We're No. 2! The origin story of the Takeaway Pencil

Akron debuts Takeaway Pencil (0:42)

Jordyn Riley rises up to intercept a pass by UAB quarterback Tyler Johnston III and returns it 15 yards to the Akron 42. (0:42)

First things first. It's the Takeaway Pencil, not the Turnover Pencil.

At Akron, this is an important distinction.

"See, when you get a turnover, it's almost like the offense is giving you the ball," Zips cornerback Jordyn Riley said. "Us as a defense, we like to create takeaways."

The implication the offense had anything to do with it is swept aside. If an offensive player made an error, it's because an Akron defensive player forced him into it. End of story.

That's the idea, at least, and that's how Riley ended up as the first recipient of Akron's Takeaway Pencil, the newest in-game trophy to make its mark on college football.

Riley went into man coverage deep down the right sideline in Saturday's 31-20 loss to UAB, jumped up and intercepted a pass before getting tackled after a short return. He knew what it meant: The Takeaway Pencil, which didn't debut against Illinois the week before, would be waiting for him on the sideline.

"At that moment I'm like, 'OK, it's real now. I've got the pencil. I'm the first one to get the pencil. OK, I gotta show it off,'" he said. "I've got to unleash the pencil to everybody.

"So, I get that pencil, I stand up on a bench and show the crowd. And the crowd was going crazy, which I actually didn't expect to get at first, but they loved it."

So did everyone else.

Since Miami introduced the Turnover Chain to the world in 2017, these types of symbolic rewards have popped up all over the country. Boise State has a throne. Florida State had a backpack. Oregon State has -- we kid you not -- a chainsaw. There have been chalices and crowns and Ric Flair-style robes.

But a pencil?

Riley's first reaction to learning of its existence was shared by a lot of people.

"At first, we're looking at this No. 2 pencil. 'I wonder what this means?'" he said. "It could be academics? We didn't know."

For Akron secondary coach Oscar Rodriguez, it was much more than that.

A two-time cancer survivor, Rodriguez was a given a 7-to-15% chance for survival after a relapse of testicular cancer in 2014. Getting through that, he said, left him as more of a deep thinker. Even the simplest things matter.

"I told [my wife] to find me the biggest No. 2 pencil she could find. And she had it made. It's a real No. 2 pencil. It's made of wood; you can write with it." Akron assistant Oscar Rodriguez

So when he arrived as part of new head coach Tom Arth's staff at Akron before this season -- his first crack at coaching at the FBS level -- it represented a significant moment in his life. Since 2005, Rodriguez has taken a circuitous route through the coaching profession, with stops at the high school, junior college, NAIA, Division II, Division III and FCS levels. He was the Division III national assistant coach of the year in 2017 at La Verne (California) and was on Arth's staff at Chattanooga a year ago.

The challenge they have at Akron is obvious. Since jumping from what is now FCS to the FBS level in 1987, the program has just eight winning seasons, has won eight games just once and is one of 21 FBS programs to have never appeared in the AP Top 25 poll.

Arth's staff came in knowing that a strong foundation was a requirement. And to build that effectively, the coaches reasoned it was important to get buy-in from the older players, not just the ones who will be around beyond this season. That's where the pencil idea started to take form.

"Any time a program is built, nobody ever talks about the foundation that was built in Year 1," Rodriguez said. "Everybody wants to talk about Year 2, Year 3, Year 4 when everything's really good, hitting on all cylinders at a high level.

"We're writing the story. And we're keeping it because in two, three, four years from now when we build this thing like we know we're going to build it, we're going to be able to look back at these guys as the reason. I think it's important to remember that."

During training camp, Rodriguez broke out a custom-made notebook for the defensive players. On the front it said, "Our Story, #OURWAY, Akron Football 2019." To accompany it, he had a stamp made that would be able to imprint "our story, the date and 'Dawgs Gotta Eat.'" When players produced in practice -- sacks, interceptions, forced fumbles, tackles for loss, fumble recovered -- they would stamp the book and sign their names.

The book served its own purpose, but it was also part of a growing theme.

With Akron intent on writing its own story, Rodriguez found there were other ways a pencil would fit, symbolically, beyond its primary function. An eraser, for example, was perfect for defense.

"It's a No. 2 pencil, it's about as foundational as anything can be," Arth said. "When you talk about our program and what our foundation is, it's built on fundamentals, it's built on technique -- and a pencil is a great representation of that."

For a takeaway incentive, it just worked.

And for that, Rodriguez went to his wife, Lauren.

"I told her to find me the biggest No. 2 pencil she could find," he said. "And she had it made. It's a real No. 2 pencil. It's made of wood; you can write with it. I was blown away. There's a reason I married her. She made my vision come to life."

The pencil is 44 inches long and 1.6 inches in diameter and cost about $50. Before the first week of the season, it was finally unveiled to the team and its symbolism explained. It quickly became an important part of the program. If a player forces a takeaway, he gets to sign the pencil immediately, and at the end of the season, the one who signed it the most will get to keep it.

The overwhelmingly positive public response to its public debut on Saturday has been validating, Rodriguez said. He knew it was likely to generate some buzz, but the attention has exceeded any real expectation he had.

At 0-2, the staff also knows Zips still have a long way to go -- and that includes how the pencil is handled on the sideline.

Just after Riley signed it on Saturday, television cameras also caught him nearly poke the eye of a teammate by accident. Although it was a clear violation of the long-established, unwritten code of pencil-holding etiquette, Arth said he wasn't concerned about future issues.

"Takeaways happen when technique meets awareness, and I think our guys have pretty good awareness on the defensive side of the ball," he said, fighting back a smile. "So I don't think we should be worried too much about that."