Growing up playing running back on Oklahoma’s sun-baked gridirons can be viewed as a strategy to thwart the stifling heat: You’ll forever be in the shadow of a figure that towers above all others.
That would be Barry Sanders, NFL legend, known now to residents of Oklahoma City primarily as a car dealer and philanthropist.
You can make an argument there have been others more talented than Sanders, but not an especially convincing one.
Brandon Whitaker remembers the first time he met the great man. He was a high-school player in Edmond, Okla., and bumped into Sanders at a tournament in Stillwater, where the latter smashed all manner of records for Oklahoma State University.
“We were all like, ‘Whaaaat?’ You know, speechless. Talking to him that day, that was motivation, for sure,” said Whitaker, who has done a more-than-passable impression of his jinking, hard-running hero since becoming the Montreal Alouettes featured back last CFL season.
But more than any stylistic resemblance on the field, it’s Sanders’s humility and unassuming off-field demeanour that struck the biggest chord with Whitaker.
The two have become nodding acquaintances over the years (“Oklahoma City isn’t a big place”).
Also, Whitaker spent part of the last off-season down the street from his house following the high-school career of Sanders’s son, Barry Jr. (Who recently committed the unspeakable heresy of signing a letter of intent with Stanford rather than his dad’s alma mater.)
Though he led the CFL in rushing last year, and has emerged as one of the Als’ most dangerous weapons – B.C. Lions head coach Mike Benevides said: “He’s the top back in our league” – Whitaker’s exploits often go unnoticed when it comes time to nominate Montreal’s player of the game.
Such is life when you play in an offence that includes the league’s two most dominant receivers and pro football’s all-time leading passer.
“I’m good with that, I’d rather just stay in the background and do my job,” Whitaker said with a laugh, as he prepared to fly out to Vancouver for a rematch against the West Division-leading Lions.
Call him the CFL’s quiet superstar, although opposing coaches understand the threat the versatile Whitaker – who is among the league’s elite backfield pass-catchers and blockers – can pose.
“I really see him as the cog that makes them go. I’ll say the way that they’re utilizing the position, he’s catching out of the backfield – he did that against us – he’s running the ball,” Benevides said. “He’s been a huge part of their success.”
That the stocky, powerful Whitaker – at 5 foot 10, 200 pounds, he is built rather like his hero Sanders – is a professional football player at all owes a good deal to this temperament.
In a me-first era, Whitaker, 27, was happy to bide his time for three years as a backup and a practice squad player.
It has paid off: In his first year as a starter, 2011, he won the league rushing title (he’s sixth at the midway point this year, having missed a game due to injury).
“He’s been through a lot here, I couldn’t even tell you how many times he’s been up and down [from the active roster],” Montreal head coach Marc Trestman said. “His ability to withstand 21/2 years, to want to, is probably part of why he’s the player he is now. … He’s a special guy, a complete player in all aspects.”
That includes on the blocking front: Whitaker memorably missed a block last season that led to Calvillo getting mightily sacked.
It’s a truism in football that the team that establishes the run often wins, but the numbers are especially striking when it comes to Whitaker; the Alouettes are 12-4 in the last two years.
Were he a year or two younger, Whitaker’s versatility and receiving ability would make him an appealing NFL third-down back.
Not that he has any such ambitions. “Nah, I’m happy here. I want to concentrate on winning games and getting back to the championship.”
The Baylor University product posted decent collegiate totals on a losing team that mostly ran a spread offence – which may have been the perfect training ground to excel in Trestman’s pass-first (and second, and third) schemes.
A knee injury caused him to miss his sophomore season – although it turned him on to yoga and Pilates, which he continues to practice – and he went undrafted in the 2008 NFL running back class that included 10 future starters (including Darren McFadden of the Oakland Raiders and Pro Bowlers Chris Johnson of the Tennessee Titans and Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens).
Whitaker still keeps in close contact with his former college teammates, including burly 6-foot-3 running back Paul Mosley – the duo were known as “Thunder and Lightning” at Baylor.
In last week’s tilt against B.C., Whitaker scored two of his three touchdowns on plays where he simply ran over opposing defenders.
Whitaker said he’s redoubled his efforts in the off-season – he trains with childhood pal Reggie Smith, a Carolina Panthers defensive back – to add strength and explosiveness to his game.
“I was telling [Mosley] that I want to bring some more of that thunder up here,” he smiled.
There’s a cheery thought for opposing linebackers.
With a report from David Ebner in Vancouver