St. Thomas More football head coach Jason Manson recalls the first time he got to see his new team during the hiring process in 2019. Manson stepped into the weight room and one physical specimen immediately caught his eye with the bevy of weights he had lifted on his shoulders.
That player was Wilfried Pene, the 6-foot-3, 235-pound tight end who’s a part of Virginia Tech’s 2020 recruiting class.
“When I came then, he was one of the first kids who I saw in the weight room putting in work. He was doing squats at the time and had a good amount of weight on there,” Manson said with a laugh. “I was really impressed by that. That was my first interaction with him, just watching him in the weight room while I was doing my business in the interview process.”
What stands out about Pene, though, is that he didn’t start playing football until four years ago. A native of Touraine, France, fútbol is the main attraction. Pene wasn’t even exposed to American football until a happenstance encounter.
“I really discovered American football one day by going to what here in France we call ‘open sports.’ This is where all the different sports disciplines show up,” Pene said. “It intrigued me, and I went and since I have not stopped.”
Pene immediately found a French league where he could play, even joining Les Spartiates d’Amiens, a team in the top American football league in France in 2018. However, Pene’s talent quickly exceeded the level in his home country.
Others also took notice overseas.
“I saw that I had the opportunity to play in the United States when a team from Florida contacted me to play in their high school,” Pene said. “But because of the financial costs, which cost way too much, I declined the offer. But one day a friend of mine who also had contacts in the United States introduced me, then I came to the United States. All this is done really quickly at the end of my season in June 2018.”
That landing spot was at St. Thomas More, a college preparatory in Oakdale, Connecticut. It wasn’t always easy for Pene, though. The move came with many adjustments both on and off the field, including the sacrifices of leaving family and friends behind in France.
“The biggest adjustments at the football level were especially at the speed level, to see you play faster compared to France,” Pene said. “Then in general life, the sacrifices I had to make… I really devoted myself more to this sport, so that’s really what I had to adjust.
“The language difficulty for me was necessary learning. Coming to the United States, my level in English was very low. It is in the past two years that I have really learned to speak in English. At the beginning it is true that I stayed quiet on my side, or with my friend who also spoke French, but since this year I really tried to speak with everyone, all my teammates, and my English has improved a lot.”
With the hope for a better future in football being the sole purpose for Pene’s move from France to Connecticut, it created a drive in him to make sure his risk paid off. It resulted in extra work and a dedication to all aspects of the game.
“A lot of guys talk about how much they love football, they’re football junkies, but he actually backed it up and lived it,” Manson said. “He was always at every workout, and he approached it the same to the best of his ability. He competed, didn’t miss days, and he would always ask questions to make himself better. Truly, truly, truly one of those great work ethic kids, and having to prove it on a daily basis was kind of his mentality.”
Pene’s prowess in the weight room and in the moments of work when no one was watching wasn’t outmatched by his production or smarts on the field, either.
In fact, when Manson arrived in 2019, he installed a new playbook and sent it to Pene who was in France on break. When he came back for camp, Pene had it mastered, and it showed during his senior season. The tight end grabbed eight balls for 183 yards and four touchdowns while compiling 47 tackles, 15.5 sacks, and three forced fumbles at defensive end.
“As I took over, we showed him the playbook because he was in France at the time,” Manson said. “He came into camp, he didn’t miss a beat. I thought he would be behind, it would take him a couple days to catch up, but he was right on point from day one. That really stuck out to me was one, how much he wanted it, and two, how smart he really is as far as learning a new playbook especially the offense. The offense really changed. Learning a new offensive scheme without being coached and just looking at PowerPoint slides and stuff like that.
“He was raw at some things, in particular on the offensive side. On the defensive side, his instincts were phenomenal. He was quick, he was explosive, physical. Offensively, you could tell he needs to get a little bit better on route running and things like that. Learning some of the intricate details of the tight end position, but when it came to blocking and catching the ball, he was pretty smooth and fluid with it.”
Now, once the 2020 season rolls around, Pene will join punter Oscar Bradburn as the only international players on Virginia Tech’s roster. It might seem like an odd destination for the Frenchman, but there was something different when he stepped foot in Blacksburg.
“What I really liked about Virginia Tech is this family aspect, friendliness between the players, and the coach [Justin Fuente],” Pene said. “Then, also this aspect with the fans that makes you feel really loved on campus.”
Pene’s ability on the defensive side of the ball is initially what drew the attention of the Hokies. His explosiveness, bend, and combination of speed and power off the edge was a game changer. However, the promise of him in all the phases of the game as a tight end could not be overlooked.
Virginia Tech tight end Dalton Keene declared for the draft after his junior season and was just drafted by the New England Patriots in the third round. While players like James Mitchell and Nick Gallo aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, it does open the door for Pene to come in and potentially be the Swiss Army knife that Keene was to have an impact right away.
“I think that once he truly learns the tight end spot with the stuff that Virginia Tech does that I saw in the recruitment process,” Manson said. “They’ve got tight ends split out as receivers, they’ve got them in the backfield, they’ve got them on the line in traditional spots, so that is what he is. He’s very versatile. Once he learns that, I think he’ll be phenomenal at it… He could go in and play defensive end, but tight end once he learns it in his first year, I think he’s going to flourish and really be something.”
Either way, Pene is already taking a step forward and putting France on the map in American football. According to a 2019 survey, there were no other French players in Division I FBS football. Anthony Mahoungou, a native of Paris, played three years at Purdue and was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Eagles in 2018 before being cut. Only four players born in France have played in a game in the NFL.
“Having seen the path of Anthony Mahoungou really made me want to follow this way of playing in the USA,” Pene said. “A great responsibility is what it means to me to be a Frenchman who will play in a large American division.”