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April 25, 2011

Whittaker hoping to finish strong

The Texas Longhorns are looking for a bounce back season in 2011, and the Texas coaches are hoping the team's veteran players can be instrumental in a quick turnaround. One player who could play a big role in UT's success is running back Foswhitt Whittaker.

Whittaker, a fifth-year senior, is a player that will figure heavily into UT's running back rotation. He's explosive, he has experience and he finished the spring season as the Horns' top tailback, although no formal depth chart was announced.

If things go the way the Texas team is hoping, Whittaker will finish his career with a bang and help rejuvenate a revamped Texas offense under first-year co-offensive coordinators Bryan Harsin and Major Applewhite.

Whittaker has shown flashes of his talent throughout his career, but injuries have slowed him down in each of the past three years. Those inside the locker room are hoping 2011 is different ... a sort of breakout year. Those watching from a distance may not have such a personal investment in Whittaker's senior season, but they too should hope for good things from a player whose story off the field is hard not to admire.

Whittaker is the youngest of three brothers. His mother, Gloria, raised all the boys on her own after their father, Foster, died of lymphoma in 1992. Fozzy had just turned three. The oldest son, Jerald, was only nine, but he took on responsibilities far beyond his years.

"Even though he was only nine, Jerald was kind of Fozzy's male role model. He really took him under his wing," Gloria said. "I told him that he was going to have to be the man of the house and I think he literally took that to heart. He would go without stuff that I didn't know he went without so he could give to his younger brothers. As a mother, hearing that would break my heart."

All three brothers remain extremely close. Fozzy is the most well-known due to his football talents, but all three siblings have gone on to lead tremendously successful and impactful lives.

Jerald is a coach at Pearland Junior High, helping build the foundation for football success in one of the state's top football programs. He's also a youth minister. Curtis, the middle brother, recently completed his third and final tour of military duty, having served two stints in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He finished his military career in November and was able to make it to Austin for two Longhorn home games last year. Fozzy is set to play his final season of football for the Texas Longhorns in 2011. He has already earned his bachelor's degree in corporate communications and is working towards a master's in general kinesiology. He's a two-time first-team Academic All-Big 12 selection (2009-10) and a five-time member of UT's Athletics Director's Honor Roll.

A MOTHER'S LOVE SETS THE TONE

Gloria Whittaker wasn't sure how she was going to make it when she lost her husband at such a young age. She says there was a time when she had no hope at all. With three young boys actively involved in church and in sports, there was no way she could be in all places all the time. With the help of those close to her, including the family she had built in the church, Gloria fought through the difficult times after her husband's passing.

She was constantly on the go, attending as many of her sons' athletic activities as possible. Look in the stands during practices, during football games, during track meets, and more often than not Gloria was there showing her support. She and the boys were fixtures in the church, with the boys helping as ushers and participating in regular bible studies. On a rare occasion when Gloria was unable to shuttle her boys to and from practices due to time conflicts, people from the church would often step up to help out. Gloria also stayed on top of the boys' grades, setting up periodic conferences with teachers when her schedule conflicted with the regularly scheduled parent-teacher meetings. She stayed involved in the boys' academic projects. She did everything she could.

Gloria passes off a lot of the credit for her sons' accomplishments and character to church and athletics. But those closest to the family know better, know she's the example that set the tone for her sons' current successes.

"I think number one, it's (Gloria) on that. She raised them in a single parent household. Their mother had a lot of influence, brought them up in the church," said Tony Heath, who coached Fozzy at Pearland High School and still remains close to him today. "Fozzy also had a strong relationship with his older brothers, but his mother held it all together."

When he began his career at Texas in 2008, Whittaker was a mature teenager who had already learned the values of handling his business in the community and in the classroom, due in part to the structure provided by the coaches at Pearland. In the last five years, his mother has seen tremendous growth from her youngest son, something she attributes to the guidance given by those in the UT football department.

"Over last five years, I've seen him grow from a young boy and looking at others for direction, to become a young independent man. He can stand on his own. I credit a lot of that to the people at Texas. The coaching staff, the academic staff and support system and parent system have been such an inspiration to those young men," Gloria said. "Fozzy has taken advantage of it and I pray all guys do. They have resources there. It's so a family-oriented, no matter what the situation, those guys like coach (Ken) Rucker, all of them have played such a role. I'm sure a coach, number one, I'm sure wants to win games. But Mack Brown truly wants his guys to succeed in life and he surrounds himself with coaches who feel the same way."

During her son's time at Texas, Gloria Whittaker has built strong relationships with other players' parents and she knows she can go to the Texas coaches at any time to get any question answered. Looking back at Fozzy's recruitment, she now says she cannot imagine him having gone anywhere else.

"I'm so grateful. I'm beyond words. I can't tell people how grateful I am to be a part of that," Gloria said. "I have the opportunity to talk to those coaches and they're going to be open with me. It's the same with his high school and coach Heath. Even 50 years from now, I think I'll still have the same relationship with those coaches. That means a lot to anyone.

