The everyman and the exception: Trevon Pendleton, a fullback, is Michigan State's unlikely man of the moment
DALLAS—As an assistant coach at Northwest High in Lucasville, Ohio, it was left to Garrett Pendleton to oversee a youth football program for the area. This included monitoring games to confirm that coaches were doing right by elementary school participants with an elementary knowledge of the sport, and, at an even more fundamental level, making sure that everyone had enough players. Occasionally, this last bit was an issue. Once, no-shows left one of the third- and fourth-grade Pee Wee teams with only 10 players. As he prepared to watch the game in the stands, Garrett Pendleton was asked to resolve the problem.
The coaches wondered if his son, Trevon, could play.
They were willing to overlook one complication: Trevon was in kindergarten. He was, by rule, not allowed to participate. But Garrett retrieved some pads after agreeing that his boy could join, as this was not a hasty introduction to the sport. For the Pendletons, football was as reflexive as blinking. Garrett coached and older brother Jerrod played and Trevon tagged along to all the practices. The brothers would let a hose run on the lawn all day so they could stage full-contact mud bowls with neighborhood friends. Trevon competing with the big kids wasn't a major concern, in Garrett's estimation.
He was right and wrong.
On his team's first offensive play, Trevon lined up at running back. He took a handoff and scored a touchdown. Then he scored another. And another. And then it was halftime.
At this juncture, the adults stepped in. They said Trevon couldn't play anymore. His team would have to go on with 10 kids.
Otherwise, they said, the game just wasn't fair.
So, little Trevon Pendleton was kicked out of a league he wasn't allowed to play in anyway.
"Maybe that's why I scored," Trevon says now, laughing. "Maybe I was running scared."
Maybe. It's more likely this was one of those times no one thought much about him, before he showed up at precisely the right moment.
In the four seasons preceding Thursday's College Football Playoff semifinal at the Cotton Bowl, Trevon Pendleton has played in 48 games at fullback for Michigan State. He has rushed for exactly zero career yards on exactly zero career carries. He has 13 receptions, total, to his name. His high for catches in a single game is two. He hauls around 250 pounds on a 6-foot frame, topped by a wide, cheerful, bearded face. He is known as "Pendletucky," owing to a hometown located about a dozen miles from the Kentucky border and a bit of a twang when he speaks. One of his teammates says he is shaped like a bowling ball.
The fifth-year senior also has a touchdown catch in the Rose Bowl, a two-yarder in the second quarter of a 24–20 win over Stanford back in January 2014. This year, Pendleton has a 74-yard catch-and-run against Michigan that set up a touchdown, bringing the Spartans close enough to beat their rival 27–23 on a miracle punt-fumble return for a score. Against Ohio State in November, in a 17–14 victory that basically clinched a Big Ten East title, he scored one of the Spartans' two offensive touchdowns on a 12-yard pass delivered by backup junior quarterback Tyler O'Connor. And the week before the Big Ten championship game, Pendleton suffered a Grade 2 MCL tear, per his older brother, in a 55–16 win over Penn State. He played against Iowa despite that, throwing the lead blocks on the marathon 22-play scoring drive and taking out a defender on freshman tailback L.J. Scott's playoff-clinching one-yard touchdown run.
He is nowhere but everywhere, an everyman and an exception, a Forrest Gump-like infiltrator of the biggest moments that brought the Michigan State program here. Pendleton is what a fullback should be. And he's absolutely something else.
"He's our playmaker," Spartans senior defensive end Shilique Calhoun says. "I hate to say it. I don't want to boost him up. I hope he never hears this. But he is honestly our X-factor. He's that guy that is going to make a great block or make a big catch in a critical situation, when we need a big play. Trevon is literally our sleeper. I don't know what we would do without him, honestly."
To play fullback in the modern era is to operate in a crowd that is somehow also a void, to burrow at high speeds into chests and thighs as other chests and thighs crash all around. For this, you are rewarded with the knowledge that hardly anyone paid attention to what you did. Then you do it again. "I think you get less credit than a guard," former Spartans fullback Nico Palazeti says. "It's the least sexy position of all time."
