Penix ready to prove what’s possible for Hoosier football

Tattooed across Mike Penix Jr.’s entire chest is a guiding principle.

At the center, a radiating cross. Angel wings stretch out from behind it, the longest feathers nearly touching each shoulder. Five words sit atop that sprawling image, lining his collarbone:

Only God Can Judge Me

Penix believes in these words, which were inked to his body before his freshman season at Indiana. He believes, whatever happens, no earthly creature will define him. That his steps are ordered by a higher power, however confounding the route may seem.

Thus far, his IU career has been a startling mix of forward and backward steps: an ACL tear as a true freshman; taking the starting job from incumbent Peyton Ramsey the very next year; linking with Antwaan Randel El in Hoosier history by surpassing 300 passing yards in his debut; a strained shoulder sidelining him before halftime of the next game; triumphantly returning at Michigan State, tossing a program-record 20 completions in a row; knocked out three weeks later at Maryland.

Now he heads into a pandemic-delayed season, nearly a year removed from his last start. His harrowing 2019 ended Nov. 2 versus Northwestern, thanks to a rare mouthful of a malady, a right sternoclavicular joint sprain.

“He never had an injury, since the age of 5, playing football. Not one,” said Takisha Penix, Michael’s mother. “So for everybody in the family, it’s like ‘Woah. Why?’ Even I question why.”

With undying optimism, they return to the cross, those angel wings, and a handful of words. “Everything happens for a reason,” Penix has said, over and over, politely gliding past questions about his injury history. The 20-year-old Tampa native is determined to ground himself in what’s possible, not what’s limited him before.

Can over can’t.

“I don’t look back at those times,” Penix said. “I try to look forward to what I can do next.”

That next move holds the hopes of a football program. Cynics say Penix can’t stay healthy. He just focused on what he could do, adding muscle to his frame. Now his chest and arms carry a solid percentage of his 218 pounds. The lefty’s confidence is just as strong, in full conflict with doubters who say IU can’t beat the best in the Big Ten. Penix believes they can, and they will.

The mission remains unchanged. That full-chest tattoo, inscribed before his IU career began, remains his center.

Just five words, plus a scar above one of them. A straight line above the “C” in “Can.”

• • •

There was a time Mike would have uttered “I can’t,” but Takisha Penix is forced to raise the pitch of her voice to conjure it.

“I can’t, I can’t!” Takisha recalled her son whining, when he was just a 2-year-old, trying to open a jar.

“No, we don’t use that word,” she would tell Mike. “Can’t is a bad word. I can, or I’ll try. But never say I can’t.”

From the beginning, Takisha and Michael Penix Sr. were organizing their son’s mind to repel the negative. Believe in what can be done, both big and small. Believe in what’s possible through faith and perseverance.

His journey just so happened to intersect with football. His father, once a star running back at Pasco High in Dade City, Fla., became a coach there. He would bring little Mike to practices and games. Even coaches’ meetings.

When he became a quarterback, it was apparent Mike had been watching and listening. Unlike most little league signal callers, who bail at the first sign of trouble, Mike had this knack for keeping his eyes downfield, stubbornly searching for the next receiver he could throw the ball to. His mind couldn’t process panic.

“We’d yell ‘Run! Run! Run!’ He just sat in the pocket,” said Michael Sr., who also spent years coaching his son’s teams. “He’s always been like that. Nothing worries him. All the stuff around him, that doesn’t scare him at all.”

Cool and calm, Mike always played up a grade level. But Michael Sr. always wanted more. Mike took hits and didn’t always bounce up fast enough, and Michael Sr. would yell “Stop being soft, man!” Off the field, he would hammer home a very specific point. “What’s more important: mental or physical toughness?” The first time, Mike answered, “Physical.”

“No,” his dad replied. “The mind controls almost everything. If a man say he can, he can. If a man say he can’t, he won’t.”

Takisha and Michael Sr. actively set this can-do foundation until about Mike’s eighth-grade year, when they mutually agreed Michael Sr. needed to back off. Stop criticizing. Just let him play. Just watch.

From the stands, Michael Sr. had a perfect view of a linebacker shooting through Mike’s offensive line at a fierce speed. The sound of the hit was so loud, Mike’s grandmother reflexively jumped over the fence to run onto the field. Takisha had to pull her back.

Michael Sr. just watched.

“He got up, and his fist balled up. I told everybody, ‘He ready now. He ready. Throw it again!’” Michael Sr. reminisced, laughing.

“That next play, he stood in that pocket, just like Tom Brady — and he threw a ball so pretty, with people in his face, it was unreal. I’ve seen it in him. Ever since then, I didn’t worry about no problems with him being tough enough. He good.”

