FVSU player ready for next unique chapter

FORT VALLEY — When the final horn sounds late Saturday afternoon, it will probably be the final time Sergio Pengel hears that as a college football player.

Odds are against Pengel and Fort Valley State getting a Division II playoff berth even if they can knock off Albany State in the 20th Fountain City Classic.

So with the conclusion of that game comes the end of yet another chapter in Pengel’s journey.

It hasn’t been the normal journey for the typical college football player, let alone one at a small historically black college.

Pengel was born in Suriname in South America, spent some of his formative years in the Netherlands, speaks four languages and has been pretty much on his own for about a decade.

“I’ve been by myself most of the time since I’ve been here,” said Pengel, a defensive end who graduated from Berkmar and has been one of FVSU’s top tacklers for two of his four seasons. “It’s the journey that my life took. I know how to roll with the punches.”

Pengel, who turned 25 less than two weeks ago, hasn’t had the senior season he’d hoped.

It began with workouts for the third coaching staff he has played under. He was excited in the preseason about the increase in talent on the team and said there was depth on the defensive line. Those who made up that depth got better as the season went on, which led to a decrease in playing time for Pengel, who was one of the SIAC’s top defensive linemen as a sophomore and junior.

“That teaches me to be humble,” Pengel said. “For three or four years, I’ve been favored. I’ve been a starter, never really seen the bench. I’ve learned how to sit on the sidelines and enjoy the game, knowing you wanted to be out there, knowing you want to be making plays but being patient.

“Things don’t always go the way you want them to, but when they do, make sure you take advantage of it.”

That was just a new version of a familiar story: disrupted plans and dashed hopes.

Pengel had dreams of being a star soccer player when he moved to Georgia at age 14, eight years after his mother died and having spent some time living with his grandmother before she moved to the Netherlands. He lived for different periods of time in Pennsylvania and New York before arriving in Georgia and didn’t meet his father until moving to America.

But reality trumped dreams. He stayed with different relatives and had to repeat a grade while working on becoming a legal citizen as well as improving his English.

“I just learned to speak English about 11 years ago,” Pengel said. “It’s the hardest language in the world.”

And it’s one of three he speaks, along with Dutch and Spanish, as well as a European dialect.

Pengel is heard loud and clear on the football field, where he quickly established a reputation as a player of energy, enthusiasm and the vocal expression of energy and enthusiasm.

“Serge, he is different,” senior offensive lineman Collin Cordell said with a smile. “He definitely came from a different atmosphere than everybody else.

“Serge has got a lot of passion for it; he loves it. Serge tries to do anything he can to make the team better. He goes out of his way.”

Robert Jackson has been at FVSU a little longer than Pengel and has a neighboring locker.

“When he’s going, there’s not too much you can say to him,” said Jackson, who is a year younger than Pengel. “Sometimes, I’m like, ‘Serge, chill out, no more caffeine.’ It’s like he’s moving 100 mph. There’s no slowing him down.”

Pengel can’t help it.

“I’m an emotional guy,” he said. “I play the game of football with emotion. I’ve been through so much, and some don’t understand the passion that I have.”

Pengel was living on his own in an apartment in high school, which soon became a hangout for some schoolmates whose home lives left much to be desired. Troublesome situations followed — including the expulsion from high school of seven of his friends — but Pengel stayed out trouble.

He spent a year at Edward Waters, an NAIA school in Jacksonville, Fla., and then went back to north Atlanta, where he said he was a chef who got into the social life a little too much. One day, his car broke down, and a day or two later, an assistant at FVSU called him about giving the Wildcats a try, although there was no football scholarship money available.

He worked out, got some financial aid and soon enough was on the field.

“Everything,” Pengel said, “came into place.”

Pengel has a 2.96 grade point average he promises will rise before he graduates next month.

“I want to graduate with a 3.0,” the business major said. “In high school, I graduated with a 2.96. I didn’t get the Hope Scholarship for that reason. So getting a 3.0 is my goal.”

Pengel is also a member of Toastmasters International and finished second in a regional competition in March.

Pengel’s list of guardian angels is long, from Dr. Linda Carter in Cordele to a teacher in Gwinnett County who stood up for him six or seven years ago and just called him last week to the coach who advised him to take up football so his life would turn from the direction it was in.

He has spent the time since then trying to live up to expectations, to reward the gamble and effort of others.

“You cannot let people like that down,” he said of the coach, the adviser and the teacher, among others. “They gave you a chance. For those simple moments in my life that a person from a different culture that doesn’t know anything about me, to give me a chance, I can do nothing but make something happen out of that.”

If he has no future in football, he wants to be an entrepreneur. Or a coach. Or a teacher.

“Create jobs and opportunities for people,” he said. “There is nothing better than the person who gives you a chance. God has blessed me with those people. I just want to give somebody else a chance.”

The nickname of the town in which he has resided the past several years is fitting as he prepares the end of one chapter at a school he feels indebted to and beginning of another with a future he’s prepared for.

“If you can make out of the valley, you can make it anywhere in life,” he said. “It’s more symbolic than anything. If you can get through the valley, you can get to the top of the valley.

“If you believe, you can just watch it unfold.”