Cancer survivor Mike Pennel shows resiliency

Ryan Wood
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He was born 9 pounds, 11 ounces with a barrel chest and popping biceps. The first time his mother held him, she saw a body builder. This boy looked indestructible, she thought. Built for football.

So she strapped him in shoulder pads and sent him out to play. His first full-contact season started when he was 5, two years under the league limit. He was already 60 pounds with a tiny six-pack for abs, the kind of player parents feared. When he was still in the league two years later, Mom brought a birth certificate to games for proof.

His first job would be in the NFL. That’s what he told his mother in high school. She knew the chances were slim, but never discouraged it. Her son was driven, almost obsessed. He would work out on his own after class, doing push-ups and bear crawls uphill. He was 6-foot, 215 pounds at age 12, and his Christmas wish was a personal trainer. Mom got him a weight set instead.

Now, Mike Pennel is in his second season with the Green Bay Packers. He’s 6-foot-4 and 330 pounds, an ascending, run-stuffing defensive end. Two years after being undrafted, he’s listed on the top line of the depth chart. And it’s shocking. Not because the odds are stacked against playing professional football. Not because he transferred from a Pac-12 program to a local, Division II school before his final college season. Off the field, there was another obstacle.

For most of his childhood, Mikey didn’t know whether he’d live long enough to become an adult.

‘He was just a trouper’

The diagnosis came on a Wednesday. Terri Pennel called it a fluke. Her son was 2 years old, and though he was always big for his age, his size wasn’t proportional.

Mikey had a Hemihypertrophy, a condition in which one side of the body is bigger than another. Terri first took her son to a pediatrician when he was 6 months old, searching for answers. There weren’t any. Out of options, an orthopedic specialist advised shutting down a growth plate.

Before they could, Mikey’s day care required him to take a physical. The doctor felt an abnormality in his stomach. Ultrasound revealed he had kidney cancer, the answer to Mikey’s disproportionate body. Wilms’ tumor, the doctors said, closely correlates with Hemihypertrophy.

On Friday, two days after the physical, Terri watched doctors wheel her indestructible boy into surgery.

“He was a baby,” Terri says. “Just 2 years old, and they literally cut him from almost one hip to another to get to his kidneys.”

Cancer is scary enough. What doctors found inside the operation room made it worse. Mikey had tumors attached to both kidneys, a rarity for the disease. One tumor encapsulated outside his kidney and was easy to reach. The other grew into his kidney tissue.

Doctors couldn’t remove it without taking half the organ.

“I remember talking to the doctors,” Terri says, “and asking, ‘Does he need a new kidney?’ Because they said both kidneys, so I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, you can live with one. You can’t live without two. Does he need another one?’ He had a sibling, I had kidneys. I was just so far ahead in the thinking, and they were like, ‘Wait, slow down. Let’s do this first. Let’s see this.’”

Surgery was successful, but there was a long road ahead. Doctors told Terri the cancer had a 1-in-10 chance of recurrence, she said. Mikey needed 18 months of chemotherapy.

Every week, she loaded her son into a car and drove from their home in Topeka, Kan., to Kansas City, the nearest pediatric oncology center. They used Lidocaine cream to cover an L-shaped port in his chest, numbing it at the start of their hour-long drive. During his appointment, Mikey sat and watched one Barney episode followed by The Fox and the Hound while doctors pumped an experimental cocktail into his veins.

When the movie was over, Mikey knew it was time to go home.

“He was just a trouper,” Terri says. “I never once had to hold him down or coax him. He was never afraid of needles. Kids are so resilient, but it was like he understood what was going on. He understood the significance of it.”

Sometimes, Mikey knew too much.

Chemotherapy never took a terrible toll on his body, Terri says. He only lost 3 pounds during those 18 months. His biggest concern, Terri remembers, was losing hair from his eyebrows. Mentally, the constant uncertainty was exhausting.

Mike Pennel doesn’t remember the surgery, or even much of chemotherapy. He can’t forget the trips to his oncologist. They were monthly at first, then quarterly, then annual. Each time, Terri says, she and her son were on “pins and needles” fearing the cancer had returned.