This is even true to a degree at Michigan State, one of the few remaining outposts in college football where fullbacks are not on extinct or endangered lists. In nine years, fullbacks have run the ball in a game twice. The position is often a last refuge for players who have failed to find a place anywhere else. "It's almost a place where dreams go to die," says Palazeti, the lone player recruited and signed to play the position in Spartans coach Mark Dantonio's tenure. "It's like no one chooses to be a fullback, but you end up there."
Some people can't think of anything they would rather do. Pendleton decided he would be a college fullback, decided he would walk on at Michigan State after suffering a horrific broken leg as a high school senior that cooled recruiting interest, decided he would strive to insinuate himself as something more than a space-clearer, bristling early on when coaches subbed in tailbacks to run wheel routes in practice.
He chose to be a fullback. Look where he ended up. "I've just been pretty fortunate to be in the right place at the right time," Pendleton says. "Our coaching staff has done a great job with our play calls and done some things to utilize me and different people at different times when maybe the defense isn't expecting it or hasn't game planned for it as much. I've gotten opportunities there and I've taken advantage of them."
The compact packaging—"I call him a portable lineman," Michigan State sophomore tailback Gerald Holmes says—and unassuming personality suggest this all is surprising. It might not be. Pendleton has been a big-play incubator for some time, well beyond his precocious and ill-fated debut as a kindergartner. As a fifth-grader, in a Pee Wee game against a rival team from Portsmouth, Trevon rushed for eight touchdowns on eight carries, per the recollection of his older brother Jerrod. Trevon balks at this mythologizing. "It was like nine or 10 [carries]," he says.
Likewise, the obstinacy required of his position came naturally. Part of it is basic little-brother programming; Jerrod's preferred method of torture growing up was to let Trevon play him close in sports or video games before beating him at the end. That built up a resolve, which would prove useful more than once. On one memorable Thanksgiving, the Pendletons were in the midst of their annual Turkey Bowl football game in the front yard, a competitive full-contact affair. Trevon was 9 years old, maybe 10, out on a route when a pass from his brother sailed just out of reach. So, Trevon dove, and plunged into a bush. He extricated himself and wondered why his brother was freaking out. Then he looked at his left arm.
A stick ran clear through it, in one side and out the other.
Trevon hurried inside. His father yanked out the stick and wrapped the arm to stanch the bleeding.
Then Trevon hustled back outside. There was a Turkey Bowl in progress.
"I'll never forget, I was like, 'Trevon, you sure? We don't have to play this,'" Jerrod says. "He goes, 'Oh, no, we have to finish.'"
Trevon would go on to play tailback for Portsmouth West High, rushing for 1,471 yards as a junior and 967 on just 88 carries through the first eight games of his senior season. His athleticism, complemented by his capacity to punish defenders, piqued the interest of programs that implemented fullbacks like Arkansas, Wisconsin, Michigan State and the service academies. The ninth game of Pendleton's final high school campaign was played on a rainy night in mid-October. On the third play of the evening, he planted his foot and stiff-armed a Lucasville Valley High defensive back in pursuit, redirecting the would-be tackler toward his own leg. The next thing Pendleton recalls is hearing three pops.
He went to the ground, rolled over and tried to stand up. He saw teammates screaming at him to get down, then looked at the reason why: a compound leg fracture, plus a dislocated ankle and a ruptured Achilles tendon. "I went into shock, so I don't think I really felt it," Trevon says. "It more scared me than hurt." Jerrod, who was home from college and attending the game, remembers his brother asking for his Portsmouth West teammates to stay focused and keep their heads up. When the paramedics arrived to take him to the hospital, Trevon asked the ambulance driver if they could stay to watch the second half of the game.
The immediate challenges were not limited to a six-to-eight month recovery after surgery. Pendleton faced uncertainty, underscored by college programs understandably backing away following a catastrophic injury, and he drifted into self-pity. "I didn't know if I was going to be myself again, as far as playing football," Pendleton says. "And football is something I've always done, something I've always been around, and something I couldn't see my life without."
