In the locker room at CenturyLink Field, the exhilaration of his first NFL road trip quickly turned into a humbling experience.
Forty minutes before kickoff, with the sweat of his warmup still fresh, Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Mike Pennel learned he would be inactive against the Seahawks. The disappointment was tough to swallow. For someone who's handled highs and lows over the past couple years — a roller coaster of emotions — Pennel has had plenty of practice getting past adversity.
That's what he's done this week.
Pennel didn't complain. The undrafted rookie put on his hard hat, went back to work. Determined to show coaches he belonged on the field, Pennel had one of his best weeks of practice, by all accounts. This week, defensive coordinator Dom Capers said he expects Pennel to have a role in the home opener against the Jets.
Pennel discussed the highs and lows this week.
How did you try to pass the time and distract yourself when the Packers made their final cuts?
Pennel: Watched movies, and kept my mind off of football. Just sitting on pins and needles. That was a very uncomfortable time. I'm glad we got through it.
What movies did you watch?
Pennel: Oh, that's a good question. ... "Guardians of the Galaxy." And, man, I forgot the other movie.
What would you say was the greatest athletic achievement in your life before this?
Pennel: I haven't really thought back on it that much, but probably just getting all my offers out of junior college and everything like that. I never filed it down to one specific point, but I'm still building on new moments, new memories.
What was that feeling like when you knew you made the 53-man roster?
Pennel: I was sitting down eating. I came to the lunch room. I came in early. I was like, 'Just in case, so they don't have to call me, and I'll be here.' A couple people walked over to me, and they said, 'Congratulations. Congratulations.' I was like, 'I don't know what that means, but all right.' It was just a big sigh of relief, and it made me get a whole new set of goals after I made the 53. I want to be activated. I want to move up on the depth chart. There's still a lot of things I want to accomplish before I can relax.
What do you want to accomplish now that you've gotten to this point?
Pennel: Just taking baby steps. I want to be activated, get some playing time, make some plays, move up in the depth chart, and eventually have a long career. Be able to be known. Maybe a couple Pro Bowls. I mean, the sky's the limit.
Even though you weren't activated, to go out to Seattle on your first NFL trip, what was that experience like for you?
Pennel: It was pretty crazy. I can't explain the feeling, not being able to play. I was just like, 'Oh, I want to play so bad.' You're into the game and that atmosphere. I would've loved that to have been the first game I played in the NFL, but it just made me think, 'I've just got to come back and work harder.' I came back this week, and I thought I have. So we'll see what happens.
For the first time in your life, you were physically able to play, yet unable to play. How weird was that?
Pennel: It was pretty weird. I didn't know until about 40 minutes before the game. I was warming up and everything, but you've got to trust the judgment of the coaches and everybody who puts the decisions in. They obviously thought I wasn't ready, so hopefully now this week I put them in a bind so that I can play.
You're a guy who's working on a second chance after going the junior college route. How much does it mean to yourself making the most of that second chance?
Pennel: I'm just following my plan, you know. This has always been the plan. There's gonna be a lot of speed bumps, but just got to continue down the road. That's what I've been doing. I have a great supporting cast, my past coaches, my mother, my family. I never thought I wouldn't be here at this moment. This was my only single-minded goal, my only single-minded focus.
What do you need to improve to be activated on the 46-man game roster?
Pennel: There's just so much more to the game that you think you know, but you don't until you get here. Tendencies. Formations. Little twitches. Technique. It's big on technique. Everybody is big, strong, athletic at this level, but it's the little things that make people great. Once you figure out the formations and technique and the tendencies, then the game comes easier.
It would mean a lot to be part of an NFL locker room no matter where it is, but here, in Green Bay, with a franchise that has this much history, how much of an honor is that?
MP: It means a lot. I just want to be a part of that history. We're in Titletown. This is the birthplace of football, basically. The coach that was here, the Super Bowl trophy is named after. So this is something I want to be a part of. So it means a lot.
Did you have a "pinch me" moment where you were like, "Wow, this is the Packers?"
Pennel: Um, no. I came in here with an approach to just go to work. The day I came in, I said, "Don't be taken back by anything." You see Julius Peppers, Clay Matthews and Aaron Rodgers walk around, people I see on "SportsCenter" all the time. I just kept my head down and went to work.
You're one of two undrafted rookie defenders to make the 53-man roster, along with outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott. His locker is right next to yours. How cool is it to have another guy who's taking your path join you on this defense?
Pennel: We've been good friends since the first day we came in here, even when we were back in the Green Mile (reserve locker room). He's given me motivation, I've given him motivation to just keep working. I'm just glad to see that both of us made it out, basically. It's real good to see we have something in common with someone. We're both rookies. We're both undrafted. We're both trying to do the same thing. We're both talented. It's good to have those similarities with somebody.
How meaningful of a moment was that for you when you saw your locker moved from the Green Mile, the auxiliary area, to the main locker room?
Pennel: Yeah, that was probably the most meaningful moment right there. I was just shocked. I was in there for a couple days, and then came back, left my wallet or something like that. They said, "Tomorrow, your locker is going to be out there." I was kind of like, "No it's not." Then when I came in, walked there, I was like, "Where's all my stuff?" I had to look over here. I was like, "Man, this is actually really cool."