“For a while as he was growing up,” Terri says, “he didn’t think he’d live to see adulthood. I think it either scared him enough, or he knew that cancer was that bad and he may not survive, or the treatment wouldn’t work. Until he was in high school, he used to always say, ‘Well, if I make it to adulthood.’”

Pennel says his mother never allowed him to think that way. Fear gripped her, but she never showed it. If not for Mom, he says, there’s no way he would’ve made it. She kept him positive, even when things were bleak.

They continued returning to the oncologist, even after the family moved to Aurora, Colo. Ten years after his diagnosis, they were finally confident there’d be no remission. “Chances were slim to none,” Terri says. The Pennels sidestepped tragedy.

It wouldn’t be the last time.

‘I was freaking out’

Frantically, Pennel was “blowing up” his mother’s phone. It was early in the morning, about 5 a.m. July 21, 2012, he says. There was no answer, but he kept pressing the call button.

The previous evening, Terri told her son she was going to see a midnight showing of "The Dark Night Rises." There was a movie theater not far from home, Century Aurora 16. Pennel told his mother to call him after the movie, but she never did.

He saw the news alert around sunrise the next morning. A gunman dressed in tactical gear had walked through a side door and opened fire. Twelve were killed, 70 injured. It was one of the largest, ugliest mass shootings in the nation’s history.

“I was freaking out,” Pennel says.

Finally, he contacted his mother. Terri was groggy when she answered the phone. She arrived home late from work, she told him. She never made it to the theater.

“Thank God, God willing, she fell asleep,” Pennel says. “I don’t even like to think about that, if that were to occur. I don’t even know where my head would’ve been at after that.”

Says Terri: “For whatever reason that night, it wasn’t my time. It wasn’t meant for me to go. When I saw that on the news, it just floored me. I was just, like, ‘Wow.’”

Pennel’s mother always told him he was spared from cancer for a reason. There’s a reason she never made it to that movie theater. The fall of 2012 turned out to be a potential “breaking point” for her son, Terri says.

From the moment Pennel arrived at Arizona State, it was a rocky relationship. While other Division I schools recruited him hard after two years at Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College, Terri says, Arizona State remained lukewarm. They chose the Sun Devils anyway, thinking he’d find a way to fit.

Instead, Terri says, their coaching method clashed with her son’s needs.

“One of the things they operate on, ‘We tear you down, and we build you back up.’” Terri said. “With Mike’s background, that has never worked for him.”

Her son needed positive reinforcement, Terri says. Tough love, yes, but encouragement that he could achieve any goal he set. Instead, he hit a dead end.

Pennel was suspended for the second game of the season against Illinois. Three weeks later, after staying on the sideline during a Sun Devils win at California, he posted his displeasure on Twitter. Graham suspended him a second time. Pennel returned three weeks later against UCLA, but was suspended a third time later in the season.

Terri remembers the phone calls she’d get from her son. Arizona State’s “tear you down” philosophy made him question his ability, something he’d never done before. Pennel saw his NFL future slipping away. Once again, Mom kept him positive.

“It was devastating,” Pennel says. “I would call her every day almost in tears, just like, ‘Man, I just don’t know what to do.’ She would always do her best to keep me motivated, keep my head on the right track. She was just like, ‘Whatever route you have to take, just keep putting your head toward it. I’m going to support you, son.’

“Without her, I don’t know where I would be at.”

Pennel arrived at Arizona State as one of the nation’s premier junior college prospects. He only played five games, with four tackles. Desperate, Pennel decided to leave Arizona State after one season.

His new path took him home.

‘Believe in second chances’

John Wristen saw the natural size, but Pennel’s athleticism blew him away. One day before practice, Colorado State University-Pueblo’s head coach watched his defensive tackle – all 360 pounds of him – do a backflip.

A man that big, that explosive? It was unbelievable, Wristen thought.

“That was definitely a first,” he says.

CSU-Pueblo, less than two hours south of Aurora, was a much-needed safe haven for Pennel. A Division II program, he was allowed to play immediately, bypassing the NCAA’s transfer rules that force players to sit a year if they leave for another Division I school. After getting a recommendation from Arizona State coaches, Wristen welcomed Pennel into his program.