It had never been enough that Trevon merely had the chance to play college football. "He wanted to play big," Jerrod says. "He made that clear." So, a few weeks after having surgery, the stubbornness burned through the gloom. Michigan State had stayed in contact, the one place left where he could play big. The Spartans offered him the opportunity to enroll as a preferred walk-on and, if he returned to his pre-injury form, eventually earn a scholarship. Trevon made the daily trips to the hospital rehab center and started running only two weeks before preseason camp began in 2011. When the family dropped Trevon off in East Lansing, Jerrod remembers his brother walking with a significant limp. It was enough to get him started.
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The origin of the Swollback dates to 2010, birthed at the philosophical intersection of playing fullback and taking great joy in pushing around large amounts of weight. It was a matter of pride among Adam Setterbo, Todd Anderson and Nico Palazeti—the three individuals occupying spots on Michigan State's fullback depth chart at the time—that they were selfless players who liked to bash into other players and bench press a lot. "All fullbacks," Palazeti says now, "are weightlifters who have to play football." Thus they put a name to their legacy: The Swollback.
They commissioned tank tops for their club, to make it something to which all future Spartans fullbacks should aspire. The tank tops were jet black, and they featured a picture of a half-man, half-gorilla doing a curl. To earn one, you had to meet several somewhat flexible requirements. You had to bench close to 400 pounds. You had to squat more than 500 pounds. And you had to have great hair.
"The biggest thing was more of a mentality—you had to attack the weight room like you attack the field," says Palazeti, who is now a strength coach at Mississippi State after a neck injury forced his retirement from football before the 2013 season. Yet if Trevon Pendleton is the last of the Swollbacks, his induction (and tank top) hard-earned after showing up shorter and lighter than everyone else and without very impressive hair, it may be because he was destined to be something else entirely.
He eventually recovered from that broken leg, recovered his speed and earned his scholarship only a year after he arrived on campus. Since then, Pendleton has synthesized a meathead's delight in violence with the capacity for legitimately athletic contributions and deep football thought befitting the son of a coach. As the Cotton Bowl against Alabama approaches, Pendleton's contribution to the Michigan State fullback tradition may be the creation of a new standard for the position. Call it the Model T.
"He's carved out his own niche," Palazeti says, "and he did things we couldn't have done."
Palazeti remembers Pendleton arriving at Michigan State and, on one of the first days of camp, querying his new position-mate on what routes the receivers were running on a given snap. "Trevon," Palazeti blankly replied, "I'm not even in on this play." It was no mere curiosity: If Pendleton knew every assignment for every player on every play, he felt he could better gauge how the defense was going to react. "You kind of know where you need to fit in," he says. Nor was he satisfied to sit idly by when coaches began inserting prime-production tailbacks like Le'Veon Bell if a play called for an F Wheel, a wheel route out of the backfield. Pendleton complained, out loud, that he was more than capable of doing that job himself.
Gradually, everyone figured that out. The Spartans now esteem Pendleton's football intelligence to be among the highest on the team; on Fridays before games this fall, he'd take the test given to the tight ends, because he wanted to review the blocking concepts along the line. Still, his most significant contribution came in the running backs room, where he played the role of guru for a group that includes Scott, a true freshman, and Madre London, a redshirt freshman, among its top three ball-toters. Pendleton felt compelled to teach them how to "prepare to be ready," as he puts it; regularly, after co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach Dave Warner makes a salient point, Pendleton turns over his shoulder and says, "Aren't you gonna write that down?"
"I think that's what has brought our young running back corps along," Michigan State senior tackle Jack Conklin says. "His ability to keep those guys in line and show them the way on game day has been huge."
