Commentary

With grace and heart

Injuries took Fozzy Whittaker's senior year, but he presses on his journey

Updated: April 26, 2012, 9:57 AM ET
By Max Olson | HornsNation

Gloria Whittaker drove as fast as she could down Highway 10 because there was nothing else she could do.

Few feelings are more overwhelming than a mother's fear. Especially when you're a single mother of three, and your youngest son is hurting more than ever.

Gloria slammed on the gas pedal. Got her silver 2002 Honda Civic up to 90 mph.

She replayed it over and over in her head. He takes the toss from David Ash. He runs right, plants his right foot, cuts left into the Missouri defense. Nobody touches him.

Then it's over. His Longhorns lose. Fozzy Whittaker's season is over. So is his college career.

He flew home with his team while Mom was stuck in Kansas City for the night. She didn't sleep well.

The next morning, Gloria caught the earliest flight she could find back to Houston. She swears she made that three-hour drive to the University of Texas in only two.

"I prayed all the way. I prayed all night, all day," she said. "My prayers were always going because I didn't know how to understand it.

But they survived. That's what the Whittakers do best.

And in a few days, a still-healing Fozzy will find out if his NFL dream is coming true. He could go undrafted. He might not play much next season. Maybe he'll never be the same running back he once was.

These doubts don't disturb him. He's much tougher than his injury-plagued Texas career would suggest.

Fozzy gets his strength from his resilient mother and his unwavering faith, and from surviving the rough times that forever shaped him and his family.

Ever since he was 3 years old, he's known no other way than to just keep going.


Foster Whittaker believed wholeheartedly in the power of travel.

His family went exploring twice a year, and he made sure each trip was meticulously planned out. The destinations were never boring.

Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The floor of the House of Representatives in Washington D.C. Martin Luther King Jr.'s church in Montgomery, Ala. Even the Hoover Dam and the location of the first Thanksgiving.

"It was always educational," Gloria Whittaker said. "He wanted them to see, no matter where it was, that there was no place that they couldn't be if they put their minds to it."

Foster Whittaker
Courtesy of Gloria WhittakerFoster Whittaker died when his youngest son was just 3 years old.

Foswhitt was too young to retain any memory of those vacations. He doesn't remember much about his father, other than that Foster loved to walk around with his youngest boy on his shoulders.

Growing up, Fozzy often asked his mother a question: What was my dad like?

Did he like to play cards like we do? Oh yes, Gloria would assure him. He played every weekend.

Was he an athlete, too? No, she told him. Your father was everything but an athlete.

"I show [Fozzy] him pictures, show him things [his dad] did or had," Gloria said. "Fozzy got a chance to know what kind of person Foster was, because it surrounds him in the house and in the church. He always knew his dad was special."

Foster's friends vow he was a man of rare character and intellect, one with a knack for making good things happen.

He was a VP of finance at a seismograph company and a church deacon, but to the Pearland, Texas, community Foster provided much more. The man could round up funding for anything worthwhile, from church renovations to his children's football team uniforms.

"I still miss him. I really haven't met a guy like him," said Paul Veazie, a longtime family friend. "I really haven't. There wasn't nothing Foster couldn't do. He was humble, very humble. Willing to help all kinds of people. He was loved by many."

His two oldest sons, Jeráld and Curtis, followed him everywhere he went. Even wore suits and ties when Foster did, and insisted on tagging along for his weekly Saturday morning haircut.

But four years before Fozzy was born, his father's health began to decline. He was diagnosed with Lymphoma in April of 1985 but went into remission two years later.

His cancer returned at the end of 1990. Foster loved his family and his calling too much to let the burden consume him.

"He never did let it stop him," Gloria said. "In fact, he really never did stop working. He would go do his chemo on Fridays, and then after the weekend he'd go back and work Monday through Friday.

"I think he and I got used to thinking he would be OK, because he was fighting it really well."

Foster never admitted how bad his health was getting, never told his wife he was running out of time until the final week of his life.

Five days after Fozzy's third birthday, Foster checked into a nearby hospital on the morning of Feb. 7, 1992. He passed away later that afternoon at the age of 37. His sons didn't get to say goodbye.

And a 32-year-old Gloria Whittaker was left to raise three confused young boys.


The ball is floating to D.J. Monroe, and he calls for it. Whittaker doesn't hardly move.

Oklahoma just took a 27-3 lead on a pick-six in the waning moments of the second quarter.

The wave of momentum belongs to the Sooners. Texas needs a spark.

