More than a decade ago, Michael Penix Jr. gained notoriety by launching high-arcing passes to his Dade City and Zephyrhills youth football teammates.
“Mike was throwing little league versions of the same passes he is throwing now,” former Zephyrhills Christian standout Javion Hanner said of his youth league quarterback.
But it was not just Penix Jr.’s arm strength that was on display during that Turkey Bowl tournament in Georgia.
So was his championship mindset.
With poise and precision, Penix Jr. picked apart opponents en route to a title. Afterward, people wanted to know about this team from Florida – and its playmaking quarterback.
Now, everyone in the college football world is familiar with Penix Jr.’s golden left arm.
As Washington’s seasoned signal caller, Penix Jr. was the runnerup for the Heisman Trophy while leading the program to an undefeated record and a berth in tonight’s National Championship game.
If the former Tampa Bay Tech standout beats Michigan, he will become the first bay area quarterback (Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties) to lead his team to a FBS (Division I-A) national title.
While most are fixated on Penix Jr.’s beautiful bombs, many gloss over another stat – his win-loss record.
Since becoming a full-time starter at Tampa Bay Tech as a junior in 2016, Penix Jr. is a combined 59-12 at the high school and college level.
More than just a deep ball specialist, Penix Jr. also knows how to pull out victories. That stems from his other skills, such as determination, competitiveness, leadership and loyalty.
And when he does lose, it weighs on him, even in flag football.
Take the time Penix Jr. fell short of a 7-on-7 title with Unsigned Preps as a sophomore in high school.
“We were at a tournament in Jacksonville that was very competitive and loaded with talent,” said Romey Battle, the director of student development for Unsigned Preps. “Mike competed like crazy, and he really took losing very seriously when most kids would have just laughed it off because it was 7-on-7.”
Tight games. Tense moments. Missed opportunities. None of that fazes Penix Jr.
In 2016, Tampa Bay Tech was locked in a close playoff contest with St. Petersburg. Penix Jr. had a perfectly placed pass dropped by a receiver that would have won the game in the final 10 seconds of regulation.
“Mike never got visibly upset or yelled,” Tampa Bay Tech coach Jayson Roberts said. “He just told everybody we’re going to win this.”
Sure enough, Penix Jr. threw the winning touchdown pass in double overtime – to the same receiver who dropped the one in regulation.
Delivering in the clutch has been one of Penix Jr.’s trademarks. Of his 59 wins in the last seven years, 15 were decided by seven points or less, including a stretch of five straight this year leading up to tonight’s title matchup.
And the deep connections are not always associated with passes. Penix Jr. develops bonds with his teammates. When he started out at Pasco High as a freshman and sophomore, Penix Jr. took friends to camps, had them tag along on college campus visits and set them up on 7-on-7 teams in the offseason.
“My first time visiting a college was at Florida with Mike,” Hanner said. “When Mike transferred (to Tampa Bay Tech) I remember all of us were basically in tears and he was only going 35-40 minutes away.”
During the Heisman trophy presentation, Penix Jr. showed his affection for the Huskies with his chosen attire. Stitched on the inside of his purple suit jacket were the names of each of his Washington teammates and coaches.
For Penix Jr., benevolence is bigger than football.
“Mike always volunteered to feed the homeless or any other community service that we organized,” Battle said. “That’s why he deserved that Heisman moment.”
Though Penix Jr. did not win college football’s most coveted individual award, he can still hoist a national title trophy.
He already has the championship pedigree to do it.