AVENTURA, Fla. — Mike Pennel’s path to the Super Bowl has been anything but straightforward.
The massive 6-foot-5, 332-pound defensive tackle, whom the Kansas City Chiefs picked up in October after being cut by New England, didn’t take classes seriously enough in high school and had to start at junior college. He clashed with his coaches at Arizona State and was thrown off the team after a social media faux pas. Once he got his NFL chance, he was jettisoned from Green Bay after two league suspensions.
Multiple times along the way — “at least once a year,” Pennel now says with a laugh — he wondered if he were screwing up the gift he had been given. The gift of a life that was at serious risk of ending in childhood.
Because long before he could have dreamed of bringing a Super Bowl to Kansas City, the battle for Pennel’s life was being waged in that very same city. Diagnosed at 2 years old with a rare form of cancer called Wilms tumor that affected both of his kidneys, Pennel’s mother made countless trips over the years from their home in Topeka to be treated at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City.
Being so young, Pennel wasn’t always aware of what was going on and doesn’t remember everything he went through until he got a little older and the concern was primarily about the cancer coming back. Thankfully, it didn’t. But what remained was a boy with limitless self-belief, who knew he had overcome something so great and set his sights beyond what most could comprehend.
“I was like, ‘Mom I’m going to go to the NFL,’” Pennel said.
He was 5.
As the years went by and the family moved from Topeka to Denver, Pennel would study the NFL combine and take note of how much players would lift or how fast they’d run. He decided he wanted a set of weights and a personal trainer for Christmas so that he could get a head start.
He was 10.
“You’ve got to manifest your destiny,” he said. “My mom was big on imagery and perception and creating your own reality and she would tell me things like, if you don’t believe it, how can I or anyone else? So I always had this overwhelming belief that I would make it to this point, and if there were obstacles I would be able to conquer them.”
As it turned out, there were plenty of obstacles.
Academic issues in high school put Pennel on the junior college route in Arizona, his size and talent eventually landing him a scholarship at nearby Arizona State. But he frequently landed in coach Todd Graham’s doghouse and fell on the depth chart, to the point where he didn’t play at all against California on Sept. 29, 2012.
Being young and immature, Pennel took to Twitter and popped off about his benching, which seemed to be the final straw. Within days, he was gone.
“I was just young and passionate and didn’t know how to handle it,” Pennel said. “I can laugh about it now, but it wasn’t a laughing matter then.”
Pennel’s only real option at that point was to drop down to Division II at Colorado State-Pueblo — not exactly an incubator of NFL talent. But even playing in relative obscurity, he refused to disappear.
“I needed to humble myself, be humbled in my career,” Pennel said. “I needed to learn some things about myself, and I was humbled. I wasn’t treated special.”
Having earned plenty of red flags along the way, Pennel wasn’t drafted. He was a virtual unknown coming into camp with the Packers in 2014 but made the team and saw his role grow little by little until he got in his own way once again in 2016 when he was suspended the first four games of the season for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Almost unfathomably, he was suspended again for the final four games, earning a ticket out of Green Bay.
Once again, Pennel had to rely on his innate sense of survival.
“I think that’s what propelled me and pushed me to keep working hard and stick to my goals,” Pennel said. “When things seemed bleak and it was like, ‘You can’t do this or you can’t do that but you’ve already conquered cancer so that’s not really an excuse you can use. You have to keep going to work.’”
Pennel has stayed out of trouble since then, but after starting 10 games over two seasons with the New York Jets, they declined to pick up his option. He signed a two-year deal with the Patriots thinking he was going to contribute to a Super Bowl contender, but they released him three games into the preseason for reasons he still doesn’t understand.
“Sitting on the couch for six weeks, I just said the next opportunity I get I’m going to go 100 percent and now I definitely have the mindset where nothing is guaranteed, and I feel like I need to play where every snap is my last,” he said.
The Chiefs, who struggled on defense early in the season, have become the beneficiary of drive. Though Pennel said he’s even amazed himself by the level he’s played at with the Chiefs after dropping some weight, his sheer size has proven useful against the run with 24 tackles in eight regular-season games and six in the playoffs.
“I’ll tell you what, that was a great find by (general manager) Brett Veach and his crew,” defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. “I knew Mike a little bit from the Jets, but he’s a guy who gives us a little bit of thickness and some inside presence that we didn’t have. When you go to a team in the middle of the season it’s not easy to pick up and roll, but to his credit he’s done a nice job.”
It’s unclear what that will mean for Pennel’s future, as he’s set to go into free agency again at age 29 after this season. But the opportunity to experience this Super Bowl run in the same city where he had to fight for his life almost seems too good to be true.
“Anything is possible,” Pennel said. “I try to treat every game the same and not make it too big or too small, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t sit back and was like, 'Wow, I’m really in the Super Bowl.'”