As the kickoff slowly drifts away from Monroe, Whittaker ignores his teammates' shout.

[+] EnlargeFozzy Whittaker
Erich Schlegel/Getty ImagesFozzy Whittaker had key kick return scores in consecutive weeks against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.

"I thought, 'This feels like an opportunity that I need to take,'" Whittaker said.

He darts upfield and finds a gaping hole. Oklahoma kicker Patrick O'Hara never stands a chance. Whittaker blows right past him and goes untouched the final 70 yards.

And he never slows down.

That glorious dash, with nothing but an end zone in front of him, lasts only eight seconds. It might be a fleeting moment, but it's a hard-earned and long-awaited one.

His touchdown is the first great highlight of a senior season that, before ending too soon, became a testament to everything Whittaker can do.

On the field, he emerged as a true all-purpose back: A fleet counterpunch to the bruising Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron, a fierce runner in the Wild formation, a reliable pass-catcher on screens and an elusive talent while returning kicks.

Off it, Whittaker took the freshmen under his wing, showed them how to play college football. The wise veteran earned the rookies' respect almost immediately.

"He tried to get them to understand the basics," Texas co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite said. "He had a great attitude every day. There were times where he was tired, he was beat up, but he still had a great attitude.

"The effort he gave at practice -- I haven't seen a better practice player at Texas. He just gives phenomenal effort on that field. Those are the things he passed on."

After the Missouri game, he cared only about staying with his teammates. They rallied around him as a symbol of toughness and took turns wearing his No. 2 jersey in games.

Through those trying final weeks of the season, Whittaker was taught a lesson his mother had learned 19 years earlier, back when her grieving sons needed her to hold their family together.

"True leaders, they're going to stay with their team no matter what," Whittaker said. "Even if I was hurt, I wanted to be with the team no matter what."

And like his mother, he had to believe that better things were on the way if he kept the faith.

"It's God's plan," Whittaker said, "and He has something planned for me that I can't even comprehend right now."


Fozzy WhittakerUT Athletics PhotographyDespite a young team in transition, Fozzy was the public face of the offense and the strongest voice in the locker room.

For two weeks after Foster's death, Gloria didn't know what to do. So she did nothing.

She stayed glued to the couch and the TV remote. The boys didn't go to school.

Foster was the family's moneymaker and money saver. The Social Security money only helped so much. Gloria sold their home and moved the family into an apartment. She had to. Everything reminded her of him.

"I was a young mother who did not understand or know what I was going to do the next minute," she said.

When the shock wore off, Gloria knew she had to keep going. She adapted. She went back to work at her job in human relations for Coca-Cola. She bought only the groceries they needed, though her boys still drank a gallon of milk a day.

Every weekend, she took her sons to Austin and checked into a Holiday Inn near Town Lake. Fozzy and his brothers had a place to eat and sleep and loved to play in the pool.

"And I would go there for the weekend and cry," she said. "They could have fun and they didn't have to see me cry."

Whether she could afford it or not, she still took her sons on two vacations a year. That's what Foster would've done. She tried to carry on everything he did.

Gloria couldn't have done much without all those who stepped forward to help out. Nearly all of them came from their Berean Missionary Baptist Church in Pearland.

Foster's two best friends and fraternity brothers supported the family for more than three years. Another close friend, Maceo Dillard, became a dependable godfather to the boys.

Dillard was the one who had to tell them their father was gone. Foster had been his mentor, and he never left the family's side following Foster's death. Dillard liked to play cards with the boys and regale them with stories of their old man's accomplishments.

Fozzy found a second influence in his first track coach, Trent Green, when he was 8. The Greens drove him home from practice when Gloria couldn't, let him spend the night before track meets, even took him on their family vacation to Disney World once.

Together, the two men helped try to fill a hole in Whittaker's life and his heart. They taught him how take responsibility and be a man.

"I have two wonderful godfathers who stood in and have been the male figures in my life, that have been like role models to me," Whittaker said. "Seeing the way that they filled in that void for a fatherly figure for me really makes me appreciate them even more."

Gloria never would've let her sons play football had Foster not insisted, and she set one major ground rule: No church, no football. Her boys were ushers, secretaries, counselors and Sunday school teachers. They didn't miss midweek services or bible study for sports.

"She did a phenomenal job," Pearland football coach Tony Heath said. "You don't see that really happen in a one-parent household. It's one of those special stories, a story that should be told."

There were times when Gloria doubted she could do it.

"I was really worried, but here we are today," she said. "You never know how you're going to make it to the next step, and then … you're just there."