In his most fundamental responsibility—blocking someone—Pendleton has become a precision instrument of destruction. For his expertly debilitating cut blocks on the perimeter, he has earned two nicknames: The Guillotine, and The Ginsu Knife. "People see that on film and are ready for it," Warner says, "and they still have a tough time protecting themselves." Not even teammates in practice are spared. "It's looking like he's going to blast a guy, then he'll drop on you and cut you," Spartans junior defensive back Demetrious Cox says. "It's terrible. It's so frustrating."
It is a skill perfectly befitting Pendleton in every way: extraordinarily simple on its face, but executed at a level that is maddeningly efficient. "You can't show it too early," he says. "You have to basically step on the defender's toes before you show it. And when you go, you have to explode. It's basically like tackling without using your arms. You kind of just aim for a spot three or four yards behind the guy and shoot for that spot."
So, what else would happen on the play that brought Michigan State to this stage than Pendleton sizing up an Iowa defender and slicing him down? On Scott's game-winning touchdown run that secured a 16–13 victory over the Hawkeyes in the Big Ten title game, Pendleton spotted an outside linebacker—an "edge piece," as he puts it—who he would either kick out or cut down on the outside zone run, depending on how the defender played it. Pendleton decided on the cut block to give his freshman tailback the edge, and the rest was up to Scott, who plowed through a half-dozen other tacklers and stretched the ball across the goal line to set off a celebration. "I love throwing the block and getting our running back into the end zone," Pendleton says. "There's nothing like that."
Where that stands among Pendleton's many intrusions into great Michigan State moments is debatable. He did manage it on that torn MCL, at the end of a 22-play drive; it was only a week earlier that trainers called his family after the Penn State game and insinuated there was no way Trevon would play the next week. (By Tuesday, he was overruling everyone anyway. "There was no way I was going to miss it if I could walk," he says.) The one that everyone talked about the most, maybe, was the Rose Bowl touchdown catch, only because it was the first exceedingly high-profile play of Pendleton's career, fulfilling a dream for a player who imagined playing in the Rose Bowl in his front yard, going so far as to mimic Keith Jackson's voice for player introductions. But that catch against Ohio State in November, that might have been the most meaningful, Trevon's favorite, his personal retort to the program he grew up following only to get snubbed by the Buckeyes for being too small to play there.
But maybe collating these moments misses the point. Maybe it's the collective, the oeuvre, that's worth taking a step back to consider after all.
That a fullback, a dang fullback, has wandered into and done much to define one pivotal Michigan State moment after another. That every one of those moments may have been essential to bringing this program to this very spot. That a kid who limped onto campus five years ago has finished like this.
"He may not pass the eye test, but you can count on Trevon to go out every single week and lay his life out there," Spartans senior quarterback Connor Cook says. "He's been everything to us as a program."
No, Trevon Pendleton does not quite comprehend it, either.
"It's been kind of unreal," he says.
His team's run-game motto is Pound Green Pound, he'll remind you. This portends nothing but unglamorous anonymity, collisions for the sake of anyone but yourself, and maybe a tank top if you're lucky. "Fullback is always blue-collar guys, guys that like to roll their sleeves up and go to work, guys that just like to get after it and push each other, and ultimately guys that want to better the team," Pendleton says. "And, really, just do what's needed. When called upon, do what's needed. Never complain. Just go out and play every snap and take advantage of the situation."
So, he might not have expected this. But there's a difference between expecting to do something and knowing that you are capable of it. Even if your best moments are when you pull yourself out of a pile and arrive late to someone else's celebration.
Pendleton has one word tattooed on the inside of each of his considerably dense upper arms: Just on the right, and Believe on the left. It's a tribute to a girl named Paige Duren, who was adopted by the Michigan State football team in 2011 as she battled and then survived malignant brain cancer. She visited practices and wrote to the Spartans before games, wishing them good luck, and always ending her letters the same way—writing "Just Believe" at the bottom. Those words resonated with Trevon, whose grandmother Kathy died from ovarian cancer. So now they're with him, wherever he goes.
If all he had were the quiet successes, Pendleton might have been content. He knows the value in those.
If his team needs something more, turns out he isn't hard to find.