Clear87° WeatherClear87° Weather

Spring Hill high grad hasn't lost hope he'll land in NFL

The negative connotation of being labeled a "journeyman" as a professional athlete is well chronicled. If a player is bounced from team to team, it's usually not a good thing.

For Huey Whittaker, playing this season for the Spokane Shock in the Arena Football League, it's a situation that's been out of his control.

The effort has been there on the gridiron, as evidenced by Whittaker's 2008 All-Arena Football League First Team honor with the Utah Blaze. That season, he hauled in 126 receptions for 1,541 yards and 32 touchdowns to go with eight more rushing scores. However, Whittaker's story doesn't begin or end there, as he continues to pursue his goal of someday playing in the National Football League.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on June 19, 1981, Whittaker was raised in Spring Hill. He always loved sports, but didn't really start playing organized basketball or football until high school. At Springstead High, he emerged as a star. He was two-time all-state in track and still holds the school record in the high jump.

In football, he broke the mold in a program that had never been known for its passing offense, making his coaches think about slinging the ball downfield on occasion. In basketball, fellow students turned out for games just to see him dunk.

"The best part about growing up in Spring Hill was being around guys that were the same way as me, playing basketball, football and track," Whittaker said. "I could have been misguided and strayed off, but because of that I always came back."

Once high school ended in 1999, Whittaker moved on to Hudson Valley (N.Y.) Community College. There he impressed coaches enough to draw interest from the University of South Florida, who picked him up as a transfer. In short order he had gone from totally under the radar out of high school to a 6-foot-5 specimen wide receiver.

The interest from the Bulls paid off. While going to school in Tampa, he played in 21 football games and snagged 117 receptions for 1,447 yards and seven touchdowns. He also walked away from USF with a bachelor's degree in business management.

What Whittaker really wanted after college was a career in the NFL. After his senior year, he caught on with the Jacksonville Jaguars in training camp, but it didn't last long. He then went overseas to NFL Europe, where he played a season for the Frankfurt Galaxy. In 2005, he caught 11 balls for 153 yards and one score.

The following year, still pursuing his NFL dream, he began a career in the fledgling Arena Football League. At the time, the AFL had a contract to appear on network television and had a growing fan base with its Arena Bowl.

Whittaker signed with the local Tampa Bay Storm and was with the organization on and off through 2006 and 2007. However, he never got much playing time from head coach Tim Marcum.

"I just think it wasn't a good fit. It definitely wasn't because I wasn't good enough," Whittaker said. "(Marcum) wasn't ready to make that move. He had to make a decision that he thought was best for his team."

At the tail end of 2007, Whittaker found his way to the Utah Blaze, and in that brief stint he knew the chemistry on that team was right. He got the sense that he would get an opportunity to shine in 2008, and he couldn't have been more right.

His success and accolades in the AFL led to a training camp opportunity with the New York Jets, his best chance yet at the NFL. It was there that he encountered NFL coach Henry Ellard, a legendary former Los Angeles Rams wide receiver (prior to the Rams' move to St. Louis).

"Henry Ellard was a big influence on me," Whittaker said. "I tried to listen to everything he said to me while I was there. You can't get too much information from someone like that."

While the experience in New York didn't pan out, Whittaker didn't let it deflate him. He also didn't let it get him down when the AFL nearly folded in 2009 due to financial difficulties. The league ceased operations for a time, but restructured and back in business for 2010.

With the league again up and running, Whittaker was somewhat of a hot commodity after his solid 2008 season. However, salaries in the AFL were no longer reliable, and at 29 years old, he had to consider the best situation for himself.

He could have gone back to Utah or to Arizona, but he chose Spokane. So far, the results have been incredible. Eleven games into the 16-game schedule, Whittaker has 99 receptions for 1,079 yards and 23 touchdowns. He's also added one rushing score.

The Arena League has been financially viable in its first year back and will look to add more franchises in future seasons.

Whittaker likes his position, but makes it clear that his sights are still on an NFL career.

"For anyone who is playing football, the NFL is what they want," he said. "I have no idea what the ultimate goal is, but as long as I believe that, I am going to keep fighting for it."

Fast facts

Huey Whittaker

Age: 29

Born: June 19, 1981, Brooklyn, N.Y. Grew up in Spring Hill.

Team: Spokane Shock, Arena Football League

Accomplishments: 2008 All-AFL First Team

Website: spokaneshock.com

Spring Hill high grad hasn't lost hope he'll land in NFL 07/07/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 7, 2010 6:10pm]

© 2014 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...