Seahawks rookie Rashaad Penny met Donnel Pumphrey at San Diego State, where the two running backs shared a backfield. Later they discovered they share a family, too.
Donnel Pumphrey always felt like family.
Of course, Rashaad Penny never met him before they shared a backfield at San Diego State. When Penny got there in 2014, Pumphrey was already an established entity — a 5-foot-9, 180-pound running back who ripped off 986 total yards and 10 touchdowns in his freshman season. He’d eventually close a decorated four-year Aztec career with an NCAA FBS record 6,405 rushing yards.
And, considering that Penny was only one year younger, that might seem like unfortunate news. After all, there were only so many carries to go around.
So what kept Penny — now a rookie running back for the Seahawks — at San Diego State?
“There isn’t a selfish bone in his body,” said Jeff Horton, San Diego State’s offensive coordinator and running backs coach. “He just kept grinding. He admired Donnel Pumphrey, who was in front of him, and he looked to learn from him every day.”
So Penny learned … and waited. In his freshman season, the 5-11, 220-pound running back earned just two carries for 22 yards.
While Pumphrey starred, Penny stalled.
But his talent was already evident.
“They used to not let me participate in the training camps in college,” Pumphrey, who was drafted by the Eagles in 2017 and is currently with the Detroit Lions, told The Times last month. “That’s how our offensive coaches treated the starters. They don’t really take live reps. So he’d be the one taking the reps and I’d see him break long runs and all that. That’s with the No. 2 linemen, the No. 3 linemen. That’s how I knew he was very special.
“He was just a quiet dude when he first came in. Once I saw his personality actually come out and saw his attitude, I just knew he was one of those guys that would end up being a leader on the team.”
The Pumphrey-Penny collaboration reached its zenith in 2016, when Pumphrey (a senior) amassed 2,133 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns, and Penny (a junior) added 1,018 rushing yards and 11 scores.
Separately, they were dynamic.
Together, they were dominant.
“It was one of those things where if I wasn’t feeling it that game, he knew he had to pick it up,” Pumphrey said. “It was the same thing the other way. When I got tired he just knew and he ran right in. We just knew each other.”
Added Penny: We were just always close, but the funny thing is that me and Donnel always had this type of relationship – this type of bond. We would get mad at each other. Our competition level was just like brothers at the end of the day.”
Of course, Penny was proven wrong about that. They weren’t brothers.
They were cousins.
The discovery came in the wake of a 55-0 home win over Hawaii in 2016, when Pumphrey and Penny’s families got to talking in the parking lot outside SDCCU Stadium.
Turns out, Penny’s grandfather’s cousin is Pumphrey’s aunt — or something like that.
“I’ve got to see the certificates on that stuff,” Horton said with a laugh. “I don’t know how much I believe in that.”
But Penny believes it, and Pumphrey believes it. In a weird way, they always did.
“We always had a relationship where it seemed like it was family,” Penny said. “Everything we did. We fought like we were family. We always complemented each other. That’s just how it was. Off the field, on the field, we were always together.”
That all changed in 2017, when Pumphrey was drafted in the fourth round by the Philadelphia Eagles and Penny finally found the spotlight at San Diego State. In his first and only season as the outright starter, Penny led the nation with 2,248 rushing yards and scored a total of 28 touchdowns.
Suffice to say, his patience finally paid off.
“I always knew my opportunity would come,” Penny said. “Once I got the opportunity, I knew there was no way I could shy away from the moment. It led me to be doing what I’m doing now. I’m glad I waited.”
Added Horton: “With what he brought daily, all the accolades that came along as the season went on, he really put the team on his back. With the kick returns, with the offensive yards he was piling up, with the victories, it was just a phenomenal year. I was glad I had a great seat for it.”
Unfortunately, not everyone nationally shared as great a seat. Despite leading the country in rushing, Penny was not named one of three finalists for the Doak Walker Award — which honors college football’s premier running back.
“I always said a 22-year-old kid handled that a lot better than a 60-year-old man, because I was upset,” Horton said. “I’m not naïve enough not to know he’s not going to win the Doak Walker or the Heisman. But especially with the Doak Walker, at that point he was the leading rusher in the nation. He had the most all-purpose yards in the nation. To not even be in the final three, that’s mind-blowing.
“How do you explain that? What’s the criteria to win that award? He always did the right thing on and off the field. There weren’t any character issues. So just explain what you’re basing this on, because obviously you’re not basing it on who’s the best running back in the country.”
So, to right some indefensible wrongs, San Diego State held its own ceremony, where it honored Penny with the Doak Walker Award he technically never won. The program hired an emcee and handed out a trophy and everything.
The entire school showed up.
“I’ve never been a part of something like that,” Penny said. “The award speaks for itself. It’s given to the best running back. I had a staff over there and teammates and a whole city around me who knew who the best running back was. So I really wasn’t upset. I just had to deal with it.”
It appears the Seahawks, too, knew who the best running back was. Last spring, they selected Penny with the 27th overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft.
The rookie running back probably won’t start in his professional debut against the Denver Broncos on Sunday, with Chris Carson likely taking the opening carry of the game.
Still, judging by his stint at San Diego State, patience is not a problem.
“It was meant to be,” Penny said of a college career spent alongside his newfound cousin. “To look after him for three years and then finally get a shot, it was awesome.”