As far as Christmas presents go, not much beats receiving one of your first NFL paychecks.
Fozzy Whittaker doesn’t care if it comes from being on the Arizona Cardinals practice squad. He’ll happy take the $5,700 a week, because he knows it could be the start of something great.
“Honestly, just being on a team is a good situation,” he said.
After 11 months of uncertainty, 2012 ended with considerable promise for the former Texas running back. He parlayed a tryout with the Cardinals into two weeks on the organization’s practice squad to end the season.
Now he’s hoping the move sticks. Whittaker signed a futures contract with the Cardinals at the end of the season. That ensures he’ll stay in the organization through the summer.
He’s staying with former Longhorn teammate Sam Acho for now while he balances the rigors of rehab and apartment hunting. That sure beats sitting at home and wondering if he’d ever get a shot at playing football again.
“It’s been a blessing, and I guess everything just started to fill into place,” he said. “I took advantage of what was given to me.”
Back in April, he wasn’t given much. Whittaker went undrafted and was told pro teams wouldn’t sign him until he was further along in his recovery from a torn ACL and MCL in his right knee.
Mack Brown invited him to stay in Austin and continue his rehab with Texas’ trainers. He finished his master’s degree and did whatever he could to help the program.
“Throughout the season I’d go in, sit in on meetings, keep my football IQ up,” he said. “I’d go out to practice, watch them practice, say a few things here and there to some of the running backs, do some running and conditioning with them to help myself.”
When Bryan Harsin left for Arkansas State and Major Applewhite became quarterbacks coach, Whittaker even took part in coaching up the running backs for two bowl practices.
But then the long-awaited phone call came. He signed on Dec. 18, traveled to Phoenix and got to work. No time to celebrate. Whittaker threw on his No. 32 jersey and hit the practice field.
“It was straight to the grind,” he said. “I didn’t get a chance to have any leeway getting into practice, no leeway learning plays. I just had to jump straight into it. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect. I was ready for whatever.”
The Cards had Chicago that week, so Whittaker had to imitate Matt Forte. The next week, he played the role of Frank Gore to prep for the 49ers.
His entire body ached those first few days. Lots of cold tub. But the knee held up.
“Getting out there on the first day with helmets and cleats and going through everything full speed against was exhilarating,” Whittaker said. “Going against that defense and seeing where I am and feeling my knee out and feeling the game out on my first day there was really a huge eye-opener.”
Another eye-opener was finding out Arizona fired head coach Ken Whitsenhunt, GM Rod Graves and nearly every offensive assistant on Monday.
That shake-up won’t cost Whittaker his job. He’s staying in Arizona now and the Cardinals training staff will help him finish his rehab. If anything, it might actually help his chances of sticking in the NFL.
“Obviously they didn’t have enough time with me to know what I had to offer,” Whittaker said. “With a new staff coming in, it brings me closer to being able to maybe get on the field faster. It’s a new beginning for everybody and puts us on a more level field.”
There could be plenty of opportunity in Arizona, where the Cardinals had the NFL's worst rushing offense in 2012. The team's leading rusher, LaRod Stephens-Howling, finished with 357 yards. Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams missed most of the season with injuries and rushed for 234 and 164 yards, respectively.
Whittaker wants to push them, and he expects his knee to be fully healthy by the time April workouts begin. If he can't be a situational back, he'd at least like a role in special teams.
For now, though, he’s just satisfied to know he’s got his foot in the door. It might not much, but it’s a start.
“The only thing I can do is get back to 100 percent and control what I can control,” he said. “Once the knee is 100 percent, I can do everything.”
After the long year of waiting he just endured, that’s all Whittaker could ask for.