Mike always got up. His faith was strong. “I always tell him,” Michael Sr. added, “if you look up, you can get up.”

He always believed that. So when Mike tore his ACL freshman year at IU, he just worked his way back. When he landed in concussion protocol at Maryland last season, he was ready to bounce back then, too.

While Peyton Ramsey was leading the Hoosiers to victory, as he did so many times in 2019, Takisha was in IU’s locker room, holding her son back. He was adamant. He wanted back on the field.

“He’s stronger than me,” Takisha said. “We had to get a couple of coaches, trainers.”

Mike is cool and calm, except when it clashes with his competitive streak. Takisha had to dial Michael Sr. to talk their son down over the phone.

They had to convince him to trust. Trust the doctors. Trust this can’t-do moment was only temporary, and he would have another chance to look up, get up, and win.

Just not that game. Not at that moment.

“We are always telling him, it’s just not your time,” Takisha said. “You just have to keep that faith, that there’s a reason for everything. You may not see it, you may not know it. But in the long run, it will come.”

• • •

There were so many times in 2019 that just weren’t his. The shoulder strain kept Penix sidelined for Ohio State and UConn. Getting his bell rung at Maryland kept him out of a historic win at Nebraska. The final blow, causing a sternoclavicular joint sprain, cost him a shot at Penn State, Michigan, Purdue, and Tennessee.

That’s a lot for any competitor to miss.

“It wasn’t all wine and roses,” said Chip Bennett, Penix’s longtime quarterback coach. “His rehab and what he had to do, he had to find himself as a leader again. How am I going to lead this team even though I’m not in the huddle?’ He isn’t on the front lines. You’re talking about a 20-year-old kid going through this. It’s hard.”

Bennett, who first started working with Penix before his ninth-grade year, has certainly addressed these challenges with his protégé. But don’t get it confused.

These weren’t long conversations.

“Michael’s not the most verbose kid,” Bennett said 25-minutes into a 45-minute interview. “Me and you on the phone right now would be the longest conversation me and Michael ever had in our lives.

“He had too much faith to say ‘Why me?’ He knew it was God’s plan. It was kind of ‘Enough already. What else is going to happen?’ But he might have felt sorry for himself for about two minutes through the whole process.”

At the end of the day, Penix has too much faith to vent for hours. Likewise, Bennett has too much belief in Penix to overly guide his steps forward.

When they used to drill together in the Tampa area, Bennett would give Penix instructions, once, and his feet moved perfectly the next time. That is not to say Penix was flawless. His elbow was slotted way too low on his lefty delivery. But the ball jumped out of his hand.

From the very first day, Bennett knew he’d found a Power 5 arm. Penix’s mind was just as strong, and his eyes told the story. They were always locked downfield.

“I’ve always said, he’s the calmest quarterback I’ve ever seen. Nothing bothers him,” Bennett said. “We put him through plenty of ‘chaos’ drills, guys flying all over the place, in his face. He has to step up and make a throw. He’s never focused on that. He’s always focused on what is going on down the field.”

Focused down the field, and into the future. Confident in action but humble in speech. A nearly perfect prospect, but that doesn’t guarantee a straight path to success.

A funky turn came in December 2017, during Mike’s senior year at Tampa Bay Tech. Committed to Tennessee, his scholarship offer was pulled when USC’s Tyson Helton was hired as the Vols’ offensive coordinator. Helton, who became Western Kentucky’s head coach a year later, wanted a West Coast recruit, Cal commit J.T. Shrout.

Shrout was flipped. Penix was abandoned.

“That happens,” Bennett said. “He spent all that time recruiting kids, that’s who he knows. That’s who he went with. He didn’t know Michael.”

Bennett knew Nick Sheridan, who coached quarterbacks at USF and then Tennessee. He’d moved on to IU.

“I called him. I told him, ‘I can’t promise you the kid is going to commit to you,” Bennett said, “but if you want to get him up there for a visit … .’”

The stars aligned, as things often have for Penix. He fell in love with IU. By his redshirt freshman year, he was IU’s starter. The next offseason, Sheridan became IU’s offensive coordinator. That relationship is already tight.

If there is a greater plan at work, who knows why Penix has had to experience this much adversity? The Hoosiers won eight games in 2019, the most in 26 years, even with their chosen starter on the bench. Peyton Ramsey, all too underappreciated, was able to claim some glory in his final chapter at IU, putting himself in a position to grad-transfer to Northwestern. Maybe that was fate.

Or maybe Penix’s season-ending collarbone injury, exceedingly rare in football players, was meant to spur another much-needed change.

