Chad Pennington takes the honor of 2021 Mayo Clinic Comeback Player of the Year Award ambassador
There’s brilliant corporate synergy, and then there’s what the Mayo Clinic’s Comeback Player Player of the Year Award has done.
In conjunction with the College Sports Information Directors of America, the nonprofit has named former New York Jets quarterback Chad Pennington the face of its honor that recognizes college football student-athletes that have overcome great adversity to have success on the gridiron.
Pennington, an 11-year NFL veteran (2000-10), is the only player in NFL history to win the league’s Comeback Player of the Year twice, doing so in 2006 with the Jets and in 2008 with the Miami Dolphins.
The Mayo Clinic’s award will honor three inspiring student-athletes per week, each of them earning a nomination for the overall award. The 30 contenders will be narrowed down to three by the end of the season. That final trio will be recognized and honored at the 2022 Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1.
This week’s nominees were Baylor linebacker Terrel Bernard, Notre Dame quarterback Jack Coan, and Stonewall College rusher Brian Kearns Jr. Each suffered a devastating injury last season and has taken on a leadership role on their modern squads.
“It’s an award that certainly an honor to represent,” Pennington told Jets X-Factor in an exclusive interview.
“One thing we know about the Mayo Clinic is that they know that an answer can help one find their way. That’s why they’re honoring football student-athletes for their perseverance. Every week, we’ll recognize three players from all levels of college football that are making comebacks, whether it be from an injury and illness or other challenges.”
Previous winners of the award include current NFL representatives Antoine Winfield Jr. and Deebo Samuel. Colorado running back Jarek Broussard, Kentucky blocker Kenneth Horsey, and Coastal Carolina linebacker Silas Kelly were last season’s honorees.
“Kenneth Horsey, he came back from open-heart surgery. I mean that’s unbelievable. Imagine playing the game of football after that type of surgery,” Pennington said, directing fans to the award’s official website. “We’re excited to see the great stories that are going to transpire over the season.”
In promoting the award’s touring, Pennington sat down with Jets X-Factor to discuss Gang Green’s past, present, and future fortunes.
Q: You’re familiar with first starts that don’t go your way. What did you think of Zach Wilson’s debut and how can he recover from such a tough introduction to the NFL?
A: I think that, as a young quarterback, you’re straight into survival mode, learning how to be a professional quarterback. You’re trying to celebrate small victories, knowing that there are going to be challenges, bumps and bruises along the way as far as your development process.
I think we saw that on Sunday with Zach. He had some great moments and then also had some rookie moments. That’s just part of the process that a young quarterback has to go through. I think, from an organizational standpoint, patience has to be the key here to help develop him and also help develop the team around him so that he can be successful.
Q: To that end, how important was it for the Jets to assemble a strong offensive arsenal this offseason?
A: You certainly hope that those additions (i.e. Corey Davis, Elijah Moore, Alijah Vera-Tucker) do help with Zach’s development. I think for a young quarterback, an organization never wants to put the entire offensive team’s success on his shoulders. It takes time for a quarterback to learn how to accept that role and deal with that role.
Even if it’s Tom Brady, he wasn’t asked to win every game and be perfect in every game. He was just simply asked to do his job as a young quarterback and then as he matured, he could take on more of that role. That’s the hope with the Jets: that everyone can pitch in, everybody has a role to play. Zach obviously has a key important role being the quarterback, but it can’t be all on his shoulders.
Q: As a former Jets franchise quarterback, what’s the best piece of advice you can pass on to Wilson?
A: Be patient with himself, but also be critical of himself. Learn from every mistake. Use every mistake as a teaching moment. Take great copious notes. Make sure you are just taking notes whether it be in the film room, in the team meeting rooms, learning how to be a true professional and every sense of the word is so important.
If he does that, and he’s patient with himself, but also knows who he is as a quarterback and where he wants to go, puts in the appropriate work and has the right mindset, he’ll be successful. He’s got a great skill set, amazing potential, and upside.
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Q: Is there anything in Wilson’s skillset that will particularly help him succeed in today’s league?
A: In today’s NFL, you have to be able to move in the pocket, have great pocket awareness, and extend plays outside of it. I think he has that ability. He has shown that throughout his college career, as well as even on Sunday.
Now it’s not only about being able to use that to your advantage but then also knowing that, to be a long-term sustainable NFL quarterback, you got to be able to operate from the pocket and be deadly accurate from the pocket. So that’s another part of his game, he’ll have to continue to work on.
