Eleven yards may not seem like a long way for most people, but for Florida State running back Mario Pender it was the culmination of a two-year journey and the start of another. Pender arrived at Florida State during the summer of 2012. He was rated as a 5-star running back by Scout.com and was considered an instant impact type of player.
Unfortunately, a severe groin injury at the beginning of fall camp prevented him from playing his freshman season. He made his way back from the injury and was expected to contribute last season until he was declared academically ineligible right before Florida State’s first game at Pittsburgh. When this happened many fans questioned whether he would ever play a down in the garnet and gold. Pender himself wondered whether he would be able to make it back.
“When it first happened. The first year it was an injury and I had to take that loss,” Pender said. “The second I take full responsibility for that. I felt down for a while, but James Wilder and Devonta Freeman really stuck by my side and showed me that there was something to still work for and that I couldn’t give up. Even coach Fisher. There’s a great support system here and I just felt like I couldn’t give up on the support system.”
Pender used that support system well and was named to the academic warrior board for the fall semester following his placement on academic probation. The academic warrior board is reserved for the players that achieve above a 3.0 GPA that semester. Just when things started to look up for Pender, he hit another snag. Right before Florida State left for the national championship game Pender was involved in an incident with former Florida State offensive lineman Ira Denson that resulted in his half brother being shot. Denson stole Pender’s credit card and Pender retaliated by taking Denson’s shoes as collateral. The two agreed to exchange the shoes for the card, but during the meeting shots were fired by Denson’s companion. Pender never faced any charges, but he still felt he let the team down.
“I just felt like I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing,” Pender said. “Now that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, and keeping my faith in god, and trying to strive for greatness.”
He was able to participate in spring practice and during the spring semester he was again named to the academic warrior board. He had to deal with a minor injury in the spring, but was ready to go for fall camp where he took second team reps behind Karlos Williams. Jimbo Fisher has praised Pender’s work ethic and dedication multiple times.
“Let me tell you something, I am so proud of him,” Fisher said. “What he has overcome, what he has went through. From the things he had going on here he had to overcome, even in his personal life he had issues he couldn’t control. He overcame a lot and has really grown as a human being. I’ve said this before, an extremely intelligent man, great heart, good person. What he has overcome to get to where he is at, I can’t wait for him to have success. I really can’t. It says a lot about that guy’s character. There’s a lot more inside that guy than people ever give him credit for. We always see the outside, we always see the different things that go on, but there’s a lot to him inside. To me, that’s one thing about college coaching that makes it very special.”
Last Saturday Pender was able to put on his uniform for the first time knowing he had a chance to play. After all the time he had spent working, he was more than ready to get his chance in a game.
“I was in coach Graham’s hip pocket the whole time,” Pender said. “He turned around and looked at me and said ‘Get ready”, but I was already ready.”
The first time he stepped into the huddle he couldn’t help feeling nervous, but Jameis Winston calmed him down immediately.
“Right when I got in the game Jameis looked back at me,” said Pender. “He saw it was me and he looked back again and he winked. He definitely brings a comfort when you get into the game. He takes that bubbly-gut feeling and removes it. When you can look at him and he’s feeling good, so I had to back him up.”
It took a few plays for Pender to get his first carry, but when he did he made the most of his opportunity with an eleven-yard touchdown run. Pender cut back into a wide-open lane before making two players miss and running over another defender on his way to the endzone.
“It was a wide-open cutback lane and I knew once I hit the cutback it was full speed from there,” Pender said. “I had no where to go so it was just me and him, and I was like ‘one of us has to win this battle’.”
Pender finished the game with three carries for 31 yards and a touchdown, but Jimbo Fisher expects him to have a bigger role in the upcoming games. Pender has already overcome enormous odds to get into this position. Now it is time for him to take the next step and become the great player Florida State fans hoped he would be when he came on campus two years ago.