“Hey,” Takisha said, “you gotta eat.”

At 6-foot-3, 202 pounds, Mike was built more like a receiver than a pocket-passer. To stand and deliver, Penix needed to be bigger and stronger. He needed to eat.

So Takisha has filled Mike’s plate with shrimp alfredo, or taco salad, or a traditional Jamaican dish, ackee and saltfish. The days Mike makes it back from Bloomington haven’t been many, even during the pandemic-disrupted offseason, but those days are highly favored by Michael Sr. and his younger sons.

“When he’s home, we are getting a cooked breakfast, they getting a cooked lunch, they getting a cooked dinner,” Michael Sr. said. “We are eating like kings.”

A change in eating habits, coupled with some hard lifts in the weight room, transformed Mike’s body. IU defensive coordinator Kane Wommack joked at spring practice that the 218-pound version of Penix might dual-train at linebacker: “That sucker is a thing of beauty right now.”

Bennett noticed as much when Penix arrived for a workout in Tampa in the spring. “Damn, what have you been eating?” Bennett said. “Thank god. Finally.”

Those workouts are a treat for Bennett. He names a drill, and Penix runs it perfectly. The steps seem burned into his muscle memory. He’s still not overly talkative as he zips spirals, but he’s playful at times, offering an “Oh yeah, that’s a rip” if a football comes off his hand just right.

Bennett and Penix spent no time dwelling on the past. There was no use in it. Before Penix left to return to Bloomington, Bennett just set his mind on being a better leader. “You don’t have to be the rah-rah guy,” he said, “but don’t let anybody outwork you.”

Of course, when IU’s captains were announced this week, Penix was one of the five.

Bennett expects another step to be coming soon, but that conversation will be had at another time.

“We haven’t talked about the NFL or anything like that, what his options are going to be,” said Bennett, who has trained pro QBs. He knows a Power 5 arm when he sees it. He knows an NFL arm, too.

“Michael, be in the moment, man,” Bennett continued. “God has his plan, like mom says, and whatever happens, happens. Don’t get pumped up by all these interviews you are going to do, all these people asking where you think you’re going to get drafted, are you going to come out, are you going to stay, all that stuff. Be polite and say you haven’t made any type of decision.

“Respect the question, but kind of blow it off.”

Bennett, told the question hasn’t been raised quite yet, was insistent.

“They’ll start asking about that the middle of this year,” Bennett said. “They will. It will happen, in time.”

• • •

Of course, there have been a few other questions.

Can he stay healthy? “I don’t think about injuries,” Penix has replied. “I don’t think about the past.” Was he frustrated by the games he missed? “I always feel like everything happens for a reason,” Penix answered, holding tightly to his optimistic frame of mind.

Confidence arises, too. His response to missing out on playing Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan last year, the big dogs of the Big Ten East: “I just look forward, and I’m just ready to play them this year … I feel like we’re going to shock the world. I know we are.”

In some corners of the blogosphere, there was a collective “Say what now?” Did IU’s quarterback just predict victory against three teams that have a combined 72-1 record versus the Hoosiers since 1989?

The words are what they are. But understand the intent. “That’s the most crap talk you’re going to get out of Michael,” Bennett said. “If you know him, it’s not ‘I’m not going to do this, I’m not going to do that.’ It’s ‘We’re going to do this, we’re going to do that.’ That’s him.”

His family just believes in speaking things into existence. Takisha hates it when people talk about Mike’s injuries. It invites negative energy. On the other hand, his “shock the world” comment is just meant to summon the positive. Takisha takes it a step further.

“We don’t talk about ‘Oh, what happened? What could happen?’” Takisha said, repelling worried thoughts. “No, he’s going to have a successful season. Indiana is going to go 9-0. We’re going to beat those powerhouses. We’re really confident in Indiana, not just because that’s my son playing on the team. The whole program is moving in a great direction.

“It’s 2020, you know? Anything can happen.”

Mike fosters the same fanatical positivity, focused on what can happen, not what can’t. And it’s a powerful thing when it truly leads a team.

IU coach Tom Allen says he sees a more confident leader at the line of scrimmage, commanding IU’s offense. Penix will say it was actually the offseason, when everyone was forced apart, that lifted his voice.

“Telling guys what to do, just the simple things, that just comes natural. That comes from knowing the plays,” Penix said. “I feel like with us, being away from each other, communicating, and making sure people are still doing what they have to do, whenever you don’t have to, I showed myself I can be a leader in that aspect.

“I always talk to the guys, trying to get them to come out. Being away from each other, it was hard. But we always found ways to get together and connect.”

