Penz delivers at St. Olaf
Nate Penz wasn't sure he even wanted to play football after his senior year at Rochester Mayo.
It didn't matter that he was arguably the best quarterback the Spartans had ever had, and was the school's all-time leader in passing yards (4,387).
"I'd been playing football since fourth grade and I wasn't sure if my heart was still in it," Penz said. "I'd lost a little bit of my fire that last year of high school football. I just thought, 'Why would I want to sign up to play for another four years?' "
That was then. Penz is now St. Olaf College's starting quarterback, continuing a pipeline from the Penz home to the Northfield private school. All three Penz brothers now have played for the Oles: quarterback Matt, offensive lineman Drew and now another QB, Nate.
Penz also says he's the happiest he's ever been in this game. All it took was a little sales work by then St. Olaf head coach Jerry Olszewski. Olszewski, who convinced Penz that he should give it a try at St. Olaf, is now the first-year head coach at Augustana, in Sioux Falls, S.D.
"There are just a lot of connections to be made playing college football," said Penz, a sophomore who has the Oles off to a 1-1 start. "Maybe it's because you're with these (college) teammates so much. But the relationships are stronger than in high school.
"I wasn't sure if I would find that fire for playing again. But I did, and now I can't imagine myself not playing. There is nothing better."
Penz didn't start at the top. But he has earned his way.
As a freshman, he was just another guy, with virtually no chance he'd be the starter that first season with star and former Mankato West quarterback Dan Dobson a senior and still at the helm. So Penz used the year as a learning experience.
"You go from being a senior in high school (and the star), to being at the bottom of the totem poll," Penz said. "It's humbling. But you're not the only one. There are 30 freshmen coming in every year that face pretty much the same thing."
It didn't take long, though, for Oles teammates to realize that Penz had something special. It wasn't just the way the 6-foot-2, 205-pounder threw and directed the offense. It also was the way he carried himself. St. Olaf first-year head coach Craig Stern — the Oles' former longtime defensive coordinator — said Penz's quiet confidence couldn't be missed.
"Nate is a quiet leader, but he has that self-assuredness about him," Stern said. "This off-season, the guys really responded to him. The competition for starting quarterback was wide open, but you could see them gravitating to Nate being their quarterback. Some guys just have that."
Penz didn't just win over his teammates on the field. He did it off the field, too. The Mayo graduate is much more than a quarterback. He's intelligent, warm-hearted, and the team's designated troubadour.
Penz draws a crowd at St. Olaf with his ability to play the piano and sing. He's not shy about stopping off at the many pianos and keyboards dotting the campus, planting himself, and playing some numbers.
When he does it, a chorus of football players often travel with him and join him in song.
"There are pianos everywhere at St. Olaf," Penz said. "People are so nice and personable here; they come up and listen and sing along. A lot of guys on the team like to sing. Most of them aren't singers, but they like to sing, and they love the piano playing."
And their No. 1 request? "All of Me," by John Legend. Penz happily delivers, both off and on the field.