(CBS4) – Colorado State-Pueblo head coach John Wristen remembers the first time saw Mike Pennel Jr. on the football field. Immediately he knew this young man was different from anyone he’s coached before.
“We were doing offseason workouts and after sprints he was doing backflips,” Wristen recalled to CBS4’s Justin Adams. “There aren’t a lot of dudes that big doing backflips! That’s how impressive he is.”
Pennel’s athletic 6-4, 332-pound frame played in Super Bowl LIV for the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday. His journey to the NFL’s biggest game started in Aurora at Grandview High School, then to Scottsdale Junior College in Arizona, then to Arizona State where he had a short stint with the team as he was suspended indefinitely for “not meeting team standards.”
So, he transferred a level lower to Division II Colorado State-Pueblo for a last chance at not only playing college football, but also keeping his NFL dreams alive.
“I told Mike ‘This is your last stop and I want to help you fulfill your dreams, but you’ve got to understand you’ve got to do it the right way,'” Wristen said. “He appreciated someone reaching out, to have that coach-to-player relationship, and to hold him accountable. He bought into what we were doing.”
The accountability paid off for Pennel and Colorado-State Pueblo. In 2013, the Thunderwolves achieved a No. 3 ranking, swept through the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference and finished the season 11-1 after losing Grand Valley State in the Division II Playoffs.
Pennel would graduate after the season, but the groundwork he left helped the Thunderwolves win their first National Championship the next season.
“Mike was a part of those pillars of what we talk about of embracing your role, making sure you check your ego at the door and let’s go and have some fun,” Wristen said.
The player-coach relationship continued as Pennel’s NFL career started. Going undrafted, he earned a spot with the Green Bay Packers in 2014 where he started five games in three seasons. Pennel made his mistakes as he was suspended twice for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy.
After being waved from the Packers in 2017, Pennel was picked up by the New York Jets where he played two seasons. He started this year out of football before the Chiefs signed him midseason on Oct. 19, 2019.
In an interview with CBS4, Wristen fondly brought up the message Pennel tells the youth when he returns to Pueblo.
“You got to make sure you don’t let your circumstances define who you are. You define who you are by how you go about your daily activities and by how you overcome. You can do it with a great positive attitude,” Wristen said.