Trevor Penning

On Thursday, April 28, Trevor Penning made history as the first player from the University of Northern Iowa to be selected in the first round of the NFL draft.

Penning, an offensive tackle who graduated in December 2021 with a degree in movement and exercise science and a minor in coaching, was picked 19th overall by the New Orleans Saints. His first-round selection tops Brad Meester’s second-round choice by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2000.

“Every year I was at UNI, my goals kept climbing,” said Penning, “At first, my goal was to get drafted. Then I wanted to get drafted in the top three rounds. Then my goal just became to get drafted as high as I could.”

Penning met his goal and made history in the process. But, of course, it was no simple task.

“Coming into UNI, I was small and underdeveloped, just kind of the shell of what I am now,” Penning recalled. “All my coaches — Mark Farley, Ryan Clanton, Jed Smith — they helped me a ton and really contributed to where I am today.”

Farley, the head coach for UNI football, has had no shortage of good things to say about Penning — on and off the field.

“Trevor's special, because when you put his helmet on, he's a tenacious player,” Farley said following Pro Day when top college football players are evaluated by the NFL. “You take the helmet off, and he's one of the nicest guys you want to be around.”

For someone who has advanced to the highest levels of football, it may be surprising to know that Penning’s first sport was baseball. He grew up playing both sports, along with basketball and track and field, in Clear Lake, Iowa. As a sophomore at Newman Catholic High school, he quit baseball to dedicate more time to football.

“I grew up and realized football was my calling,” said Penning. “I was decent at baseball, but I thought my future was a lot brighter in football.”

Now, Penning describes football as “the best team sport there is,” with the high level of competitiveness being one of his favorite things about the sport. 

“I got pretty good at it, and it’s fun when you’re good at something,” he said.

Penning has the accolades to prove just how “good” he is, including earning first-team All-Missouri Valley Football conference recognition during the 2021 season. That same year, he was also named a finalist for the Walter Payton Award which distinguishes the most outstanding offensive player in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision. 

Penning signed with the University of Northern Iowa after graduating high school in 2017. He was a redshirt for his first year, meaning he took the season off of playing games to train. During the 2018 season, he saw action on the field in four games. Finally, in the 2019 season, he played and started in all 15 games.

During the canceled COVID season of 2020, Penning still found ways to exercise his competitive nature. It was easy since he was quarantined with his younger brother, Jared, at his mom’s house in Clear Lake.

Penning describes the two seasons of getting to start with his brother, an offensive lineman who is now a junior at UNI, as the highlight of his college experience. While the brothers are only two years apart, they attended separate high schools, making college the first time they played together. 

“That’s something I'll definitely look back on when I'm older as a super cool experience.”

While Penning describes himself and his brother as two “super competitive people” who hate to lose, he also said they typically agreed with each other on the field. Their games of pickup basketball at their mom’s house, however, could quickly get out of hand since they were no longer on the same team.

“That stuff got competitive,” he said. “We would go hard at each other.”

Penning also has a younger sister and describes his mom as his biggest supporter, saying she was there to cheer him on at nearly every game during his college career. 

Leading up to the draft, Penning’s daily life was dominated by workouts. He would spend the afternoons in interviews with various media outlets then, in the evenings, his goal was to simply relax, knowing that in the not-too-distant future he could be moving anywhere in the country and his life would be changing forever. 

“There's a lot going on, but it's exciting,” Penning said. “Being able to be in this situation is definitely a cool experience. I wouldn't change it for anything.”

While he knew he would be nervous the night of the draft, he remained calm knowing the outcome would be out of his hands. However, he is excited to have fewer unknowns in his life.

“I’m looking forward to putting all this pre-draft stuff behind me and just worrying about playing good football.