ORLANDO – After one year of college football — one where he didn’t even play in a game — Gus Penning thought his career may be over.
Though not by his own choice.
Grand Rapids Community College ended its football program after the 2011 season and Penning, of Jenison, was one of the casualties, even more than many others because he had redshirted as a freshman.
“I definitely thought that for a little bit and there was a week or two where I didn’t think I’d play again,” he said this past week.
But from that point forward, things ended up working out just fine.
“I had some options open up — one of them was in California — and that was a great experience at Riverside (City College),” Penning said.
A year there got him ranked as the No. 25 overall junior college recruit and No. 3 tight end. The Baylor coaches were looking and came after him.
Jenison-Grand Rapids-Riverside, Calif.-Waco, Texas is not the most direct route. But Penning is excited heading into his final college game in Tuesday’s Russell Athletic Bowl against North Carolina at the Citrus Bowl.
After All-Big 12 candidate Tre’Von Armstead was dismissed from the program early in the season, Penning became the starting tight end on one of the nation’s premier programs.
While tight end is not a targeted position in the Baylor offense, he had five catches for 101 yards — including a 39-yarder against Oklahoma — and impressed the Big 12 coaches enough to earn honorable mention all-conference.
“Time opened up and I took advantage of it,” Penning said. “I was pretty far back on the depth chart, especially going into the first game. Some unfortunate things happened but I kept trying to work hard.”
The Oklahoma catch led to an injury and missing the two-overtime loss to TCU, but Penning is back and healthy now.
Getting so much action is a thrill for Penning, who has had quite a 2015. He graduated in May with a degree in health, kinesiology and leisure studies and soon after went on a mission trip to Brazil with a number of his teammates and other athletes as part of the sports ministry.
In Rio de Janeiro and another Brazilian city, Maceio, they taught American football to the locals while spreading Christianity.
“Some of the guys were joking (this week) that the humidity reminds us of Brazil,” Penning said.
With his final game at hand, and expecting 11 family members attending, Penning is trying not to look back at his winding road. Instead he’s appreciating that Baylor found him and the past three years he spent with the program.
“He’s a great player, a great team guy,” Baylor coach Art Briles said. “He’s just a guy that really possesses a lot of athletic ability, can run, can play inside or outside. He’s kind of been injured for about a four-week period that slowed down his playing time. But I think he’s healthy. … He’s had some real big plays. … A guy we’ve got a lot of confidence in and we trust him as a person and a player.”
Penning isn’t trying to look too far ahead but thinks he may have a future playing football. He knows his sports degree from Baylor can be used in the future.
He’ll get impressive exposure as all of the NFL clubs should be sending scouts to Baylor’s pro day with the talent there.
Briles thinks a pro career is possible.
“I certainly do,” Briles said. “His skill level is really good. He’s 250-some pounds and he can run.”
Considering where Penning started, he has already beaten the odds.
Contact Mark Snyder at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @mark__snyder.