LAKE WALES, Fla. — New York Jets quarterback Chad Pennington set the hook on a three-pound largemouth bass after one of his first casts Wednesday morning at Lake Kissimmee. Then his line went slack.
But the big one that got away wasn't completely Pennington's fault. Bassmaster Elite Series angler Jeremy Starks had given Pennington a baitcasting reel with the drag setting practically non-existant. The reel free-spooled when Pennington set the hook.
"I think you set me up for failure," Pennington joked.
"That looked like a pretty good one," Starks said.
A Florida Wildlife Commission officer had just the opposite reaction when Pennington handed him his fishing license during a routine check later that day. It looked like a pretty bad one.
Pennington mistakenly thought the Florida fishing license he'd purchased included both salt- and freshwater, but it allowed saltwater privileges only. Officer Garret Fields let Pennington escape from that sack, issuing only a warning ticket.
"You'd have a better chance of seeing Jesus than he'd have of catching us, if I'd wanted to get away," Starks said to Pennington, while standing on the bow of his bass boat powered by a 250-horsepower motor.
The facts — zero fish caught, one warning ticket issued — didn't back up the fun that these two men with deep West Virgina roots had while bass fishing in Florida Wednesday. Another West Virginian — Pennington's head coach at Marshall University, Bob Pruett — was the link that put these two in Starks' boat. Pruett and Starks, who lives in Charleston, W.Va., had become friends over the years through various charity functions. And Pruett knew Pennington loved to bass fish.
With Pennington going through offseason training at IMG Academies training facilities in Bradenton, Fla., and Starks practicing for Thursday's Bassmaster Elite Series tournament on the Kissimmee Chain of lakes, this meeting was a natural.
"Absolutely," Pennington answered, when asked if he would enjoy a professional bass fishing career, after his NFL football career ends. "I grew up on a lake.
"But I don't want to sound disrepectful. Just being out here today has shown me how much time and work and knowledge these guys have to have."
Starks was in an awkward position Wednesday. He wanted to show one of his sports heroes a good time bass fishing. But Starks didn't want to take Pennington or anybody else to the best spots he'd found in his two previous days of practice on the Kissimmee Chain. Beginning Thursday, Starks will be competing with 108 other Elite Series pros for the $100,000 first prize in the four-day "Citrus Slam" tournament.
"In Day Three of practice, nobody sets the hook," said Stark, in explaining to Pennington how the pros search for bass as a tournament nears, but save the hook-setting for when the competition starts.
"Maybe that's what I'll do," said Pennington, referring to his earlier miss.
"No, you've got to catch a couple," Starks said, as an ESPN film crew idled nearby. "You've got to catch a good one if you're going to make Sportscenter's 'Top 10 Plays of the Day.'"
As it turned out, only Wildlife Officer Fields' display of mercy would rank as a highlight on this day.
But neither Starks nor Pennington were complaining. Both got to hear five hours of stories about a sport they were interested, but uninvolved in. Pennington had some good ones about their mutual friend, Coach Pruett.
Pennington grew up in Knoxville, Tenn., but drew no interest from major college programs. Thanks to a summer camp, Jim Donnan discovered Pennington's talent and offered him a football scholarship to then 1-AA Marshall University, located in Huntington, W.Va. Donnan left for the head coaching position at Georgia after Pennington's freshman season, when he'd been thrown into action after the Thundering Herd's top two quarterbacks were injured.
Pruett was hired and put a redshirt on Pennington, who was 6-foot-2 and weighed 186 when he arrived on campus. Pennington grew an inch and added several pounds of muscle to his frame, which now carries 225 pounds.
When Marshall moved up to 1-A and the Midwestern Athletic Conference after winning the 1-AA championship with a 15-0 record while Pennington was redshirting, Pruett had his quarterback of the future. Pennington would lead the Thundering Herd to a 35-4 record in his next three seasons. As a sophomore, he had Randy Moss to throw to as Marshall went 10-3 and lost to Ole Miss, 34-31, in the Motor City Bowl. Moss had 90 receptions for 1,647 yards and 25 touchdowns that season.
"I've never seen a better athlete," Pennington said of Moss, who recorded a 4.25 40-yard dash and a 51-inch vertical jump at the NFL combine the next spring. "In college, we went to the pool one time. He goes off the springboard and does a full gainer."
Pennington proved to be just fine without the future NFL All-Pro in his receiving corps. As a senior, he led Marshall to a 13-0 record, a victory over No. 25-ranked Brigham Young in the Motor City Bowl and a No. 10 national ranking in the final poll.
In addition to the Sammy Baugh Award, given annually to the best passer in college football, Pennington won the Draddy Trophy that year, which is given to the college player with the best combination of academics, community service and on-the-field performance.
"That was a neat experience," Pennington said of receiving the Draddy Trophy, which took place during the annual College Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony. "I got to speak in front of about 500 people at (New York City's) Waldorf Grand Ballroom. (Television announcer) Keith Jackson got the lifetime achievement award. He spoke after me."
Pennington smiled and said, "Talk about making somebody look foolish."
The New York Jets made Pennington one of their four first round draft picks (No. 18 overall) in 2000. Pennington sat behind starter Vinnie Testaverde for two seasons, then played well enough for the Jets that they signed him to a seven-year, $62.2-million contract prior to the 2004 season. It was the largest in Jets' history at the time.
Pennington and the college sweetheart he married, the former Robin Hampton, have used some of that money to establish the "1st and 10 Foundation," with the mission of building stronger communities by funding programs that seek to improve quality of life in West Virginia, Tennessee and the New York metropolitan area. They now have two sons, Cole, 4, and Luke, 18 months.
Pennington's contract was renegotiated after his two rotator cuff surgeries in 2005. He earned the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year Award in 2006, upon leading the Jets to a 10-6 record and a playoff berth.
Pennington lost and regained his starting quarterback position last season. He'll go into the Jets' camp this summer in a battle with third-year player Kellen Clemens for the starting quarterback job.
Among NFL quarterbacks with at least 1,500 pass attempts, Pennington has the best career completion percentage — 65.6.
Starks, 34, wanted to hear about every aspect of pro football — from how to throw a spiral to the hours put in during each week of the season to the hardest hit Pennington ever took in the NFL.
Pennington asked Starks about fishing techniques and lure tips. He also was intrigued by the hours a pro angler is required to devote to his sport each week.
Oh, and there were those Coach Pruett stories. Pruett recently came out of retirement to work as a defensive coordinator under long-time friend Al Groh at Virginia. He left Marshall with a nine-year record of 88-17 after the 2004 season.
"This happened after I was gone," Pennington said. "We were playing at Tennessee and leading 7-3 right before halftime. He told our punter to kick it out of bounds and pin them deep, so we could go in with a lead at the half.
"The punter kicks a line drive. It's returned about 30 or 40 yards, and Tennessee scores before the half.
"In the lockerroom, the punter is sitting in a corner with a towel over his head. Coach Pruett says, 'What were you thinking? What were you thinking?'
"The punter said, 'I'm bipolar, coach, I'm bipolar.'
"Coach Pruett said, 'I don't know which one of you I'm talking to right now, but the other one better show up in the second half."
Ah, yes, just another day on the lake. No fish. Lots of laughs.