Q: As someone who has walked in these cleats, what sort of unique challenges does a New York Jets franchise quarterback face that aren’t present in the other 31 spots across the NFL?
A: You’re dealing with the largest media market. The intensity of media and focus on you as a quarterback is different than most media markets. That lends itself as a challenge of dealing with questions and, and having to do interviews. It’s a different playing field, so to speak, from a media perspective. You got to be able to handle that.
All eyes are on us as far as how not only you handle yourself, but how you handle your teammates and all the different distractions that come along as well. It’s really important to have a great relationship with the head coach and to make sure that you are putting out the same messages that you are in line with, the messaging that you want your team and the fans to hear. That relationship is really important.
Q: How did you balance and work with that through not only a football perspective but also a mental one?
A: It took some time, it really did. You come from college, where most of the fan base is always in your corner. There are not too many negatives said about you and it feels like a one-for-all, all-for-one mindset.
But once you enter into the NFL, thanks to the business and entertainment value that the NFL brings, you don’t feel that way anymore. For a young player, it can be challenging to deal with those emotions and try to compartmentalize those emotions and put them in a healthy spot.
To be able to deal with that, as well as your own negative self-talk and go into your own maturation process as a professional for a young guy it can be challenging for sure.
Q: How do the modern Jets remind you of your teams at the turn of the century?
A: I think it’s hard to compare. I think today’s NFL teams in general are much younger than the teams that I played for. When I was a rookie, half our team was over 30. Now you can probably count on one hand how many 30-year-olds (the Jets) have.
It’s just a much younger dynamic. Younger players are having to play much earlier in their careers. Each team, every year has to find its own identity and it has to buy into that. It has to take ownership over everything they’re doing. If you do that, and you’re able to take the roadmap that the coaching staff provides you, you can be successful regardless of the situation.
Q: You’re part of a dying breed in the modern NFL as a rookie quarterback who sat behind a veteran to start his career. What were the benefits of such a method?
A: The biggest benefit was being able to make mistakes behind closed doors, make mistakes in practice, make mistakes on the scout team. I was able to figure this thing out without having to answer questions about my mistakes. That’s the biggest difference.
You’re able to allow yourself to make those mistakes because you’re not in a performance mode. You’re in work mode, and it’s different. I think that’s the biggest advantage that any young quarterback can have.
Q: How important was it to build continuity with your receivers and blockers and what was the best way to build that chemistry?
A: First of all, you got to establish great relationships off the field. You got to hang out with them, meet with them, serve them the best you can as a teammate and really focusing on servant leadership.
Secondly, you got to put a lot of work together to the point where you understand the body language and timing and movement of each individual player, the thought process of your offensive line. You have to figure out the things they like, the things they don’t like all those different things.
Football is certainly a people game. You’ve got to really focus in on understanding people.
Q: How has NFL quarterbacking changed since your time under center?
A: Some of the schemes that have entered into the NFL, I think, provide a big difference with the run-pass option schemes, more of a spread style of offense, which lends itself to some great playmaking ability, but also lends itself to the defense making great plays as well. You have more one-on-one opportunities, especially in protection. You don’t see as many two-back systems anymore and that’s probably a big difference.
Fullbacks can really set the physical tempo and attitude for your offensive team. Secondly, a good versatile fullback can create some matchup issues similar to a tight end. It’s good to see that some teams are starting to use that fullback again to help establish a physical running game and do some different things like that.
Q: Would you ever consider a return to the NFL in a front office, coaching, advisory role?
A: I’m completely submersed into high school, middle school football, my kids. That’s what I’m really focused on right now, just really trying to enjoy their development and raising them. Right now (returning to the NFL) is completely out of the question. I’ll never say never but by now I really enjoy what I’m doing.
I grew up on a Friday night bus. My dad was in high school football coach for 30 years, so we’re a football family. I think it was just innate in me to be part of the game, love the game, love all the little intricacies about the game, to understand the hard work that goes into being a coach and putting a team together and building a program. I definitely have enjoyed every moment of it for sure.
Being around my dad and his coaching staff really helped me understand the challenges that the coaching staff goes through. I can empathize with that and kind of had foreknowledge of that, moving into it. It kind of gave me a couple of answers to the test as far as what I needed to do as far as building a program and working with a staff.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags