Update: Days after the story was published, Cade Fennegan became the winningest quarterback in Woodrow Wilson History, with 23 career wins after a victory over East Dallas rivals Bryan Adams.
Under the spotlight
Cade Fennegan took a deep breath as he jogged from the locker room through the tunnel, his cleats clicking on the cement floor before he made it onto the turf. The cheers of thousands of fans hit him like a wave while the band heralded the Woodrow Wilson High School football team’s entrance.
The autumn evening in 2015 was on the cusp of sunset as the stadium lights beamed, eliminating shadows on the field. There was nowhere to hide now, and the weight of being a quarterback for a football team in Texas sank in.
As the sinewy 15-year-old went through warm-up throws, Fennegan felt the burden that accompanies being a sophomore quarterback. He would be leading a team of older athletes, responsible for making the right decisions for his teammates’ final games as football players. He was not the fastest and, at 145 pounds, not nearly the biggest.
It was hard work that landed him here.
Fennegan hadn’t played a football game in nearly a year, due to a broken collarbone. Would he be rusty? Would his nerves get to him? Would he be able to live up to expectations?
“I didn’t know if I was going to kill it or tank it,” he says. “It was the most nervous I have ever been in my life.”
His questions were answered as soon as Woodrow received the opening kickoff. From the sidelines, Fennegan watched as the Woodrow return man caught the ball, turning, twisting and dodging would-be tacklers. He didn’t stop running. He took the kick back for a touchdown just seconds into the game, giving the Wildcats a 7-0 cushion without Fennegan stepping onto the field.
The young quarterback felt a weight being lifted, and he breathed without anxiety for the first time since he walked out of the tunnel. He knew the team would be fine, and he hasn’t looked back since.
Fennegan is a senior now, in his third year of leading his team. He has grown from an undersized sophomore into one of the highest-rated passers in the Dallas area, with 11 Division I scholarship offers, from North Texas to the Ivy League, on the table.
When Fennegan explains his most memorable game, he doesn’t choose the game where he lit up the defense, accumulated record-breaking yards and touchdowns, which he certainly has done. If things go according to plan, Fennegan will become the winningest quarterback in the history of Woodrow Wilson, earning more than Davey O’Brien, who ultimatley won the Heisman trophy.
Fennegan says his most indelible game came during his sophomore year, when he threw five interceptions against Newman Smith High School. The defense held tough despite his mistakes, and sent the game into double overtime. A cornerback managed an interception, sealing the game.
“I remember feeling so amped,” he says. “I wasn’t necessarily the reason we were winning, which was definitely awakening in a sense.”
Fennegan doesn’t linger on his prolific performances but revels in the team aspect of the game, learning to lead and be led when the time calls for it. He recounts game after game when the defense made a stop, or when his running back made a big play, and it can be difficult to get him to speak about his own accomplishments. Unlike many football stars, he is quick to point out the games where he tried to do too much, the times his head was too big, or when he took too many risks.
Though it may be hard to find Fennegan beating his chest or singing his own praises, others let the world know.
“With the work he has put in, he has pushed himself to be one of the top 5A quarterbacks in the metroplex,” says head football coach Bobby Estes.
Fennegan credits his upbringing with his refreshing attitude. Between his three younger siblings, his father who played quarterback at Clemson and Brigham Young Universtiy, and his mother who pushed him to join a show choir called Sunshine Generations, he is used to performing, evaluating and leading. He’s a star on the field and the stage, a part of Woodrow’s show choir, Variations, along with major roles in the Woodrow musical.
“Football takes the stress away from school and singing takes away stress from football,” he says.
His religion both gives him perspective on football and complicates his future. Fennegan will head out on a two-year mission after he graduates, as most Mormons do sometime after high school. He could be sent anywhere in the world, and will be asked to work and share his faith with others.
“People take it different ways,” he says. “For some people, you can’t throw it in their face. People don’t react well to that.”
His mission also means he will spend two years away from competitive football, but that hasn’t scared off any of his potential suitors, who are willing to wait until 2020 to give Fennegan a chance to play. There is a long tradition of Mormon players taking a mission and then going on to have great football careers. At least 10 players in the NFL this year have been on Mormon missions.
Fennegan already is the school’s record holder for completions, yards and touchdowns, and will probably finish the season as the quarterback with the most wins in school history. Even as he dominates on the field, he keeps a level head toward his opponents.
“Football is a game, and I love it, but at the end of the day it isn’t worth it if it tears others down,” he says.
It is that kind of attitude that has turned Fennegan into a mentor on the field.
“As a sophomore he was a young man trying to lead, and now we have a young man that is a leader,” Estes says. “It is easy to be a yeller, but Cade is the ideal compassionate leader. There is a sincerity about him that make his teammates want to work for him.”
Fennegan isn’t as struck by the lights or the crowd these days, but this year the team is much more likely to win because of him than despite him. He no longer listens to the energizing speeches in the locker room; he gives them.
This year could see Fennegan win a second district championship. Other teenagers might be anxious about the pressure of Friday night football compounded by an uncertain future, but Fennegan seems undaunted.
“I have learned the principle of grace,” he says. “Win or lose, you have to take what happens and be good about it.”
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