Terrapins' Whittier keeps bouncing back Senior linebacker shakes off injuries

November 09, 1990|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,Sun Staff Correspondent

COLLEGE PARK -- It was a Kodak moment.

The University of Maryland had just lost to Clemson, 18-17, and out of the locker room came Terps senior linebacker Scott Whittier. He wore black cowboy boots, polyester shorts, a blue button-down shirt, a blue-jeans jacket and a baseball cap. His left leg was wrapped from the ankle to the top of the thigh with two Ace bandages.

And, as he limped away, he spat tobacco in a plastic cup.

"That's him; that's his whole story," said tight end Bret Boehly.

Said inside linebacker Michael Jarmolowich: "He's just one tough person. He gets injured so much because he loves the game and throws his body around. . . . Whit plays this game very well."

Whittier, all 6 feet, 210 pounds of him, could be called Maryland's Iron Man, but Plastic Man would be more fitting. In six years, he has had a pinched nerve in his neck, a hip flexor, dislocations of almost every finger and several thigh bruises. Almost every game has a WTO -- a Whittier timeout for injury.

And then there was last year, when he missed the entire season because of a cyst on his spine that required major surgery.

Between visits to the training room, Whittier has fought with teammates, the opposition and his position coach, and has read former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer's book.

He is third on the team in tackles with 64, and tomorrow he will lead the Terps (5-4) into University Park, Pa., for a 1 p.m. game against No. 24 Penn State (6-2).

Whittier will have a lot to say about the game, especially if Maryland wins.

"A Maryland win would put a finger in the eye of everyone's face that hasn't stuck with us over the years," Whittier said. "We've got a few thousand fans that have stuck with us, but generally we haven't gotten a lot of public support. This is all talk right now, but if we win . . . "

Penn State is a 14-point favorite, but Whittier is used to beating the odds. A year ago, he thought he was in perhaps the best condition of his career when he suffered a hip flexor while squatting more than 500 pounds two weeks before the season opener.

Further diagnosis revealed a cyst, and doctors feared that Whittier never would regain full strength in his left leg.

"I had trained very hard and was hoping to get my 40--- time down for the pro scouts," said Whittier. "I was really upset. I was captain of the team, and the season opener was on ESPN. Yet here I was, sitting in a hospital bed. As the planes were going overhead, that's when I lost it."

It got worse.

Whittier, a fifth-year senior, had to write to the National Collegiate Athletic Association requesting a medical hardship. The answer came in weeks, but it seemed like years.

"He became the missing man," said Boehly. "He just withdrew from everybody."

After the request was granted, Whittier still had a long way to go. He always had to lift weights to keep up his size [220 pounds maximum], but the inactivity reduced him to 204. The left leg had lost most of its definition, and position coach George Foussekis had to keep him out of a number of spring drills.

"My leg had very little strength and I wasn't able to take a lot of hits," Whittier said. "There were times when I had doubts about making a comeback. But Coach Foussekis was very supportive, and he told me that if I tested out well in the summer, I should play."

And so he has.

"I'm going to miss Scott as a player when he leaves, but I'm going to miss him more as a person," said Foussekis, who has had a number of sideline arguments with Whittier over strategy. "He is extremely loyal and a hard worker. It's his toughness and desire that make him a good player. As far as him speaking out, Scott won't complain or talk behind your back. He'll tell you what he feels to your face."

Whittier said his brashness started when he was in the eighth grade. That's when his father, Allen, a former player in the National and Canadian football leagues, began losing almost everything he had achieved because of a drinking problem.

"The family split up and I lived with my father," Whittier said. "I watched him work a lot of jobs to make ends meet, and that's when I saw things from the other side.

"I had to take care and speak up for myself because my relationship wasn't that good with my father. I could have grown up and curbed myself to be a bum. But my father sat down with me and asked me if I wanted to be a bum or play football and make something of myself."

Whittier will graduate with a degree in speech communication -- what else? -- this year. This season, he has had a number of conversations, but none of them textbook material.

There were altercations with Duke fullback Randy Cuthbert, Georgia Tech tight end Tom Covington and Clemson guard Eric Harmon.

Now, Whittier says he has calmed down.

"I liked being the hardhead, the uncontrollable one, because I never had great size," he said. "I get in anybody's face. Coach Fo [Foussekis] and I had some fights on the sidelines in previous years because I thought we should be playing another defense or something, but that took away from the team. I'm treating this season more in businesslike fashion because I want to be remembered as a team player."

Whittier likely will be remembered that way.

"If I was in a foxhole injured and had one person with me, I would want that person to be Scott Whittier," said Boehly.

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