Mannings? Gronkowskis? Meet the dunking, street-racing Pennys, with brother RBs for Giants, Seahawks
The intense 2-on-2 basketball games on holidays at the Penny house rarely end on the court in the front yard.
Someone inevitably boasts about being the fastest of the four brothers and suddenly the hoop no longer matters. Competition spills over into a street race in front of a neighborhood and family audience of about 40.
And poor Robert Penny — trusted to treat his four sons objectively — must switch from calling fouls to judging at the finish line. It’s not always an NFL running back who wins, but the odds are 50/50.
“I’m living in a fantasy,” Robert Penny told NJ Advance Media. “I’m still in a dream.”
Robert is not famous like Archie Manning and his sons are not annual Pro Bowlers like retired twins Ronde and Tiki Barber, but this cross-country truck-driver is part of the exclusive Father’s Day club of multiple sons playing in the NFL: Rashaad is a tailback for the Seahawks and Elijhaa is a fullback for the Giants.
“My pops never forced me to do anything,” Elijhaa told NJ Advance Media. “But what he did tell me is, ‘When you do something, give it everything. Go hard. Don’t waste your time.’ Short, sweet and simple.”
Brionne Penny — the youngest of five siblings, including sister Breonna — will be the fourth Penny son to play college football later this fall, following in Rashaad’s footsteps at San Diego State. The eldest, Robert Jr., changed the family’s athletic path from baseball in childhood to football by taking up the sport in high school.
But the teams in basketball never change despite the 11-year age gap from top to bottom: Rashaad and Robert Jr. versus Elijhaa and Brionne. Everyone wants the slam dunk and 3-pointer.
“Everybody is always on ‘Go!’ mode — even my dad,” Elijhaa said. “You’ve got two kids in the NFL, so that’s a whole lot of competition in the house. It all trickles down.”
And it starts at the top of the family tree: Robert and his wife of 19 years, Desiree, have been a couple for 30 years.
“He doesn’t allow anyone to be better than him at what he does,” Rashaad said via phone. “That’s in anything in life. He’ll still play video games with us. His favorite game is ‘Fight Night,’ and I don’t think I’ve ever beat him. He’s so good at it because he’s so competitive.”
The Penny sons were born in Los Angeles, where their father grew up playing sports with his brothers in the inner city. A favorite NFL cliché is “film don’t lie” but, in this particular film-less case, neither does family.
“He tries to tell stories of how he was the best big point guard in L.A., and how he used to play quarterback,” Rashaad said. “Then I went to my aunts and uncles and they were like, ‘Your dad was the most athletic one.’”
Once Robert’s sons realized he spoke the truth about his nimble feet, they were all ears. When they moved to suburban Norwalk, Calif., he reminded them of the responsibility that comes with blessings.
Elijhaa and Rashaad will take part in a Celebrity Basketball Game next month at their high school alma mater to raise money and school supplies. They teamed up as the faces of the Two Cents Family Foundation, which also hosts an annual football camp in April.
“I just wanted them to be better and not get caught up in street life,” Robert said. “We used to drive around and I would tell them, ‘If you guys make it to any level, don’t forget where you come from. Always have time to help the less fortunate and let kids know they can make it from the same area we came from.’”
Elijhaa, 26, entered the NFL as an undrafted rookie in 2016 and scratched his way to solid standing on a roster. He was idling on the Cardinals practice squad last season when the Giants swooped in with a need.
Rashaad, 23, took a very different route: He led college football in rushing yards and all-purpose yards, finished fifth in the 2017 Heisman Trophy vote and became a first-round draft pick.
“E.J. will always tell you he’s the best running back between us, but we don’t even talk about it. I think it’s no discussion,” Rashaad said, laughing at the memory of his days as a water boy in awe of his second-oldest brother’s skills. “He had his heyday in high school — and he was amazing.”
Actually, Elijhaa says he is well-suited for his new lead-blocker role.
The transition away from primary back last offseason allowed Elijhaa to play in 14 games with his first three career starts, and the Giants did not add fullback competition to the 90-man roster after he re-signed during the offseason.
“I still play a little running back to this day,” said Elijhaa, who had 15 offensive touches on 123 snaps last season. “But fullback fits my lifestyle. I like being low-key. I like doing my job and staying out the way. I don’t want to hurt nobody and nobody hurts me. I get in, do my work and get out.”
‘A real dad’
Robert’s friends like to joke that he is like a softer spoken version of Lavar Ball, whose three sons were basketball stars in Los Angeles. But the Penny family actually has the upper hand: Only one Ball is in the NBA.
Within the Pennys, there was a definite advantage in being the oldest. Robert Jr. could do back flips, jump higher and run faster, Elijhaa recalls.
Or was the advantage in surviving as the youngest? Brionne is the “goofy one” who makes sure the brothers stay in touch when life gets too busy, Rashaad admits.
“The older ones always roughed up the younger ones,” Robert said. “Me and my late dad, who passed away about two years ago, used to be like, ‘Hey, take it easy on him. And then you take it easy on him.’ I finally realized that it made them tougher because the big brother never gave slack.”
It was common to see multiple similar-looking faces to turn in the same direction to settle a debate.
“My dad was always the middle man,” Rashaad said. “Sometimes he couldn’t pick sides because he knew one of us was going to be mad.”
Could he be bribed? Maybe slipped a special Father’s Day gift? Too much integrity, his sons say.
“Every day was like Father’s Day,” Elijhaa said. “Actually, no. Every day was like our birthday. He was always bringing us home gifts. Everyone was like, ‘Y’all always have new shoes on.’”
While Eli Manning might be the ultimate little-brother success story in professional sports, the Giants have half of another set of active NFL brothers: Running back Rod Smith is the older brother and former teammate of Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith.
The Gronkowskis are the gold standard: Four brothers reached the NFL.
But for camaraderie? It’s difficult to top the Pennys.
“The bond between them is like no other,” the biased Robert said. “Sometimes I catch them still sleeping on the same bed, four of them laying in a big bed — just like when they were little.”
Over the years, space became more crowded.
Cousins and friends piled into the Penny house for the sense of competition, the sense of family and the sense of security.
“What made me appreciate my dad even more was seeing my friends and family members who don’t have dads,” Elijhaa said. “Friends will be like, ‘Your dad changed my life’ about my dad. I appreciate having a real dad in my life.”
Peek into the future
Most NFL Sundays in the Penny household involve an early West Coast wake-up to watch the Giants in the early television window on the DirecTV package and a later live showing of the Seahawks.
Had the Cardinals hung onto Elijhaa, there would have been two meetings per season between Penny brothers but conflicting kickoff times most other Sundays.
About 30 family members had plane tickets and hotel rooms booked in Arizona for Week 4 of last season and still made the most of the trip after Elijhaa unexpectedly changed teams. The Giants and Seahawks are not scheduled to meet until 2020 in Seattle.
How will a neutral father finally pick sides? Because Rashaad and San Diego State faced Elijhaa and Idaho in 2014 there is some history to suggest he will be rooting for the Giants — unless the direction of the two franchises changes by then.
“Of course I root individually for them to perform well,” Robert said. “San Diego State was the better program then, so you are the big brother. I pull for the underdog, the little brother.”
Today, they all might pull for the Dodgers.
There is talk that whichever family members make it home from spots around the country are going to the ballpark because Robert remains a huge baseball fan. There might not be a 2-on-2 game or a footrace on Father’s Day.
But the next one is just around the corner.
“We always told him that if we ever made it, we’ll take care of him like he always took care of us,” Rashaad said. “We’re here because of him.”