Fozzy Whittaker made his Carolina Panthers debut Sunday midway through the third quarter against Kansas City. Then he made the game his.
Whittaker rushed for 71 yards on 13 carries, leading the Panthers in both categories, caught one third-down pass for 22 yards and scored a touchdown on a one-yard run.
And after the game he is – missing.
His locker is not with the lockers of DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert and the other running backs. His locker is not tucked way in a corner with the offensive linemen, linebackers or kickers.
He has been with the Panthers less than a month. So what do they make him do – dress in his car?
Ah, there he is. Crammed into what will become the player’s lounge during the season are 20 lockers, and one belongs to Whittaker.
If the locker room is first class, the lounge is coach. When I enter the abyss and ask for Whittaker, the other residents begin to call his name. They act excited. If one of them is recognized for his work, perhaps they all will be. Or else they’re good at being sarcastic.
As they watch, Whittaker walks to the edge of the big locker room to meet me. But he walks no further. He worries, perhaps, that a mean flight attendant might force him to return to the place from which he comes.
Whittaker, 25, grew up in Pearland, Texas, and played at Texas. He talks the way he runs, with little flash and little fanfare. He finds a hole and he slips through it before anybody knows.
“I just want to bring intensity no matter what it is, whether it’s running the ball, catching the ball, playing special teams, making tackles, returning kicks – it doesn’t matter,” Whittaker says in a rush. “What it is, I just want everybody to know that I’m playing 100 percent and it’s to help the team get a win.”
The Panthers signed Whittaker on July 27 after they lost rookie running back Tyler Gaffney to injury and then, via waivers, to New England.
Whittaker’s given name is Foswhitt. His dad, Foster, wanted a Foster Jr. His mom said she didn’t think so. They combined his first name with their last name. For reasons unknown Foswhitt did not catch on with football fans. Fozzy did.
If you watched him against the Chiefs, two qualities stood out: The first tackler was not going to bring him down, and once he saw an opening, he committed.
Says Whittaker: “Coach Skip (running backs coach Jim Skipper) always says, ‘Slow to it, fast through it.’ So once I see it open up I fully commit. The offensive line was doing a great job opening holes all night for all the backs.”
Whittaker’s signature play came in the fourth quarter. Carolina had the ball third and 8, and Joe Webb found Whittaker with a short pass. Whittaker took it 22 yards, running directly in front of the Panthers’ bench.
Cam Newton, who had long been out of the game, saw Whittaker and joined him. Newton is 6-5 while Whittaker generously is listed at 5-10. The back and his tall, high-paid cheerleader hustled down the sideline together. Whittaker was so caught up in his work that he didn’t notice Newton.
The moment was special. It was special because on the field everybody flies first class.
Says Newton: “To see him go out there and compete and running as hard as he did, man, it’s just a person showing resilience and being very optimistic about his opportunity. We had a great talk as an offense (Sunday) morning about what to expect from each other.
“And by no surprise he stood up and said, ‘Well, I don’t know how long I’m going to be here, but with the opportunity that I’m going to get I’m going to show unbelievable effort.’
“And today, he’s not a hypocrite. We all found that out. And he did an unbelievable job with showing what he can bring to the table as a running back.”
Whittaker was undrafted out of Texas in 2012. Late that season Arizona signed him to its practice squad. The Cardinals let him go. Whittaker spent five months with San Diego. The Chargers let him go. He spent seven months with Cleveland, where he played in 11 games and started two. The Browns released him in May. Two months later the Panthers hired him.
Whittaker plays the way we think we would if we had a similar opportunity.
He talks the way we think we would, too.
“I consider these guys brothers,” he says of his teammates. “They’ve embraced me and touched my heart.”
True. But the starters and top reserves don’t touch your locker room.
Whittaker laughs and says:
“You know, wherever they stick me I’m humbled just to be here.”