Mentioning his connection with senior receivers like Whop Philyor and Ty Fryfogle, specifically, Penix flashed some confidence again.

“I feel like we’re going to spark it up,” Penix said. “Early.”

Philyor, a fellow Tampa native, likes to say athletes from their town are just “built different.” Penix fits that.

“Mike is always going to be cool, calm, and collected,” Philyor said. “Mike will take control. He is the big dog. We will fall behind him. He is going to lead us.”

“He’s a confident player,” Sheridan concurred, “and I think that breeds confidence in the players around him.”

Confidence is not in short supply. The excitement of what Penix can bring to the Hoosiers this season, it’s again overshadowing worries about what won’t happen.

Because the Hoosiers’ quarterback is on his feet again.

“He could come out one game and just say ‘Well, hey, I keep getting hurt too bad, my body’s bad, I can’t do this,’” Michael Penix Sr. said, “or he can come out and say ‘Well, God knows what’s best,’ and move forward, and get through the pain, because it’s nothing but another test I gotta pass. I gotta pass it and move forward.

“We are so proud of him for it, because he’s doing exactly like we taught him. I always thought he never listened. But he’s always listening. He gets knocked down, and, every time, he gets back up.”

6 comments

  1. Like most I relish MP at QB for the Hoosiers. Maturity gained from the past 2 years is will be oozing from him. But he still has not played much B1G FB so I’m steadfast he needs all the snaps he can get both in practice and games for the next 4 weeks. He should really be pushing the envelope through the remainder of the season with increased confidence, experience and earned success after that.

  2. I look for seeing Penix play all season and give IU a shot to have a season that we will look back and say, who really saw this at the beginning. One of the things about the 1967 team was going from a
    3 win season to a Rose Bowl season in one year. I don’t know if IU has this ability this year but the 1967 team showed it is possible if they can win the close games due to players that were game winning play makers.

    In just a short time we will find out what this Hoosier team is capable of doing. I am encouraged but like most IUFB fans know I could be disappointed once again. Right now I expect the Hoosiers to go 9-0 winning the B1G title.

  3. After reading this story, I feel like a Bette Midler tune.

    Interesting that his final injury is classified as a “sprain.” Sounds rather minor though a “mouthful.”
    If I recall, there was some talk that the injury can involve the sternum and be very dangerous….even career ending. Basically, the collarbone(clavicle) can be pushed/speared into the shoulder/chest plate (sternum) where there is a huge blood source. Penix was a very lucky young man.

    Outside of the ACL injury, I didn’t recall the many other bumps and bangs (concussion) before the clavicle nearly getting shoved through his chest….oops…I mean “sprain.”

    Dangerous sport. “Zander” Diamonte wore a giant chip on his shoulder and a great set of wheels…but he was a very fortunate to escape Bloomington not in a wheelchair….or worse.

    I get concerned for the kids (especially qb’s) with the excess bravado and braggadocios moxie…and “god will protect them” attitude. Your coach should also protect you. He should also have a sense for the competition you’ve faced (size and strength) of teams you went against in high school. He should know this is Big10 football with rosters full of sturdy steamrollers who were grandsons of steelworkers and Rust Belt truckers who eat nails and crap I-beams.
    Be careful, Michael. It’s ten more Hoosiers on the field with you. They, along with their ability to protect you, allow for your time in the pocket, provide your chance to find receivers running exceptional passing routes, pick up blitzes and blindside rushes and put the breaks on those “steamrollers” ready to exert bone-crushing hits upon your ballet theater.
    Those other ten on the field are not a tattoo. They are part of preventing you from getting tattooed by a Mack truck linebacker from OSU. They are the “wind beneath your wings”….which are assembled with many clavicle-like bones beneath their expanse and feathers.

  4. A lot is riding on the shoulders (left shoulder specifically) of Penix.

    With PSU replacing 7 on defense, and without Brown at running back this could become a statement game for IU’s season. I know everyone is hoping for IU to dominate, put up a bushel basket full of points, shut down the PSU offense, and put fear into the entire league. If that doesn’t happen I will be happy with just coming away with a hard fought victory. In either case it will be a much deserved confidence boost after letting the Gator Bowl game get away from them. They have stood toe to toe with several of the big boys over the past few seasons only to lose. It’s time for this team to come away with a win. They need to not only believe they can do it, but they also need to prove to themselves they can do it.

  5. I think we’re underestimating Penn State. They’ve been gradually ascending since the bronze statues of a blindfolded Joe Pa were warehoused in an underground shower bunker.
    PSU is not the same team as in the latter years of Wilson and early Allen tenure.

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