"As a parent, you can't be at all places at one time. It really is truly valuable to have that kind of relationship, to know people have your child's best interest at heart. Here at Pearland and now at UT, it's one of the best decisions we've ever made. I know every program probably feels that way, that they'll look out for your child, but it so special at the Texas program because they value what they say."

MAKING HIS MARK EARLY

Whittaker first burst onto the scene as a blue-chip level tailback in his sophomore year at Pearland. Despite his successes at the high school level, there was still doubt about what his future at Texas would hold. When Texas offered a scholarship to Whittaker before his senior year, he was brought on board as an athlete. The UT coaches told him he'd get a shot to run the ball, if that's what he wanted, but he'd also likely be looked at as a defensive back. Texas defensive backs coach Duane Akina was even sent to Pearland in the spring after Whittaker's commitment to evaluate a player most thought would be a future Longhorn cornerback.

Things changed during Whittaker's senior year as he continued to pile up big rushing totals. He may have cemented his future as a runner when he rushed for four touchdowns and a school record 415 yards on 35 carries in a district win over Clear Creek. That game still stands out to those in the Pearland program.

"The two previous weeks, he had a bad ankle. We needed a win to survive and go to playoffs," coach Heath said. "So he goes out there and reels off over 400 yards that night. Games like that, you just know he's special.

"You saw that extra effort, the second effort. He did that all the time. He'd run the ball, you'd finish up the night, look at the stats and just go 'wow.'"

Whittaker's still a respected figure around the Pearland program. Last year, in the week before Pearland's state championship win over Euless Trinity, Whittaker visited with some of the Pearland team members and he was on Pearland's sideline for the 28-24 win.

"He doesn't forget his roots. When he has time, he always come by and visits," coach Heath said. "We communicate and text back and forth during season. I still stay in touch with Fozzy whenever I can.

"I'm obviously proud of what he'd done on the football field, but I'm more proud of the man he is. He represents the University of Texas and college football the way it should be. He graduated early, he's terrific character wise."

HOPING TO FINISH WITH A BANG

Whittaker turned in a strong spring season last month, with Mack Brown saying his play was "great, not good."

In his Longhorn career, Whittaker has battled a variety of injuries all three years in rushing for 847 yards and six touchdowns. He could have an opportunity to improve on those numbers greatly next year in the Longhorns' new offensive scheme. At Pearland, Whittaker ran out of power formations similar to what Texas is expected to feature in 2011, and he carved up defenses to the tune of 5,717 career rushing yards, good for sixth best in Texas 5A history when his high school career had ended.

Coach Heath, who speaks with Whittaker regularly, including text messages before and after every UT game, expects big things next fall from his former star tailback.

"It looked like he really stepped forward and was doing some good things this spring. The biggest thing is he's been injury free. If he can get by that, I think he'll surprise people," Heath said. "People call him a small back, but that's a little misleading. In the past, Texas has been more of a stretch, zone, kind of a finesse offense. What they're doing this year, you'll see the true Fozzy. In high school ball, he ran the iso, ran the power I, ran downhill. And he was good at it. I think we'll see that next year. With that extra back in the backfield, I think you'll be surprised with the kid. He's not a little back. He's not a 165-pounder (Whittaker is listed at 5-10 and 198 pounds). He has speed but he can finish runs too."

Texas will likely divide its carries among a number of tailbacks next fall, but Whittaker very well could be first in the pecking order after his spring performance. He knows next fall will be his last crack to turn heads and live up to his lofty potential. Whittaker put in a lot of work last off-season to bulk up his body and he'll undoubtedly do the same in the coming months to put himself in position to succeed. He has a natural drive to be good and he's able to push himself to do well, two traits that have served him well in the classroom and could pay dividends next fall.

"What stands out with Fozzy on the field is his determination, his commitment. You see it in his commitment to the classroom, his commitment to being the best he can be," said Heath. "Character goes a long way with him. He has a lot of self pride on the field. He may not be the tallest, he might not be the biggest. So he understands the extra work and commitment it takes for him to be successful."

DOING HIS NAMESAKE PROUD

Though he has few memories of his father since he died when Fozzy was such a young age, Fozzy does ask his mom about his father periodically to get an idea of what kind of man he was.

"He'll ask some days, 'did dad do this?" or 'did this happen?'," Gloria said. "It makes it kind of cool for him to have those questions, to have that relationship with his daddy."

Whittaker's full name is Foswhitt Jerald Whittaker, a tribute to his father, who was in finance but also taught part-time at a college. His students would call him either Mr. Foster (his first name) or Mr. Whittaker, and he would joke that he was born with two last names and didn't want his son to have that same issue. Foster and Gloria decided to take the first three letters of Foster's name and the first five letters of his last name and the unique name Foswhitt was created.

Whittaker may not have had the opportunity to build many memories with his father, but he can hold his head high knowing he's making his namesake proud with the man he's become. Now, he's hoping to do the same with the Longhorn fans with his play on the field.



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