Former New York Jets and Miami Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington’s first love was basketball when he started playing as a third grader.
At the Webb School in Knoxville, he played high school football, basketball and baseball, although football was seen as his path to college.
Pennington is a member of USA Football’s advisory committee and runs the Central Kentucky Youth Football League in Lexington. He also has been a middle school coach.
Given his background, Pennington has strong beliefs on the ongoing debate about multi-sport athletes:
“I am a complete believer in multiple sports for our youth,” Pennington told USA TODAY High School Sports. “Specialization is a complete disservice to our youth for multiple reasons, including overuse injuries and elbow and ACL injuries happening at much younger ages. I also think multiple sports allows young athletes to compete in different arenas and situations and enhances your best sport.
“The notion that our kids must specialize and find that sport at a young age is completely false. I disagree with it and think it’s wrong. Youth sports entrepreneurs have created 12-month sports to fill their bank accounts instead of focusing on the kids and what’s best for them.”
The analogy Pennington draws is to college freshman who don’t know their major.
“If you’ve been to college and not having a clue as to what you’re going to do for the rest of your life, how in the world can we ask 10 year old to pick a sport?” he said. “They have no clue and don’t know what’s going to change. It’s not healthy for them mentally or physically.”
Pennington’s youth league will be among the 11 pilot sites for USA Football’s Rookie Tackle Program. Part of the program calls for no position specialization in order for young players — mainly under 10 — to be able to experience different parts of the game while they are learning.
Pennington is a supporter of that part of the program with some limitations in order for kids to be build confidence.
“I definitely want our kids to experience both sides of the football in some form or fashion,” he said. “I do want kids to try position based on skill set. Certain positions will accent a player’s skill set and I don’t want them to experience failure. I don’t think playing every position is the key factor.
“That’s why I also encourage flag football so they can continue to develop ball skills even if they are not playing a skill position in the tackle game. Flag and tackle can go hand and hand. If you take a kid without great ball skills and put him in (that type of position), he would have a experience. We don’t want that. Our coaches have been very cognizant of what positions make sense for each player based on skill level.”