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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Chad Pennington doesn't remember the drive. It has been a mere 14 months since he was hit with the double whammy that sidetracked his journey toward football fulfillment, yet the New York Jets quarterback gets a faraway look in his eyes as he attempts to recall the details. He knows the specifics of the injury--taking the hit from New York Giants linebacker Brandon Short in an August 2003 preseason game, attempting to break his fall with his nonthrowing hand, then wincing as his left wrist snapped. He knows he had surgery and checked out of the hospital the following day, still hopped up on painkillers, and that at some point during the next few hours he got the call that his father-in-law had succumbed to leukemia in a hospital a few miles away. "All in all," says Chad's wife, Robin, "the most horrific 24 hours of our lives."
Two days later, unable to fly so soon after surgery, Pennington was with Robin in the backseat of a rented SUV while his father, Elwood, drove the 10 1/2 hours to Madison, W.Va., where Bob Hampton's funeral was held. Or so Chad has been told.
"Did we drive?" he wonders during a break on a Tuesday in early October at the Jets' practice facility in Hempstead, N.Y. "I can't remember." He pauses and cracks his knuckles, then adds, "It's all a blur. That was definitely the lowest point. The rug had been pulled out from under me."
One thing Pennington does recall, though, is the phone conversation he had with Jets coach Herman Edwards shortly before leaving for West Virginia. The two men have an almost telepathic connection, one that has been instrumental in the Jets' resurrection this season ( New York improved to 5-0 on Sunday with a 22-14 win over the San Francisco 49ers), and their shared disappointment over Pennington's injury was palpable. "You have all these things you want to accomplish together," says Pennington, "and it's like someone had kicked you in the stomach. It was almost hard to talk to each other."
Edwards, in fact, couldn't even bring himself to look Pennington in the eye after the game and had put off calling his quarterback for more than a day. Certainly he had his own reasons to be sad. Without Pennington, who had led the Jets to the 2002 AFC East title and a 41-0 thrashing of the Indianapolis Colts in a wild-card playoff game, Edwards's highly regarded team would be facing difficult times. Yet what sets him apart in his profession is his empathy, and that was why it was so hard for him to pick up the phone. Edwards felt Pennington's pain; the coach knew his quarterback would be tormented by the irrational notion that he was letting down his team.
"We've got to help each other through this," Edwards told Pennington after an awkward silence at the call's outset. "We will get through it, and the experience will make us stronger. I don't want you even thinking about blaming yourself for this." Both men choked up; tears were shed. "Your family is first," Edwards said. "Be the husband you need to be. Take as much time as you need. We'll wait for you."
For a franchise in a state of perpetual anticipation--it has been more than 3 1/2 decades since Joe Namath led the upstart Jets to their landmark Super Bowl III victory--the wait may finally be over. With a healthy Pennington back throwing pinpoint passes and Edwards working his motivational magic, New York is abuzz as the Jets head into this Sunday's showdown with their AFC East rivals, the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots (5-0) at Gillette Stadium. Against San Francisco, Pennington (20 of 30, 222 yards, no interceptions) brought the Jets back from a 14-0 first-half deficit and continued to display the patience and composure that helped him win an NFL passing crown in 2002 but were largely missing in the final 10 games of the '03 season, after he returned from his injury.
Having endured disastrous starts in each of his first three seasons, Edwards has the Jets at 5-0 for the first time in franchise history and believes he has a quarterback who can play Namath to his Weeb Ewbank. "This is not known as a winning organization, and we're trying to change that perception," says Pennington, who ranks sixth in the league with a 97.8 passer rating. "With Coach Edwards's leadership, we're very capable of winning a championship, and that's why he and I talk about it all the time. Sometimes we can just look at each other and know that the other is thinking about it."
As psychic partners, Edwards and Pennington seem to have been plucked from the buddy-flick wing of central casting. Edwards, 50, who was raised by an African-American father and a German mother, grew up in Seaside, Calif., a working-class beach town five miles east of Monterey. He earned a football scholarship to Cal, where he was exposed to the vibrant politics and culture of Berkeley before launching an unlikely 10-year NFL career. Pennington, 28, is a high school coach's son from Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains who starred at mid-major Marshall, says the film Sweet Home Alabama speaks to his essence and would rather eat at Cracker Barrel than any of Manhattan's finest restaurants. "There's nothing better," says Pennington, "than rolling into Cracker Barrel before fishing and getting the Old Timer's Breakfast [grits, biscuits and gravy, two eggs, and bacon or sausage] with a vanilla milk shake."