LINCOLN — Four seasons. The length of a man’s college football career, if you’re lucky enough to win the genetic lottery. Short time, really. Dudes write songs about how short four seasons can be. They drink beers and shed tears over the fleeting nature of this blip of time.
But four seasons are not so short that a career can’t take a few turns. That it can’t descend into valleys and emerge from those lulls to scale peaks, only to plunge and rise, plunge and rise, like life often does.
So it was for Nebraska linebacker Alonzo Whaley — and his career full of twists — just before Wisconsin lined up for the dramatic fourth-and-1 Saturday night. As replay officials determined the exact spot of the ball, the fifth-year senior prophetically pulled aside sophomore safety Harvey Jackson.
This is what we’ve been waiting on, Whaley told him.
One play to put the Badgers to sleep. When Wisconsin lined up, Whaley sensed it’d be the same power play he’d seen from Montee Ball and Co. all night. The one that left the backside A gap wide open to attack. Whaley’s gap.
Be aggressive, he told himself. Shoot the gap.
Already, Whaley had played his best game — by far — as a Husker, more than two years after he’d earned his first start in 2010, one year after coach Bo Pelini left him off the 105-man roster to start 2011 fall camp, 10 months after Whaley earned a Blackshirt, one month after he firmly secured the starting Will linebacker job, three weeks after he’d played a terrible game at UCLA, two weeks after he’d been replaced in the starting lineup by junior college transfer Zaire Anderson and 10 days after doctors discovered Anderson had torn the ACL in his right knee.
That’s one long sentence for a relatively short chapter in a man’s life. The road is imperfect, bumpy, detour-ridden.
But Whaley owns this road. He knows its whole width. He drove on the shoulder for a while. And coaches gave him a chance to swerve off. That’s the summer of 2011. Linebackers coach Ross Els remembered that he liked Whaley. Bright. Funny. Friendly.
“But he’s late to class,” Els recalled at the Sept. 21 Big Red Breakfast. “He’s texting during class. He’s missing tutoring appointments. He didn’t stay very long or get very much treatment. ... I got to the point where I said, ‘Zo, I love you as a person. When we get done, we’re going to go out and play some golf together. We’re going to have a good time. But I can’t stand you as a football player.’”
Whaley figured he could flip a switch on the football field. Be one kind of guy in school and “half-do stuff” and go full throttle in practice.
“It didn’t happen,” Whaley said. “And it started showing. But I was too caught up in my ways to even realize it. So instead of my mind-set being ‘How can I fix this?’ it was more of ‘Dang, I’m getting screwed.’”
Pelini stepped in and took Whaley off the 105. Sat Whaley down, looked at him and said: Do you want to be here? Whaley said yes. He didn’t want to walk away from his best friend, Will Compton, or what he calls the “brotherhood” of Nebraska football.
“Hands down, best day of my life,” said Whaley, who eventually got a Blackshirt last year and finished with 11 tackles. He got more serious about his Christian faith, reading daily a Bible verse — 2 Corinthians 12:10 — he wrote in the back of his defensive playbook. The verse ends with: “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
If you remember the articles from spring and fall camp, Whaley’s career got its Husker-approved happy ending right there. The moral of the story, as it were. With a smile, he’d recount his climb from foolishness to maturity and gush about the team’s senior chemistry. He can retell that part of the journey, and it’ll always be true.
But the road had more twists in it. Because football — a bottom-line game — doesn’t often acknowledge morals to stories. Or themes or subtext or any of that. It acknowledges plot. What did you do? What did the other guy do? Who won?
On a fast grass track, UCLA’s class of athletes won big. They exposed Whaley’s weakness in open-field tackling and coverage.
“I missed too many tackles,” Whaley said. “I beat myself up about it.”
This is true. In the bowels of the Rose Bowl that night, Whaley’s look in a postgame interview was that of a man brought low. He thought he’d hurt the team — the brotherhood — with his play. I’d put it on the coaches, frankly, for throwing a run-stuffer out there to stick with West Coast speedsters, but either way, it wouldn’t do.
Whaley approached Els two days later. And Els had already decided, Whaley said, to approach him. They mutually agreed: Wide-open spread teams are not No. 45’s specialty.
“After that UCLA game, he came to me and said, ‘Coach, that’s not my style of game. One of the younger guys, are they ready to go?’” Els said. “Because he understood that. When you can get that type of character and when you can see that turnaround, that’s why I work in this business.”
And Els works as a coach to see what Whaley did Saturday night. Nine tackles. A sack of UW quarterback Joel Stave. And, of course, that fourth-and-1 play that combined Whaley’s senior seasoning and a seize-the-moment attitude. Backside A gap.
“And it’s mine,” Whaley said.
He shot the gap. He got to Ball before Ball even knew he had a football to bobble, popped it to the ground and watched Jackson scoop it up.
“I prayed that whole game,” Whaley said. “We were down, but it never felt like it. And I tried to pray — I tried to stay positive — and when (the play) happened, all I could think was: God put me on this stage for a reason. I have no idea what it’s for, but it’s for a reason. We’ll find out.”
I like that answer. Four seasons is short. But it’s long enough to savor a story still being finished.
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