- Associated Press - Saturday, October 11, 2014

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - Monday night, Chad Pennington was in East Rutherford, N.J., watching the New York Jets - the NFL team he used to quarterback - play the Chicago Bears.

Tuesday morning, Pennington was at his home in Woodford County doing a phone interview with Colin Cowherd on ESPN radio.

Tuesday afternoon?

“I’m back coaching middle school football at The Lexington School,” Pennington said, chuckling at the contrasts in his football life.

Whether he’s hobnobbing with former NFL teammates at MetLife Stadium, or chatting with Cowherd about Jets’ quarterback Geno Smith, or diagramming a play for a group of green middle-schoolers, it’s all football, so it’s all fun for Pennington.

Pennington, who moved to central Kentucky in 2012, has coached at The Lexington School the last two years.

Joe Conley, a Spanish teacher at the small (560 students pre-kindergarten through eighth grade) private school, started the football program five years ago. He was thrilled to have Pennington come aboard and take the helm.

“I pinch myself sometimes,” Conley said. “I’m hanging out with Chad Pennington talking football. Good Lord, how’d I stumble onto this?

“He’s got a great football mind. He could be an NFL coach, no question. He’s so dedicated, so organized, so knowledgeable, and here he is at The Lexington School.”

Pennington was a star at Marshall University and had a notable pro career with the Jets and Dolphins. He passed for nearly 18,000 yards and 102 touchdowns in 11 NFL seasons. He was twice the Comeback Player of the Year.

As his days in the NFL were winding down in Miami, Pennington, who’s from Knoxville, and his wife Robin, who’s from Julian, W.Va., had to figure out where to settle down with their kids.

They wanted to be close to their families in Tennessee and West Virginia, and to Marshall, where they’re both active alums. They were looking for a moderate-sized city, not a huge metropolitan area, that would offer amenities and opportunities, a nice place to raise their sons, Cole (10), Luke (8) and Gage (5).

“Collegiate towns usually provide all that,” Pennington said. “We looked at multiple places - Nashville, Knoxville, Charlottesville (Va.), Asheville (N.C.), Winston-Salem (N,C.) - but Lexington kept answering all our questions.”

They chose a property in Woodford County, and closed on it on Pennington’s birthday in 2012.

“It was kind of nerve-wracking,” he said. “It was the first time we ever had to make a decision where to move and live. Before we’d always been told where to go, and we made it work.

“We were a little nervous about it, but it’s been great.”

Tom Parlanti, TLS’s athletics director, said Pennington has been “totally focused on helping us develop football. He wasn’t interested in his name being out there. He just wanted to build something that would sustain itself.”

For a school with modest football means (fewer than 30 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade players) and ambitions (a schedule that includes middle school “B” teams and Central Kentucky Youth Football League teams), TLS has coaches with college and/or pro playing experience.

Besides Pennington and Conley (who played at Centre), the staff includes Shane Boyd (UK, NFL) and Thomas Gregory (Centre) and Anthany Beatty.

Pennington said the program’s primary goals are to provide the kids with a “solid middle-school football experience” by stressing teamwork, resiliency and enthusiasm, and by teaching them the fundamentals of the game so if they want to play high school football, they’ll have the confidence to do so.

Pennington, 38, calls himself “a melting pot full of coaching experiences and relationships”, starting with his father, who was a high school coach for 30 years.

Pennington’s own coaching style is low-key. His post-game speeches are as much about life as they are about X’s and O’s. He talks a lot about handling adversity.

“The biggest thing is getting kids not to back away from a challenge,” he said. “You don’t want them to fear failure. You want them to embrace it and learn from it, to use it as a teaching tool to do better the next time.”

Pennington’s NFL bona fides aren’t lost on his players.

“I know he was a pretty good quarterback,” said seventh-grader Walker Owens.

“He’s a good coach, too. He’s taught me a lot. Not just football. Stuff like how to handle school.”

Matthew Russo, a seventh-grader, said “it’s pretty cool” to have a former NFL quarterback as his coach. “I even found his football card.”

Pennington still has ties to the NFL. He’s involved in the Legends Program that was formed last year as an outreach to former players. He was an NFL analyst for FOX for a year, and is still called upon for his expertise.

Pennington and his wife started a charity called the 1st and 10 Foundation in 2003. The money it raises goes toward improving the quality of life in small communities in southern West Virginia and eastern Tennessee.

“We wanted to give back to the areas that gave so much to us,” he said.

Pennington feels the same way about football, which explains his busy coaching schedule.

Besides the TLS middle-schoolers, he helps with the school’s four flag football teams in the fall, and five flag teams in the spring. He also coaches his son Cole’s team in the CKYFL.

None of it is a chore, of course.

It’s all football, so it’s all fun for Chad Pennington.

___

Information from: Lexington Herald-Leader, https://www.kentucky.com

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