Whaley ready to take NFL by storm
There has not been a Bermuda link to the National Football League since Antonio Pierce last kitted up for the New York Giants in 2009.
Devwah Whaley aims to change all that in the wake of being signed by the Cincinnati Bengals last weekend.
Pierce, who like Whaley was an undrafted free agent before he was picked up by the Washington Redskins in 2001, made a fool of the scouts by grinding out an exemplary nine-year career in the NFL as an outside linebacker — including being named to the Pro Bowl in 2006 and winning the Super Bowl with the Giants in 2007.
A tall order for Whaley to consider emulating even before he has got started, but the 22-year-old has rarely met a challenge or form of adversity that he has backed down from.
“I’ve heard of Antonio, but that was years ago,” said Whaley, who was not born when Ron Davenport (Miami Dolphins, 1985-89) and Rocky Thompson (NY Giants, 1971-73) graced the American gridiron in establishing the template for Bermudians in the NFL.
“It is motivation being from Bermuda; you want to make the island proud and accomplish what you can.”
Born in Gary, Indiana — renowned as the home town of the Jacksons — to Bermudian middle-distance runner Devoe Whaley and American Mary Haynes, young Devwah was back and forth between Bermuda and the US in his early years.
“I moved to Bermuda aged 1 or 2, moved back to States, and then at 10 or 11, I was back in Bermuda,” the former Dalton E. Tucker student said.
In between, he had picked up the American football bug and it was inevitable he would head back to the US to play high school football.
“Being able to get back and play again [at age 12 or 13] was definitely worth it,” said Whaley, who starred for Central High School in Beaumont, Texas, before attracting the attention of college scouts, and ultimately accepting the call from the University of Arkansas in the elite Southeastern Conference.
Beaumont has a population of more than 118,000, but Whaley is a household name after his exploits as a four-star ball-carrier with the Beaumont Central Jaguars.
Interviewed by local media just before the draft — as anticipation heated up that he and high school team-mate Michael Jacquet III were in with a shot — Whaley could not hide his excitement.
“I’m excited just waiting to see what’s going to happen,” he told CBS affiliate KFDM. “It’s been a long process and I feel like it’s been going on for ever.
“It would be a dream come true. A lot of kids grow up dreaming and wishing to reach goals of theirs. For me, that’s playing in the NFL.”
Both got the call, with Jacquet, a converted cornerback who went to college at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, heading to the Philadelphia Eagles.
On leaving Beaumont for Fayetteville, Arkansas, about 8˝ hours’ drive away, Whaley flew out of the blocks with the Razorbacks.
He rushed for 602 yards and three touchdowns in his freshman year, and followed that with 559 yards and seven TDs as a sophomore. But his final two years were mixed.
This was reflected in the programme overall, with Arkansas enduring consecutive winless conference schedules and not having been invited to a lucrative Bowl game since 2014 — lost prime-time in the shop window for upperclassmen spying the paid ranks.
Injuries and falling out of favour with a new coaching set-up led to Whaley questioning his future.
“I didn’t, I really didn’t,” Whaley said when asked if he could see himself being an NFL player at the time he went down with a serious ankle injury midway through the 2018 season.
“It was torn tendons and a really bad sprain,” he explained. “The surgery required was a tightrope surgery that is meant to help the ankle heal faster and make it stronger. Recovery took a couple of weeks.”
Back on the field, Whaley found himself farther down the depth chart — to the extent that in his senior year he had only 69 carries for 278 yards.
“Injury was not the reason,” he said of his limited playing time. “It was the coaching change. New coaches, different styles, they like who they like.”
He added: “Man, there was adversity, a lot of adversity. One of the thoughts I had was of transferring; even this past season because I still had a redshirt [option to add one year of playing eligibility].
“I thought about it, but at the end of the day I was staying there [at Arkansas].
“One thing about me how I was raised and what I learnt from my parents was, ‘Don’t give up. Don’t be a quitter’.
“Me staying there through all the things that were going on, it proved a lot of other things about me that people questioned — like being a team player, having good character and being able to deal with that adversity. At the next level, they look at a lot of stuff like that.”
Whaley’s final ledger at Arkansas reads 44 games, 15 starts, 388 carries for 1,807 yards and 16 touchdowns, and 38 receptions for 423 yards and a touchdown.
Not stats that will have the fantasy leaguers drooling, but Whaley is determined to prove that he belongs.
“It will be a new coach [Zac Taylor, in his second year with the Bengals] and new system,” Whaley said. “I’m excited just to be out there and learn from the best so it could help my game and make me a better player.”
He added: “Not just a better player, but a better person.
“I’m going there to prove my worth as a running back and earn a job, and try to make the roster or the practice squad.
“At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about — going out there trying to compete to win a job.”
As the only running back the Bengals have picked up in the off-season, you might imagine there to be some pressure, but there will be none of that.
All eyes will be on new quarterback Joe Burrow, touted as the saviour of the struggling franchise after being chosen with the No 1 overall pick in the draft.
“It’s pretty cool being able to go out there and play with him, especially with all he has accomplished,” Whaley said of the 2020 Heisman Trophy winner who led LSU to the national championship in January.
“It’s a blessing and it’s amazing. He has a chance to go out there and turn the programme around. That’s why they drafted him No 1 overall.”
Christian McCaffrey, who just signed a four-year $64 million contract extension with the Carolina Panthers to make him the highest-paid running back in NFL history, is a player Whaley looks up to.
“He’s like a silent assassin,” he said. “You have other backs that are just as good, but they don’t get a chance to broadcast their ability like that because of the style of offence.
“McCaffrey, the situation he’s put in is amazing. He does it all — catches, runs, everything.”
Restrictions because of the coronavirus pandemic mean NFL teams cannot begin training as they would like.
Coaches are having to drill various offensive and defensive units by way of virtual sessions, while rules prevent engagement with rookies until May 11 — in the event they still have classes to complete.
Covid-19 has already put paid to plans Whaley had to visit Bermuda for the first time since 2018 — for Bermuda Heroes Weekend, the next high-profile event on island awaiting the bullet — but this very real “silent assassin” is not going to get in the way of his dream.
“I have a trainer with a gym near by,” he said. “I’m just continuing to keep working, keep training. Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready.”
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