When the pint-sized players with the oversized shoulder pads for the Pearland Patriots would gather for wind sprints at the end of another practice, an athletic-looking woman would emerge from her car and line up next to them.
It became a daily challenge for the boys in the Pearland (Texas) Youth Football League – trying to finish ahead of Gloria Whittaker in the 20- or 30-yard sprints.
It never happened.
“We could not beat her. She used to come out there and she still had her speed,” Panthers running back Fozzy Whittaker said. “They obviously knew where I got my speed from.”
Foswhitt Jer’ald Whittaker got his unique first name from his father, a smart, musically inclined man named Foster who died of cancer when Fozzy was 3.
The agility and straight-ahead speed came from his mother, a sprinter and basketball player at Southern Arkansas University.
But Gloria Whittaker gave her three sons much more after her husband succumbed to lymphoma in 1992.
She kept them in sports, kept them in church and instilled in them a humility that her youngest boy took to the NFL after an injury-shortened career at Texas.
That’s why Whittaker’s coaches and teammates say he’s so easy to be around. And it’s why after his 100-yard rushing game against San Francisco in Week 2 – his first since high school – Whittaker quietly took his place in the backfield by committee the Panthers are using while Jonathan Stewart recovers from his hamstring injury.
The Panthers plan to split the carries again Sunday against Atlanta in their final regular-season game at the Georgia Dome.
“That hasn’t changed me. I’m still the same person,” Whittaker said of his 100-yard effort after replacing Stewart in the first quarter two weeks ago. “I’m going to go out there and work as hard as I can, because I know what it’s like to not have football in my life.”
Explosive plays, and then ...
Whittaker’s senior season at Texas was supposed to be his big one.
He’d rushed for 847 yards over his first three seasons in Austin. But he was looking forward to more explosive plays after competing on Texas’ track team the previous spring to improve his speed and conditioning.
Whittaker was off to a fast start, averaging 5.8 yards a carry with six rushing touchdowns in the Longhorns’ first eight games.
But early in a loss at Missouri on Nov. 12, 2011, Whittaker took a toss sweep around the right end, planted his right foot to cut upfield and went down in a heap.
Whittaker had torn two ligaments, as well as the medial and lateral meniscus, in his right knee.
Whittaker’s season was over, and his NFL draft prospects had taken a major hit.
Whittaker went to the NFL scouting combine three months later to do the bench press, meet with teams and let doctors poke around on his knee.
‘Nobody wanted to take a risk’
The medical folks were not encouraging.
“There was so much damage that was done to it nobody wanted to take a risk on me,” Whittaker said. “I wasn’t going to be able to play that season.”
Whittaker’s mom and brothers still threw a draft party at the family’s home near Houston. But Whittaker’s worst fears were realized. He went through three days of the draft without hearing his name called.
“I put a lot of hope thinking I would still be picked up. At least being with a team, getting team doctors to help me out, getting worked on, getting looked at and getting a little bit of football structure back in my life,” Whittaker said. “Once that didn’t happen, it was a true low point. But the biggest thing that helped me get through it was my family and having them there with me.”
While teammates such as Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho joined their teams in Washington and Cleveland after the draft, Whittaker stayed behind in Austin to rehab his knee and finish work on his master’s degree in kinesiology.
Whittaker was still there in the fall of 2012, waiting for a team to call with a workout offer.
‘He brings positive energy’
Panthers offensive tackle Donald Hawkins arrived at Texas that fall as a junior college transfer. He says Whittaker was always smiling – or singing to Michael Jackson when he’d give Hawkins a ride on campus.
“Just a guy that you want in your locker room. ... When he’s around he brings positive energy,” Hawkins said. “He’s a guy that never lost faith in playing football.”
Whittaker said he relied on the support of his family and his Christian faith to get through his first fall without football since he was a young child. He said his agent Jerry Marlatt also helped keep his spirits up.
“My agent was talking to me saying people were still interested. That’s what kind of kept me going,” Whittaker said. “If I wasn’t hearing any calls or if nothing was happening, then it might have been a different story. But I had to make sure I stayed with it.”
Gloria Whittaker is proud of the perseverance her son displayed during his year away from football.
“You can think it’s the end of your career. Because that’s what people projected it to be,” she said. “He put his head down for a minute, and then he got his stuff right back up. And that’s him. He may deal with it for a minute, and then he’s going to go on to the next thing.”
Finally with two games left in the 2012 season, the Cardinals invited him to Phoenix for a workout and signed him to the practice squad the next day.
A familiar system
Whittaker spent the 2013 season with San Diego and Cleveland, starting two games for then-Browns coach Rob Chudzinski, the Panthers’ former offensive coordinator.
When the Panthers were looking for a running back after injured rookie Tyler Gaffney was claimed byNew England during training camp in 2014, they turned to Whittaker in part because of his familiarity with their offensive system.
Whittaker has been with the Panthers ever since, seeing spot duty as a change-of-pace back and occasional returner.
He’s had his moments – a 26-yard touchdown on a screen pass at New Orleans in 2014 and a 39-yard touchdown catch in a playoff victory over Arizona that same season.
But mostly he’s been content to keep a low profile behind Stewart and, for one season, DeAngelo Williams.
When he lived closer to the stadium early in his career, Whittaker used to ride his bike to work to help get the lactic acid out of his legs. Once he’d get there, Whittaker would sit attentively during offensive meetings and wasn’t afraid to ask questions.
“He’s a guy you want to be around more. He’s energetic. He loves football. He’s a great team player,” offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. “He had that injury that kind of kept him from being more noticed coming out. But he gets it. He knows his role. He’s unselfish. He does everything with a lot of pride.”
A mini fan club
Gloria Whittaker and her two older sons – Jer’ald and Curtis – watched the Panthers-49ers game at a bar in Pearland two weeks ago. The brothers, had their church clothes on, while their wives were wearing their No. 43 jerseys for Fozzy, whom the brothers had nicknamed when he was young.
The bar was packed with Texans and Cowboys fans. But by the end of day, many of the locals who recognized Gloria and her family were cheering with them with each of Whittaker’s 16 carries.
“We had our own mini fan club,” Curtis Whittaker said.
Back in Charlotte, Whittaker was stumped when a reporter asked him when his last 100-yard rushing game had been. He decided it had been high school and volunteered he hadn’t hit the century mark during his Texas career – an admission not many players would make.
A couple of days later, Shula was asked if Whittaker had much of an ego.
“Oh, no,” Shula said. “Gosh, no.”
Waiting to make a play
Second-year back Cameron Artis-Payne started last week against Minnesota, and is expected to start Sunday at Atlanta.
Whittaker, 27, who will be a free agent after this season, was the Panthers’ second-leading receiver with five catches (for 34 yards) against the Vikings. He had a 56-yard touchdown reception that would have given the Panthers a 17-2 lead called back on an illegal block.
With Stewart likely out a couple more weeks, Whittaker knows these next few games could represent his brief window for stardom. But he’s not pressing the issue, content to wait his turn in the backfield rotation and then take his opportunity and run with it – like his mother at his football practices all those years ago.
“I’m trying,” Whittaker said this week in the locker room. “I’m trying to leave a mark.”
There are plenty of people around the Panthers organization who would say he’s already done so.