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Michael Penix Jr. overcomes fear to lead Washington to success: ‘I was scared to play’

He has come further than any star player in college football the last two years — 3,064 miles and from 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 even his parents at the time didn’t fully realize. But now, days before Penix leads No. 2 Washington in the CFP Semifinal Sugar Bowl against No. 3 Texas, everyone 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 finished No. 8. The lefty launching balls deep downfield didn’t just vex rival defenses, he re-energized a sports-crazed 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 was not a tough decision to return to school for another season.

“I felt like I had more to do here,” he told The Athletic then. “I wanted more — not just out of myself but out of this team, for this team, for this university and for this city. We’ll do better this year and correct some of the mistakes we made last year.” Penix finished eighth in Heisman Trophy voting in 2022, but shook his head when asked if the award was also a motivator of his return.

“Nuh-uh.”

“It is Playoff or bust?”

“Yup. That’s me.”

The now-23-year-old Penix is a brilliant mix of so many things that seem to be so opposite. He is the eldest son, described by his parents as very introspective, but he loves to be silly and dance the latest viral dances in his kitchen. On the field, he is fearless, hanging in the pocket until the last heartbeat for a receiver to break open deep downfield. Off the field, he can be vulnerable, transparent and refreshingly candid. For 10 minutes that April morning, after he bluntly talked about 2023 being Playoff or bust, he became emotional.

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

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

“2021.”

In 2020, Penix sparked his former school, Indiana, to its best football season in 53 years. The Hoosiers finished No. 12. 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 following year, Indiana finished 2-10. The Hoosiers’ plummet was only part of what rattled Penix.

“It was more like, the guy was done with his ACL recovery, 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. He spoke in third person, trying to convey the scope of his fears: That 2020 ACL injury was different from his other season-ending injuries. Different from his 2018 ACL injury and his 2019 shoulder injury. Much different.“It was hard. I was scared,” Penix said, teary-eyed. “It’s hard. I was scared to play, but I still tried to. It was just a lot. In my head, I said if I’d gotten hurt again, I was gonna quit football.”

He leaned on his family and his loved ones to persevere. His two little brothers are “part of the reason why I never quit,” he said. That’s what’s made this particular comeback, 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, nodding his head eagerly.

“I just love the game so much now,” he said. “I didn’t want to give it up, but obviously going through what I was going through, it was hard. But I couldn’t give up because I have so many people depending on me and looking up to me. So, if I can play, I was gonna play. Unless the doctor said I couldn’t. The bowl game last year (an Alamo Bowl win against Texas) made me emotional. Being able to do what we did last year was special.” Penix Jr. and the Hoosiers succeeded in the 2020 pandemic-stricken season, but struggled in 2021. Photo: Marc Lebryk / USA Today

A few days before Penix and his parents went 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 acknowledged they were unaware of the depth of their oldest son’s emotional struggles with his injuries.

“Honestly, the first I really knew that he was dealing with that was when I watched the Pac-12 special (in September), where they had that interview with him,” said Penix’s mother, Takisha. “That was the first time that I’d seen him open up. He internalizes a lot of his emotions. I feel like watching that interview I learned a lot about what he was going through. We’d 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 featured Penix detailing the depths of his coping 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 lie on the floor, and I’d just cry to God, praying that He’d protect me that day because I knew where my head was at the time, and it wasn’t truly fresh. It was a lot of tears. It was a lot of stuff.”

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

“You hate to see your kids go through stuff like that,” said Michael Penix Sr., “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 right now.”

Penix is currently preparing for the CFP Semifinal matchup with Texas, the next step toward winning a national title. The Huskies lead the nation in passing again. They are a gritty team that follows the lead of their biggest star. The Huskies, riding a 20-game winning streak in the past two years, are 10-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less and 9-0 vs. Top 25 teams.

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“He seems to be a guarded young man, and won’t let anyone into his circle — you have to gain his trust,” said Yogi Roth, the Pac-12 Network analyst who interviewed Penix during that emotional special. “What he’s done for his entire team has proved that adversity can make you dramatically stronger. Before when he was at Indiana, he was talking about how he was on his knees crying and praying to God that He’d protect me. No human would be able to play free like that, but now, he plays as free as anybody in America. Watch him bow-and-arrowing it and making all these big throws. There’s something about resiliency and how it can give you a freedom that can prove to 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 that’s 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 aren’t.

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

“Being able to be present for my teammates and be available is definitely a big thing for me,” Penix told The Athletic this week. “Something that I’ve taken full advantage of. I’ve had times where it was taken away from me. I feel very confident now. I am around a group of people who, when times are hard, will be there to support me and the rest of the team. I’m in a much better place and doing whatever I can to help my team win football games.” Head coach Kalen DeBoer and…

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