WARNER ROBINS — Jeffrey Whitaker listened intently as he was asked question after question.
The Warner Robins senior answered each one respectively, but his eyes focused on something else. Sitting on an unbalanced chair, the 6-foot-3, 295-pound teenager who rarely stops smiling looked down at the floor of his coach’s office and picked up a small piece of red fabric on the otherwise immaculate floor and tossed it in the trash can. He then fixed the detached wheel on his chair, returned to his seat and didn’t miss a beat in answering questions.
The little things like Whitaker’s desire to keep someone else’s office neat, Warner Robins head coach Bryan Way said, make him stand out from many other big-time college football prospects.
But the big things are also quite evident.
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When asked about his long-term goals, Whitaker said he would like to play professionally and then take some of his money and put it back into the East Macon community where he grew up.
“A lot of kids don’t have the direction they need,” said the 17-year-old, who thinks and speaks like a man much older than his age. “I want to go back and mentor kids and help them head down the right path. Macon is always going to be my home, and I want to give back.”
Whitaker seems much older because he has matured quicker than most students his age.
The Warner Robins senior lost his mother, Gwendolyn Brown, to cancer when he was a seventh-grader. Brown, who raised Whitaker and his older brother in a single-parent home, projected her values and beliefs onto her sons.
Brown won’t be there to see her son sign a football scholarship with Auburn today, but Whitaker said he has no doubts how she’d feel about it.
“I think about it a lot, her not being there (today),” Whitaker said. “She’ll be watching, but I wish she was here for it. She’d be proud to know that I listened and learned from everything she taught me and told me. If it wasn’t for the way she raised me, I probably wouldn’t get the opportunity (to play college football).”
A rough start
Despite a body that seems natural for a football player, Whitaker didn’t grow up with a love for football.
His first love was basketball, but he grew up resisting the call of organized sports despite the constant ribbing from classmates who wanted him to try out for football.
He heard from friends constantly about playing but never had the motivation to try it out. But sports became insignificant during his seventh-grade year.
Brown finally started showing the signs of a sickness that might have plagued her for years. Whitaker said she was too strong of a matriarch to show weakness, and that she went almost 20 years without going to a doctor.
“She was always happy and energetic,” Whitaker said. “She held it in. But it finally caught up with her. I could see her changing.”
Brown visited a doctor late in 2004, Whitaker said, and had to be admitted to the hospital in early 2005. She never left the hospital, with the cancer moving quickly through her body.
“It was tough to see, because I know how she was before she went to the hospital,” Whitaker said. “She lost her hair. Her body shook down. Watching someone go through that is difficult. It’s something you never get over.”
Brown died in March that year, and Whitaker buried his mother three days before her birthday and four days before his.
“It was a couple of days that we were looking forward to celebrating,” he said. “That made it really hard.”
Picking up sports
Because Whitaker hadn’t played organized sports, many of the coaches didn’t really know him. They noticed his size and potential but didn’t know much about him.
Appling Middle School coach Danny Grube first remembers Whitaker coming up to him at lunch where the coach sold ice cream to help out the school.
“He would come up to me, and I would ask, ‘How many ice creams do you want?,’ ” Grube said. “He’d say, ‘Five.’ ”
Eventually, Grube asked Whitaker why he didn’t play sports. Whitaker said, “No coaches ever asked me to.”
So Grube and Randy Brown put the fullcourt press on Whitaker and finally got the then 6-1, 230-pounder to play football in the eighth grade.
Whitaker, who knew the game from playing on the streets of Macon as a child, had a plan: He would go out and play two weeks and quit. He didn’t think he’d like the tackle game.
“I would play sorry and leave,” Whitaker said. “But I got out there, and there was no way I could lag around. I fell in love with it.”
Whitaker discovered that football offered another avenue to cope with his mother’s death. He used the game as an outlet for his aggression.
“I think it helped me a lot,” Whitaker said. “Football is a physical game, and it helped me take out a lot of anger that I had built up. It still helps me do that.”
Randy Brown and Grube talked Whitaker into wrestling and competing in track and field. The camaraderie from sports also helped heal his wounds, and he found success. He won a county championship in wrestling and threw the shot put in track.
“He was raw at first, but you could tell he would eventually be a standout,” Grube said. “He was a natural.”
Whitaker acclimated well after moving up to Northeast. Despite playing football for less than a year, Whitaker slid into the starting lineup as a freshman. Due to a lack of depth, Whitaker made his impact as an offensive lineman, blocking for fellow freshman starting quarterback Mike Palmer. The immediate success, however, had its drawbacks.
