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Commentary: Pennington played it straight-on
0310Loran Smith
Loran Smith

Today’s place kickers would consider those upright, square-toe-shoed, straight-on kickers of the past to be relics. Antiques. Like Durward Pennington, whose extra point in the 1959 Georgia-Auburn game enabled the Bulldogs to clinch the Southeastern Conference championship.

A soccer-style kicker would view Pennington, who died on Tuesday of a heart attack while returning from Amelia Island to his home in Gainesville, with such amusement that they probably think his type should be honored by a history museum.

There was more amusement with the way Pete Gogolak place kicked, however, for Cornell in 1961 when he kicked college football’s first soccer-style field goal. Some critics said the style would never last. Pennington that same year was a senior at Georgia and had something of a novel experience when, against Kentucky, he booted a 47-yard field goal — but the Bulldogs were off-sides. Durward backed up five yards and calmly kicked it through again, this time from 52 yards.

After the ‘59 championship season, Pennington played on losing teams the next two years but was regarded as one of the top kickers in college football with his sure-footed style — emanating from a long, swinging leg action that he perfected while growing up in Albany where his coaches Bernie Reid, John Tillitski, and Pat Field were disciples of Wallace Butts.

“There was no question where I was going to school,” Durward told me last spring in Gainesville where he lived out his life. “I had made up my mind that it would be Georgia if I had an opportunity.” With the Bulldogs, he became known as the “Automatic Toe,” leading the team in scoring three straight years. His toe was the difference in the three games Georgia won in 1961.

At Albany High, he played quarterback and safety and came to Georgia expecting to compete for a job at quarterback. However, he learned that there were at least a half dozen candidates at the position — including Fran Tarkenton, Charley Britt, and Tommy Lewis. Opportunity was limited. After his freshman year, Pennington was expecting to ride the bench. With a crowd at quarterback and Dave Lloyd the experienced kicker, Durward was only certain of one thing. He would go to class and keep up with his degree requirements.

Lloyd, a redshirt lineman, suddenly had discipline issues and left for the Cleveland Browns, who had drafted him as a “future” in 1958. Sterling DuPree, the Georgia backfield coach, immediately drove to Albany, looked Pennington up, and handed over a bag of footballs. Pennington would be the Georgia placekicker in the forthcoming serendipitous season of 1959. If there was anything Pennington was keen on, it was the work ethic. He kicked ball after ball during that summer. He kicked so much that his right leg grew two inches bigger than his left.

One of the most interesting developments in his career came early in the ’59 season against Mississippi State at Grant Field in Atlanta. It was a rainy, muddy night, and Durward missed an extra point. Line coach J. B. Whitworth, who also coached the kickers, asked Pennington what happed. Durward said, “It went to the right.” Whitworth said nothing until Monday. After calisthenics, he told Pennington to start running around the football field, which he did for over two hours, even leaving him outside when the team headed to the showers. When Whitworth returned to allow Pennington to take leave, he said, “I’m not punishing you for missing the kick. I’m punishing you for looking up.” Durward would tell the story and grin, “I never looked up again.” After opportunities with the NFL Packers and Buffalo of the old American Football League, Pennington signed with the Bills and ended up with the Raiders. California didn’t suit his down home tastes and lifestyle. He returned to Gainesville and became a high school coach.

Through the years when a kid was down and out, and Durward found out about it, he would often take care of the situation. He was always reaching out to kids. He was the beneficiary of that exposure growing up in Albany and never forgot the meaning of giving of yourself.

Loran Smith was the sideline reporter for Georgia football radio broadcasts for more than four decades and a historian of Georgia athletics.