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Friends clash this week


They are two quarterbacks, one from the streets of Washington, D.C. and the other from the hills of Tennessee, connected by the tradition they've established. They are Marshall quarterbacks and proud of it.

This Sunday, Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich will face each other when the Jets host the Jaguars at Giants Stadium. It will be the first-ever meeting on a pro football field for the two quarterbacks who've taken the Marshall University football program to its lofty heights of recent years.

"The first day I was there, he bought me my first lunch," Leftwich says of Pennington. "He taught me the quarterback position and how to be successful; how to prepare yourself, how to watch film. He taught me defenses and everything."

Leftwich arrived at Marshall in 1998 and he and Pennington quickly became best friends. Pennington was heading into his junior season; Leftwich had made his way from D.C. to the cozy campus tucked in the West Virginia hills. Pennington was a star headed for a first-round pick in the NFL draft; Leftwich would become the same. Along the way, the torch was passed.

"Coming out of high school, you have no idea. At Marshall, they ask the quarterback to win football games. I was calling 85 percent of my plays, at the line of scrimmage. You have to know what you're doing," Leftwich said of his experience under Marshall coach Bob Pruett.

Apparently, Pruett and Marshall know how to produce quarterbacks. Pennington burst onto the scene as one of the game's best young quarterbacks last season, his third year in the league, and Leftwich became the Jaguars' starting quarterback in just his fourth pro game, after having been selected with the seventh overall choice of last April's NFL draft.

Marshall makes quarterbacks. Leftwich is appreciative of what he learned from Pennington.

"He was going to be one of the top players drafted. I got to see how he reacted to certain situations. I got to see how he reacted to the media attention," Leftwich said of Pennington's candidacy for the 1999 Heisman Trophy, which left Pennington fifth in the balloting.

Leftwich followed an almost identical route. He re-wrote the record books at Marshall and made his own bid for the Heisman, which ended with a sixth-place finish in the 2002 balloting. That the small school in the West Virginia hills would have three players (Randy Moss was fourth in the 1997 Heisman balloting) finish in the top six of the Heisman voting over a six-year period is nearly unbelievable for those who know the painful years of the school's recovery from having lost its team in a plane crash in 1970.

Pennington and Leftwich stand proudly as symbols of that recovery. They are starting quarterbacks in the NFL. They remain best friends.

"I think we first met at McDonalds after a workout in the summer time," Pennington said. "But we've always had a great relationship. We always studied together, talked football together, and always attempted to make each other better.

"It will be a neat experience," Pennington added of facing Leftwich this Sunday. "If you think about all the great quarterbacks to come through this league and all the great institutions that are represented in this league, to have two quarterbacks from the same university, from the same small university, is a pretty neat experience."

"I talk to him about once a week. He was one of the first people who called me," Leftwich said of the day last fall when Leftwich broke his left tibia in a game against Akron. Television repeatedly showed the highlight of Leftwich being carried downfield by his offensive linemen after having completed a long pass.

Then, this past summer, Pennington broke his wrist in a preseason game. "My mother said, 'Guess what, Chad hurt his wrist.' I talked to him and he said it wasn't good," Leftwich said.

Pennington's back in action, now, just in time to square off against his college buddy, who happens to be the league's only rookie quarterback who is currently a starter. Ranked in the middle of the AFC passer ratings and ahead of four of last season's six Pro-Bowl quarterbacks after week 10 of the NFL season, Leftwich could be headed for rookie of the year honors.

"I knew he would play well," Pennington said, "because his attitude and determination are unbelievable. You combine that with his physical skills of throwing the football and you are going to see some success. He is just going to keep getting better and better as time goes on. In the next two or three years, he is going to be one of the top quarterbacks.

"We talk about what we are going through each week," Pennington added. "We talk about how the games went the week before. Sometimes we talk about the offense because we are both running similar offenses. We just kind of talk about what he is going through as a rookie, and I try to tell him about some of my rookie experiences."

They won't spend much time talking to each other this Sunday afternoon. The friendship will be put on hold for three hours.

"We're great friends, but we both want this game bad. We both want bragging rights," Leftwich said.

Then it'll be back to normal: Two kids from distinctly different backgrounds linked by their friendship and the torch one passed to the other and the tradition they represent.

"I look at him as a really good friend," Pennington said. "I want to make sure he is on the right path and everything is going smoothly for him. I take pride in that."

"That's truly a family atmosphere," Leftwich said of Marshall. "When you play there, you're part of something special. You don't know what it is, but you're glad to be a part of it."

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