Applewhite knew he didn't have to say it, but he did anyway.

He pulled Whittaker aside the night before that Missouri game and reminded him just how much Texas needed him.

Malcolm and Joe might not play tomorrow, Applewhite said. Tomorrow is your day to be the star.

[+] EnlargeFozzy Whittaker
UT Athletics PhotographyWhittaker did everything with the Longhorns even while being injured and going through rehab.

"This was my show. I've got to show people I can be a first- and second-down back as well as a third-down back," Whittaker said. "It provided that confidence for me to go into the game knowing that it was mine for the taking."

His grand opportunity -- and the rest of his season -- ended with a torn ACL and MCL on his fourth carry of the day.

"It ripped your guts out," Applewhite said, "because of the kind of kid he is and how hard he'd worked all season and how well he was playing."

Some could look at Whittaker's college career as one marked by squandered chances, but today Whittaker harbors no resentment or regrets.

Injuries conspired against him throughout his five years in Austin. His left knee forced him to redshirt in 2007. The next year, his right knee cost him six games. Next it was a hamstring, and then a shoulder stinger.

Whenever he went back home to Pearland, he put on a brave face. Good luck catching him complaining about his ailments. After all, he was proud to say he played running back for Texas, something he wasn't sure he'd ever get to do.

Longhorns coaches recruited him as an athlete in 2006. They figured he'd end up playing defensive back.

Give Fozzy a chance to play running back, Tony Heath urged them, and I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

"That's all he needed -- an opportunity," Heath said.

Even when he was sidelined, Whittaker stuck to his plan. He got his degree in corporate communications in three years. He gets his Master's in kinesiology next month. That's what his father would've wanted.

Still, it seemed like every time a new window of opportunity opened, another injury closed it.

"Sometimes I did feel like that, but I couldn't afford to think like that," he said. "If that was my mindset, I wouldn't excel. I would get discouraged. I wouldn't have the confidence to be able to bounce back and become that person I knew I can become."


Fozzy is going fishing on Saturday.

While NFL fates plays out on TV, he wants to be anywhere but home. Too stressful.

He and a longtime pal have a few favorite lakes and bayous on the west side of Pearland where they can get away and cast a line.

[+] EnlargeFozzy Whittaker
UT Athletics PhotographyWhittaker's NFL future is uncertain, but his versatility could be of value to some team.

Whittaker could use a little relaxation. The knee rehabilitation is ahead of schedule but still rigorous. At its peak, rehab consumed four hours of every weekday this winter. Doctors like his progress. So do NFL scouts.

His agent, Jerry Marlatt, says a dozen NFL teams have shown serious interest, and at least six have called in the past few days. He's crossing his fingers that Whittaker hears his name called in the sixth or seventh round.

Before the knee injury, Marlatt said, he heard talk of Whittaker going as early as the fourth round. Why so much interest?

In today's NFL, versatility is valuable. No franchise relies on only one running back anymore. A third-down back who can run, catch, block and thrive as a kick returner will get a chance to carve out a nice little niche.

"And with literally every scout I've talked to, without fail, they don't talk about him as a football player without mentioning his off-the-field demeanor," Marlatt said. "A lot of teams want the leadership and character that he brings to a team."

As he inches closer and closer to a moment he's forever dreamed about, Whittaker can't help but think about the father he never got to know.

How different would his life be today had Foster survived? What kind of man would Foswhitt have become?

"That's one thing that I really have no answer for," he said. "I know whenever I get to Heaven, that's one of the things I want to ask God myself."

Gloria Whittaker lives north of Pearland in The Woodlands now. She has a good human resources job at Fox Sports Net and three sons who make her proud every day.

Her oldest, Jeráld, is a youth minister and junior high coach in Pearland. Her middle boy, Curtis, served in Afghanistan and Iraq and is now finishing up his accounting degree at the University of Houston.

And Fozzy is looking forward to the day he can give something back to his mother. Not a house or a car or jewelry, but rather a gesture that can somehow thank her for all the sacrifices she made to keep this family afloat.

"I can't wait to repay her in some type of way," he said. "I know that what she's put in my life can't be repaid. But I'll try any way I can."

While her son is out fishing, Gloria will round up his brothers, godfathers and the church members and friends who stood by the family when life got tough. They have plenty to celebrate.

And no matter what comes next -- drafted or undrafted, healthy or hurt -- they'll get through it together. They always have.

Max Olson | email

Texas/Big 12 reporter