Sports writers don’t root for teams, they root for storylines. Something new to write about, some story to tell, something that makes this week different than last week.
For most of this season, that storyline was the comeback of Fozzy Whittaker. Injured for most of his career, the fifth-year running back was healthy. He had gotten stronger, faster. He was the consummate teammate.
That’s what makes the gruesome knee injury he suffered Saturday against Missouri — one that ends his collegiate career — even harder to stomach.
When we first saw Whittaker this year, in July at Big 12 Media Days, we swarmed upon him with questions regarding the much-hyped Malcolm Brown. “Hey, Fozzy, how does Malcolm look? What’s his personality like? Is he ready to put Texas on his back?”
Never mind that he had been discounted for somebody four years his junior, Whittaker swallowed his pride and answered everything. Forget that he himself had worked incredibly hard to get in game shape for his final season of football. Those who awaited the arrivals of Brown and Joe Bergeron as the saviors of the Texas offense had ruled out Whittaker.
In the weeks leading up to this new season, The Daily Texan crafted a long-winded feature, “The Texan’s 10 Most Important Longhorns.”
Whittaker didn’t make the cut. Didn’t even sniff it. To many, it was a matter of time before Fozzy would take a backseat. When he was listed for the Rice game as the starter at tailback, many saw it as simply a courtesy — a few last go-rounds before the talented Brown gives the coaches no choice but to start him.
Fast forward a few games, a few 100-yard kickoff returns, lots of touchdowns and total yards and many “Wild Fozzy” formations. Whittaker had indeed conceded the starting job to Brown. Never complained about it. Instead, he became the mentor to the two freshman tailbacks. In the meantime, Whittaker carved out a niche for himself: kick-returning extraordinaire, master of the red zone, leader of the team. After years of idolizing Captain America — Fozzy has a shield, shirts, backpacks, posters — he finally had become a hero of sorts of the football field.
“He really has been Captain America,” tight end Blaine Irby said. “He’s been unbelievable this season.”
Whittaker was named to the Sports Illustrated’s All-American team at midseason as a kick returner. In a recognition that carries less weight, The Daily Texan pinned him as the team’s Most Valuable Player halfway through the year. His 46.5 kick-return average led the nation a few weeks ago, and his nine touchdowns lead the team.
Fate struck an unfair blow. Injuries are as much a part of football as sweeps and power runs, sure, but how unfortunate that it had to happen to the player who was finally healthy, who had battled injuries his entire career. Whittaker’s well-chronicled battle with sprains, tweaks, scrapes and hyperextensions had become a punch line of sorts. He would never be effective, we thought. And he gladly proved us wrong, doing all the things we never thought he’d be able to do and even some things we didn’t expect — Whittaker? Returning kickoffs? For all his hard work, he’ll come through the tunnel next week for Senior Day on crutches.
The sad twist to this story reminds one of the collapse of former Texas pitcher Taylor Jungmann this summer. Enjoying the best season in the country, the dominating Jungmann cruised to a 13-0 start before losing the final three games of his career, including a game against Florida in the College World Series in which the Longhorns held a 3-0 lead. Teary-eyed afterwards, Jungmann said he had no idea what had gone so wrong.
We know what happened to Whittaker: As has been the case throughout his time here, his body simply betrayed him. It’s another storyline, I suppose. But it sure is a heartbreaking one.
Printed on Monday, November 14, 2011 as: Whittaker's career ends with injury