I believe it was the wise philosopher Robert “Rocky” Balboa who once said: “The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. It's a very mean and nasty place and I don't care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. Nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done!”

(Literal goosebumps every time I watch that scene. Damn.)

Life has been very mean and nasty to Washington Huskies quarterback Michael Penix Jr. It has beat him to his knees — literally — and almost kept him there permanently.

“There were times when I’d wake up the day of the game,” Penix said during a September interview with the Pac-12 Network, “I’d wait until my roommate left, and I’d just lie on the floor, and I’d just cry to God, praying that He’d protect me that day because I knew where my head was at the time, and it wasn’t truly fresh. It was a lot of tears. It was a lot of stuff.”

Michael Penix Jr. is referring to a time in 2021 when he was still a member of the Indiana Hoosiers and attempting to return from the third serious injury he suffered during his college career. After tearing his ACL in 2018 and then suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in 2019, Penix Jr. suffered another torn ACL that ended his COVID-19-shortened 2020 season. When asked by The Athletic what the hardest thing he had ever been through was, Penix responded after a long pause: “2021.” (h/t Bruce Feldman of The Athletic).

“It was hard. I was scared,” Penix said with tears in his eyes. “It’s hard. I was scared to play, but I still tried to. It was just a lot. In my head, I said if I’d gotten hurt again, I was gonna quit football.”

Fortunately, that injury hasn't come yet. After a disappointing 2021 season with the Hoosiers, Penix Jr. followed his offensive coordinator, now Washington Huskies head coach Kalen DeBoer from Bloomington to Seattle to play for the Huskies, and all Penix Jr. has done since then is win football games. In his two seasons at Washington, Penix Jr. has compiled a 24-2 record, thrown for 8,859 yards and 64 touchdowns, and has finished in the top eight of the Heisman Trophy voting in back-to-back seasons, including a runner-up finish behind Jayden Daniels this year. He led Washington to an Alamo Bowl win over the Texas Longhorns last year, and will look to ensure that history repeats itself on January 1st in the College Football Playoff, when the Huskies once again face the Longhorns, this time with MUCH higher stakes.

“I felt like I had more to do here,” Penix Jr. told The Athletic back in April. “I wanted more — not just out of myself but out of this team, for this team, for this university and for this city.”

The “more” that Michael Penix Jr. wanted was a College Football Playoff appearance, and with that, a National Championship. When asked if he viewed this season as “Playoff or bust,” Penix Jr. responded, this time without a long pause, “Yup. That's me.”

Michael Penix Jr. holding Pac-12 title mvp

Despite an 11-2 record last year, Washington entered the 2023 season as a well-respected Pac-12 contender, but a tier below what most people considered to be the upper echelon of championship contenders. Even within their own conference, it seemed as if both Oregon and USC came into the year with more-discussed National Title expectations. The Utah Utes were the defending Pac-12 champions, and Deion Sanders had turned Colorado into the talk of the college football world. All year long, Washington was somehow an afterthought. Even after defeating the Oregon Ducks in the regular season, Washington came into their Pac-12 Championship rematch against Oregon as a touchdown underdog. But as I said before, since Penix Jr. has arrived at Washington, all he's done has win football games.

Now the Huskies are 13-0 and two College Football Playoff wins away from their first national title since 1991. It would not only be a fitting conclusion for the soon-to-be defunct Pac-12 conference, but also to the college career of Michael Penix Jr., who has only come to appreciate his opportunity to play this game on a big stage even more now that it had nearly been taken away from him multiple times.

“I just love the game so much now. I didn’t want to give it up, but obviously going through what I was going through, it was hard. But I couldn’t give up because I have so many people depending on me and looking up to me. So, if I can play, I was gonna play.”

Somehow, Penix has found it in himself to take the hits and keep moving forward. Keep playing. Keep winning.