“Sometimes, kids make mistakes,” Wristen says, “and they’re trying to learn. I believe in second chances, and I believe in helping guys be educated. When I sat down with he and his mom, there was nothing that I was going to be able to say or do. Just, ‘Hey, this is your last chance.’ He took that to heart.”

Wristen saw a kid who deserved another chance, but also one of the most physically gifted defensive linemen he’d come across in two decades as a coach. Even on a small-college field, Pennel looked like an NFL player. “There’s no question,” Wristen says. He started 10 games as a senior, with 36 tackles, six tackles for loss, three sacks and three forced fumbles.

His year at CSU-Pueblo was a renaissance. Pennel rediscovered his joy on the field, something that was missing after Arizona State. He credits Wristen for making football fun again.

“That’s a good man,” Pennel says. “He put the love back in the game for me. He knew what my goals were. He wasn’t upset at my goals or anything like that, you know. I just wanted to do as much as I could for him, because he just allowed me to be me.”

Pennel never lost sight of the NFL. He was always that big 12-year-old doing bear crawls uphill. Wristen recalls Pennel being “very driven” during his year at Pueblo. He showed younger teammates how to work, the coach says.

There were no guarantees Pennel would find a home in professional football. His college career consisted of three teams in four years, the path less traveled. For some NFL teams, Pennel knew, his checkered history would be a red flag.

He was right. Through seven rounds, nobody took a chance on him. Terri admits she was “a little nervous” when her son went undrafted. She feared it was another dead end.

Her son was just getting started.

‘Continue to ascend’

The moment overwhelmed her. Sitting in Lambeau Field’s stands last year, Terri watched the 2014 Green Bay Packers announced out of the tunnel during the team’s annual Family Night. Her son, big No. 64, looked like a body builder on the big screen overhead.

“I just started bawling,” Terri says. “It was like, ‘He actually did it. He’s in there.’ It was just surreal.”

Pennel signed with the Packers as a free agent after last year’s draft. All Terri knew was he signed. Later, she says, Pennel told her he still had to make the 53-man roster.

The chances were slim, but never discouraging. Since he was 5, Pennel believed he was destined to play in the NFL. Built for football. In Green Bay, he had a $3,500 signing bonus and one opportunity.

It didn’t take Pennel long to impress the coaching staff. Mike Trgovac, his defensive line coach, says Pennel’s “God-gifted size” made him an enticing prospect, even coming from a Division II program.

“When he came in,” Trgovac says, “it was obvious he had big size and good movement. That didn’t take us long to figure out. When you have that size and that movement, you already have a step up on some people. Mike’s very important to us because there’s not a lot of guys with his body running around. When you’re 6-foot-5, and you can run like he can and move like he can, there’s not a lot of guys that can do that.”

He’s still young. There’s “a ton” to learn, Trgovac says. At Pueblo, Pennel was able to dominate without trying. He didn’t need to be perfect. If he went all out every play, Wristen says, Pennel probably would’ve hurt somebody.

Now, Pennel can’t overwhelm opponents with size. An NFL field is littered with giants. In the trenches, fundamentals help big bodies become successful linemen.

Even without being a finished product, Pennel has filled a role through the Packers’ first two games. With defensive end Letroy Guion suspended in the first three weeks, someone needed to step up at defensive end. It’s been the second-year, undrafted lineman from CSU-Pueblo, who once saw his NFL future slipping away. Pennel has been a pleasant surprise to those around him.

“You expect a big, tall, wide guy to be powerful,” nose tackle B.J. Raji says, “but he’s very nimble. His instincts are getting a lot better, and his versatility. I never thought with him arriving here that he would be able to actually do a multitude of things up front that he’s asked to do sometimes. I think that’s a credit to him.”

Pennel has come a long way since Arizona State. Even longer from chemotherapy. He doesn’t consider himself a “traditional cancer survivor,” he says. Most days go by without him thinking about it.

Yet, he never lost his resiliency. It’s helped him overcome obstacles, the latest being his climb from undrafted rookie to NFL starter. Pennel didn’t know whether he’d be here, but here he is. He’s determined to make the most of his life.

“I went right when I could’ve went left,” Pennel says. “I’m proud to be a part of this (team), you know. I’m just blessed for all the opportunities. The coaching staff has really been supporting me, and they let me work my way up. I just want to continue to ascend.”

— and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood

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