HUNTINGTON — If Marshall’s football statistics sheet had categories for heart, determination or desire, Chad Pennington’s numbers likely wouldn’t fit on the page.
Pennington’s gutsy performance Dec. 4, 1998 in the Thundering Herd’s 23-17 victory over Toledo in the Mid-American Conference championship game was the talk of the region the next day. Pennington, limping badly and in constant pain after suffering a deep groin bruise early in the second quarter, rallied Marshall from a 10-6 deficit to a Motor City Bowl berth-clinching victory.
“How about Chad,” Paul Bock said the next morning while shopping at Kroger in Proctorville, Ohio. “What does that performance tell you about that young man? When I have a kid someday, if he wants to play football, I want him to play it like that.”
Pennington was hurt on a 3-yard scramble with 12:22 left in the second quarter. While Pennington was in the air, stretching for yardage, Toledo linebacker Darrick Beckwith slammed his shoulder into Pennington’s groin. Linebacker Jason Lamar then crunched Pennington from behind.
Some fans questioned whether the hit was a cheap shot, but replays showed it was clean. In fact, it was a linebacker’s dream — a quarterback, in the air, lunging with no blocker in front of him.
While Marshall’s punt team scrambled into position, the Herd quarterback lay flat on the sideline, with Dr. Jose Ricard and flexibility coach Bruce McCallister working on him. A murmur went through the crowd of 28,085.
As Chris Hanson boomed a 60-yard punt, nearly all eyes were on the most-prolific passer in Marshall history.
“I saw the whole season go down the drain when I saw Chad on the ground,” Herd fan Gail Heinz said. “I thought to myself that it just couldn’t possibly end this way.”
Pennington returned to the field, hobbling in obvious pain. When the ball was snapped, however, Pennington regained his form, dropping back perfectly and hitting receivers almost at will. Despite a heavy rush from a Toledo defense seeking to finish him off, Pennington completed 12 of his next 13 passes.
Ricard was amazed.
“It was his decision to go back in,” Ricard said, adding that he and Herd coach Bobby Pruett deferred to Pennington.
At halftime, however, the pain worsened. Pennington played one series of the third quarter, then limped off the field, barely making it to the sideline before he was helped to the bench. Pennington was replaced by true freshman Byron Leftwich, whose college game experience totaled 12 passes.
“My heart just sank,” Heinz said.
Leftwich handed off to Doug Chapman for a 2-yard gain, then threw an ill-advised pass that was intercepted.
“I knew it was over,” Bock said. “I just knew we were done.”
Toledo appeared to have Marshall by the throat. The Rockets drove to the Herd 10-yard line, but tailback Chester Taylor fumbled on his way to the end zone and Marshall recovered. That’s all the motivation Pennington needed.
“When I saw him come off that sideline and limping back out on that field, I got chills,” Heinz said. “You just knew something good was going to happen.”
And, for Marshall, it did. Pennington connected with Jerrald Long for a 50-yard gain, then lofted a perfectly thrown 19-yard touchdown pass to Nate Poole for a 13-10 lead.
“That was the most gutsy performance I’ve ever been around,’’ Pruett said. “He’s a unique guy. He gets that from his grandparents and his parents.”
After Marshall took the lead, Pennington raised his arms from the sideline, encouraging the crowd, which roared at deafening levels. The defense had inspired Pennington, and Pennington, in turn, fired up the defense. The Herd scored 10 points in the next four minutes, burying the Rockets as the fans rocked like at no other time this season.
“That’s a player you can get behind,” Marshall fan Eric Phillips said of Pennington. “That was a great performance.”
Pennington spent much of the next evening receiving treatment for the injury. He had until the next Friday to rest. Marshall didn’t practice until then, opting to concentrate on exams.
“Chad exemplifies the players we have on our football team,” Pruett said. “They responded when they had to. They dug deep down.”
No one dug deeper than Pennington, who completed 23 of 38 passes for 249 yards and one touchdown. His touchdown tied the MAC career record of 63 set by Bowling Green’s Brian McClure from 1982 through 1985.
The records and statistics aren’t what people will remember, however, when they think of Pennington.
“Chad has another year,” Bock said. “He could have quit on that game and picked it up again next season, but he didn’t. He didn’t quit on us when nobody would have blamed him if he had. He came back in the game. That tells you something about him.”
Tim Stephens is a sports writer with The Herald-Dispatch. He has covered Marshall football since 1984. You may reach him at (304) 526-2759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.