The year 2013 was a lot of things for Auburn football.
A great start wasn’t one. In Gus Malzahn’s first game as the Tigers’ new head man, his unranked team clung to a one-score lead for most of the evening in a 31-24 season-opening win over Washington State, which ended the year at 6-7.
Enchanted may be the best description. After a Week 4 loss at LSU, Auburn ripped off nine straight wins, including the “Prayer in Jordan-Hare” win over Georgia and the “Kick Six” miracle against Alabama — en route to an SEC title and BCS National Championship game berth.
Heisman winner Jameis Winston and unbeaten Florida State spoiled the fun in the last national championship of the BCS era with a come-from-behind win that featured a miraculous late score, giving Auburn a taste of its own medicine.
No matter, the offseason on The Plains brimmed with optimism, and for good reason. Auburn had a Coach of the Year winner at the helm, championship rings on players’ fingers and its rivals scrambling to solve an offense seemingly in the 22nd century.
But Auburn didn’t have Jeffrey Whitaker on the field like it was supposed to.
A week before the season opener against Washington State, Whitaker, a senior starter at defensive tackle, felt his right knee locking up at practice.
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“I went to the trainer and told him I wasn’t going to move until he looked at this,” Whitaker said in an interview with The Plainsman. “I said, ‘We’ve got to look at this right now. I’m not leaving this office until we do.’”
A torn meniscus was the quick diagnosis — out for the season.
“Something I should have fixed in previous years,” Whitaker said. “But being Iron Man, being this guy where nothing’s going to hurt me, ‘throw dirt on it’ mentality. And it cost me.
“But at the same time, it all happened for a reason.”
Whitaker took a redshirt and essentially became another assistant coach on the sidelines. He, Malzahn and defensive line coach Rodney Garner would meet regularly, not just to check in on Whitaker’s mental and physical health, but also to game-plan.
Admittedly, it took time and some occasional frustrations for Whitaker to process the magnitude of the injury and not being able to be on the field with his teammates. But eventually, the senior from Macon, Georgia, found peace with his new role, so much so that he felt comfortable giving away the keys to the season.
“I learned that you could lead from the back seat,” Whitaker said. “You can own the car, somebody else could drive it and you can be in the backseat. It’s still your car. And every now and then, you tell them, ‘Make a left’ or ‘Make a right’ or ‘Do a U-turn.’”
After the Thursday practice before the LSU game, Whitaker gathered the team for a brief, emotional meeting. After some foreplay, he extended his 6-foot-4 frame and gestured toward a particular junior college transfer.
“I handed the keys to Nick Marshall,” Whitaker said. “I said, ‘We’re going to be 100 percent behind him.’ Then, I took the throne off and put it on all those seniors, and I said, ‘I’m going to cheer from the sideline.’”
Auburn lost to LSU two days later in a game that later proved insignificant as the offense, led by Marshall, began slaughtering conference opponents. With the scheme of Malzahn, who, at the time, was still considered an “offensive guru,” the Tigers averaged an SEC-best 45 points per game during their nine-game win streak.
But only on occasion was Whitaker there in person to see his colleagues soar.
“My grandmother was dying,” Whitaker said. “We were winning, and my grandmother was dying.”
Whitaker’s mother died of cancer when he was 12, after which he said he experienced suicidal thoughts. When his grandmother grew ill, he knew he needed to distance himself.
Whitaker didn’t travel to road games, including the SEC Championship in Atlanta. While confetti rained down on the newly crowned conference kings, Whitaker was at Piedmont Hospital just down the road at her bedside.
In that moment, the injury was a blessing.
“Me and my grandmother had some heart-to-heart conversations we would never have had if I had been playing ball,” Whitaker said.
Whitaker’s grandmother passed, just as his mother did right before her 41st birthday.
“I live with the thought of her and understand that my best birthday is going to be 41,” Whitaker said. “I’ve got to get to 41.”
The interior lineman made his long-awaited return in 2014, but he wasn’t the same player. His production dipped, and with a back injury lingering this time around, his draft stock plummeted as well.
Still, that didn’t slow down Whitaker’s drive at his pro day.
He pumped out 41 reps of the 225-pound bench press — a number that would have been tops at the NFL Combine had Whitaker been invited.
However, the emphatic performance wasn’t enough to block out his injuries from NFL scouts and get him drafted. Whitaker saw it as one final testament of his work ethic and determination.
“It was like I was the athlete out of his body, and I was trying to get back to the old me,” Whitaker said.
The video of Whitaker’s performance became popular among draft junkies years ago. Now, it gets played on bigger screens.
Whitaker is using his “hell of a story” to inspire as a motivational speaker. According to Whitaker, sometimes venues will open the event with the bench press video.
Inspirational speaking is just one occupation Whitaker has taken on since his graduation. He also writes non-fiction and works on the recruiting front for Auburn. His title is technically "recruiting intern," which “is just a nice way of saying that everybody gets paid more than me.”
When Whitaker first took on speaking, he was hesitant.
“But that’s the thing about good teaching,” Whitaker said. “It makes you stand when you think you can’t stand.”
Whitaker adopted that mantra and began speaking to kids who, a lot of the time, he sees a younger version of himself in. Like Whitaker used to be, they’re often in the wrong situations.
“Everything with this,” Whitaker said as he motioned around a room at the Auburn Athletics complex filled with portraits, trophies and championships. “I never dreamed of it. I loved the game but never thought I’d be out there one day. I was a product of my environment. All I saw was drug selling and gang-banging.
“And my mom was definitely too strict for me to be in a gang, so that wasn’t going to happen."
What Whitaker found out was, as he began giving his story and “freeing” others, it was because he was reliving his own pain.
That’s a necessary evil. Whitaker recalled Kanye West’s 2011 collaboration with Jay-Z, “No Church in the Wild,” for its sentiment that pain isn’t cheap.
“If I ask for peace, I was probably in a noisy environment at some point,” Whitaker said. “If I ask for freedom, at one point I didn’t feel so free. So it’s what you ask for, it comes with a price.”
The same can be said for his recruiting process.
“This is the reason why recruiting is fun for me,” Whitaker said. “The fun thing is the one-on-one interactions that you have. Because I have started to see people — the way I view people now, I see a little bit of me in everybody. And I want to take care of me. So if I see a little bit of me in everybody, that means I want to take care of people.”
Whitaker is now well-versed in life lessons, allowing him to relate to the recruits he often hosts at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
He’s been there as an athlete who dug himself further and further into his craft to cast the rest of his life away.
“This is a gladiator game,” Whitaker said. “There’s so many people that can cry all night, then go out on the football field and perform well because this is glorifying.”
That understanding leads Whitaker to be a popular character around Auburn Athletics. Though it wasn’t quite according to his plan, he’s now been in Auburn for nearly nine years.
He said he owes his life to Malzahn and Garner, who were always available to him. Whitaker said Malzahn would reschedule other meetings to sit down with him and talk him through his frustrations during his roughest stretches. He said senior linebacker Deshaun Davis is the greatest motivational speaker he’s ever heard. He sees endless potential there.
“It’s all behind me,” Whitaker said. “I’m just rooting for the next man.”
But to Whitaker, no one can eclipse the greatness of his own teachings. That’s because they’re not his.
“When I got into the inspirational speaking — and I didn’t know this at first — it was my mother’s teachings and my grandmother’s teachings.”
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