bob Pruett said. ”That’s an awesome feat and a tribute to his athletic ability.”

Yet the 6-foot-3, 220-pounder from Knoxville, Tenn., wasn’t a top prospect out of high school.

He wasn’t recruited by his hometown Volunteers and he took over the starting role at Marshall in 1995 only after the two quarterbacks ahead of him got hurt.

”He just came in and started passing balls and was hitting all the receivers,” Marshall free safety Rogers Beckett said. ”You could just see the people in the crowd were just like, ‘Whoa, where did this kid come from?”’

Pennington has thrown for 10,700 yards and 100 TDs. His 1,026 career completions are second all-time in I-A behind Louisville’s Chris Redman.

This season he was third nationally in passing efficiency, completing 275 of 405 for 3,799 yards and 37 TDs.

”He’s probably the best quarterback I’ve ever played against,” Western Michigan cornerback Eric Nunley said. ”You can’t beat him. He’s too good.”

It helps to be an academic All-American.

Last week, while Marshall was preparing for the MAC championship game against Western Michigan, Pennington went through a grueling interview for a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, which eventually went to someone else.

On Tuesday night, Pennington won the National Football Foundation’s Vincent dePaul Draddy Award as the nation’s top scholar athlete, boosting his scholarship to $25,000.

A broadcast journalism major, the laid-back Pennington works at the campus radio station and has done play-by-play broadcasts of men’s and women’s basketball. He also worked for the student newspaper last spring.

If life takes a wrong turn and he’s unable to pursue an NFL career, Pennington’s already got a pretty good idea of what he’ll be doing down the country road.

He dreams of someday owning a marina along an 824-mile lake where his parents live near La Follette, Tenn. The family owns a pontoon and a bass boat where he spends his summers kicking back and waiting for a tug on his fishing line.

”It’s a way for me to get away from everything,” he said. ”I don’t have to think about football. Anytime I get a chance to, I like to take advantage of it.”