“Getting to start as a freshman wasn’t good for (the ego),” Whitaker said. “I earned it, but I started thinking that I was the man and had the head going in the wrong direction. Coach (Bruce) Mullen and (assistant coach Millard) Vining taught me that it was a team sport, and I needed to be humble.
“I had to have respect first for my teammates and for the game.”
Following the football season, Whitaker started gathering information about a possible transfer. He had the opportunity to move to Warner Robins and live with his aunt and uncle, Cynthia and Milton Joseph. The move would be good for him and his older brother, but it would also help his burgeoning football career, he said.
The move wasn’t certain until he met with Way in the spring of 2007.
“He walked into my office and introduced himself,” Way said. “I asked, ‘How can I help you?’ I looked at him, and I knew how he could help me.”
Shortly thereafter, Whitaker moved in with his aunt and uncle and began the process that eventually earned him a scholarship to Auburn.
Whitaker said from the moment he enrolled at Warner Robins, he felt welcome.
“People were very nice, very welcoming,” Whitaker said. “They always asked how I was doing. This is all before I strapped on the pads for the first time.”
Whitaker’s luminous personality was a hit with the student body and coaches. He’s always quick to talk to strangers and ask them how they are doing. A long talk with Whitaker usually ends with a hug, regardless of how well you know him.
“He’s just a throwback,” Warner Robins defensive coordinator David Bruce said. “He has a larger-than-life personality. He’s genuine and can charm anyone. My 81-year-old mother loves him.”
Whitaker fit in with the Bruce family so well that David’s son Daniel invited Whitaker to join them for a family vacation in Panama City, Fla.
The on-field adjustment was the biggest challenge. He became primarily a defensive tackle and had to relearn techniques and schemes.
Whitaker was used to being the dominant player on the field. Northeast didn’t have the participation that Warner Robins had, and the week-to-week schedule during the season became much more difficult. The Class AA and Class AAA opponents were gone, replaced by Northside, Lowndes, Valdosta and the rest of prestigious Region 1-AAAAA.
Whitaker also battled with some weight issues. He weighed close to 340 pounds during his sophomore and junior seasons. His dominance was evident as a straight ahead defensive tackle, but he had trouble shedding blocks and moving laterally.
College coaches still noticed his potential, and Whitaker started receiving college scholarship offers as a sophomore. His ascension as a prospect continued into his junior year. Coaches who went to town to recruit Abry Jones and Eric Fields at Northside made sure they stopped by Warner Robins to take a look at Whitaker.
“I think the light clicked on for him after his junior year,” Way said. “College coaches were coming by, and he was getting a lot of attention. He really got committed to being an outstanding football player.”
Whitaker started working with a trainer for the first time following his junior year. He noticed the difference quickly as he dropped weight and became a quicker and more dominant player. Recruiting Web sites ranked Whitaker high heading into the season, naming him as one of the top players in the country. His visibility has climbed even higher since then, with Rivals.com listing him as the fifth best player in Georgia, the fifth best defensive tackle in the nation and the 54th best player overall in the country. He was named to the U.S. Army All-American Bowl game.
Whitaker showed just how much he improved early in the season.
On the field, Whitaker resembles a block of granite with arms and legs jutting out. He hits like a rock, too. In the Demons’ preseason game against Crisp County, Whitaker hurled an offensive lineman into the quarterback, forcing a fumble. A few plays later, he tracked down a running back and wrestled him to the ground.
“He could always go straight ahead,” Way said. “He could always make plays in one spot. But we could tell he’d improved when we went to camp and we couldn’t block the joker. We knew we had something pretty special.”
The Demons didn’t have a great year, but Whitaker shined alongside other standouts on defense. They missed the playoffs by a game, but the senior class beat rival Northside for the first time.
Whitaker received All-Middle Georgia honors and was selected to play in the GACA North-South All-Star Game.
He did a good job of keeping recruiting on the backburner during the season, before moving on to visit North Carolina in December and Georgia, Auburn and Miami in January. He didn’t hide that he was smitten with Auburn prior to last weekend’s visit to Miami.
“Auburn was peaceful,” he said. “It was a small town, but everything felt right. It was a great visit.”
In what Way called just “one of many examples of his character,” Whitaker decided to announce his college choice Monday. He said he didn’t want to take away from his teammates’ attention on National Signing Day, when they will join him in signing college scholarships.
“He has a world-class heart,” Randy Brown said. “I knew that the first time I met him.”