But despite his 29th birthday quickly approaching, and long removed from his All-Scholastic career at Whittier Tech, Pena isn’t ready to step away from the sport he loves.
“My mother always jokes that I just have to get the sport out of my system,” said Pena with a laugh. “But I just love football. There’s nothing like it. My body still feels great and I just can’t wait to get back out onto the field.”
More than a decade after most of his Wildcats teammates hung up their pads for the final time, the Lawrence resident is beginning a new chapter in his football career.
On Friday, Pena will start at defensive back for the expansion New Hampshire Brigade of the Can-Am Indoor (Arena) Football League.
The Brigade will open their season by traveling to the Vermont Bucks on Friday. They will play their first home game — at JFK Coliseum in Manchester, N.H., — on April 7 at 7 p.m.
“It’s going to be electric,” said Pena. “It’s a semi-dream come true to play a form of professional football. It may only be about $200 a game, but I have always dreamed of playing some kind of professional football. I like to say it’s a small check in a big box, but it’s still a check!”
How thrilled are the Brigade to have the former Eagle-Tribune All-Star on their roster? Pena was so impressive in their first tryout that he became the first player the team signed to a contract. He was then front-and-center for the team’s introductory press conference.
“Signing Jay was a no-brainer,” said New Hampshire coach Mark Stevens. “We drew guys form all over the place, some right out of college. Jay impressed us right away. He’s a bigger defensive back that covers well, sees the field and knows how to tackle. He’s a complete player and we’re really excited to have him.”
It’s been quite a journey for Pena — an assistant football coach at Brooks School — on the gridiron, from Division 1 college recruit to semi-pro nomad.
Pena became a superstar at Whittier (class of 2006). As a senior, Pena made 11 interceptions and 70 tackles, rushed for 712 yards, had 328 receiving yards and scored a team-high 17 touchdowns. That two-way dominance helped lead the Wildcats to the EMass. Division 3 Super Bowl, falling to Medfield in a thriller 28-22.
With his combination of All-Scholastic performance and blazing speed — he was twice an Eagle-Tribune All-Star in the 100-meter dash, running a career-best 11.01 — earned Pena a full scholarship to play defensive back at Division 1-AA power Delaware.
After academic problems forced him to sit out a year, Pena impressed once he hit the field for the Blue Hens. He made 11 tackles as a redshirt freshman, then dominated the spring game.
But academic problems cropped up once again, and he left the team after becoming academically ineligible.
“I was doing a tight-rope walk with my grade point average every year and the longer you play with fire you are going to get burned,” he remembered. “I needed to keep a 2.0 GPA to play, and I had a 1.98. It was a huge life lesson.”
Pena returned to Lawrence, and eventually the football itch returned.
He made his comeback in 2013 with the semipro Merrimack Valley Pride, then played seasons with the Lawrence Natives and the elite Lowell Nor’easter.
Pena’s performance on the semipro scene helped draw the attention of the Brigade.
“Another member of our coaching staff knew Jay,” said Stevens. “I looked at film of him and knew this was the kind of guy we wanted. You could see how smart he is about the game. And he is in excellent shape. I didn’t even ask about his age.”
Pena attended a tryout in December, and that was enough to sell the team.
“Since high school I’ve always believed I could do whatever I put my mind to,” he said. “I got my weight down from about 230 pounds to 208. We ran the 40-yard dash at the tryout and I ran it in 4.4 seconds hand-timed, so about 4.6 seconds electric (FAT) timed. I was one of the fastest guys there, and some were right out of college.”
After playing offense and defense in semipro, Pena will primarily focus on defensive back with the Brigade, while learning the ins and outs of the arena football game.
“I tried out as a defensive back,” he said. “I love playing DB, and I’m excited to be there. But I did tell them that if they needed a receiver or backup QB I could do that too. With a roster of only 22 players on game days, including one kicker, everyone has to think about playing two ways.
“Arena football is a lot faster and the rules are interesting. There’s a lot of motion, and will the small field the game is quick. There are no safeties, just corner backs so it’s a lot of man-to-man. I’m a bigger guy, so when I’m in press I told the coaches I’m going to push the receiver into the walls.”
Pena — who works as a “retirement specialist” overseeing retirement funds — is thrilled to start the season.
“I can’t wait for the first game,” he sad. “It will be fun to start on the road and hopefully quiet their crowd. I know I’m older for a skill player, but I feel great. I feel like I could keep playing football for a few more years.
“This is a new challenge and I can’t wait. And that we are getting paid a little, instead of paying like in semipro, makes it a little easier to explain playing to our families.”
Brigade at a Glance
Sport: Indoor “arena” football. Eight players on offense and defense, played on a 50-yard field.
League: Canadian-American Indoor Football league
Home: JFK Coliseum in Manchester, N.H.
Coach: Mark Stevens
Record: Inaugural season
Schedule: Eight games, six home, two away
Local ties: In addition to former Whittier superstar Jay Pena of Lawrence, the team also features defensive lineman/linebacker Christian Guzman (Lawrence), receiver Jari Plaud (Lawrence) and receiver/defensive back Omari Mobley (Merrimack College).