All season, TV commentators, Steve Sarkisian and even Jordan Whittington himself informed us that the wide receiver returned for his fifth year of college football for the chance to play in Saturday's Big 12 Championship Game. That's the partial truth.
Whittington revealed the whole truth in a Players' Tribune article published on the day of the 2023 NFL Draft. Whittington did return to Texas to compete for a championship. He also returned because he feared the NFL wouldn't accept him.
Whittington was anointed a future NFL star the last time he stepped on the AT&T Stadium turf. On that December day five years ago, he became a legend in the Class 4A DII state championship game when he willed the Cuero Gobblers to their first state title in 31 years. His 334 rushing yards as a wildcat quarterback shattered Eric Dickerson's Texas 4A state championship rushing record. Whittington was named the game's offensive and defensive MVP, gifted a fifth-star next to his name and heaped with all the expectations of an illustrious college career to follow.
After multiple season-ending injuries through his Texas tenure, he returns to Arlington on Saturday.
"I feared I'd end up back in my hometown and be the kid who 'almost made it,'" Whittington wrote in April on why he came back to Texas. "I feared that my family and friends would view me as a failure."
The reality is quite the opposite. Reading Jordan's piece, his older brother, Quincey, felt nothing but pride in the man Jordan had become. Quincey's been by Jordan's side through the younger brother's entire football journey. Even in those earliest days in South Texas when he guided a young Jordan scrawling out his goals, the NFL was never included. All Quincey ever wanted was for Jordan to be a good man.
"A true man will admit his fear," Quincey said. "A weak man won't and will do whatever just to do it out of what others may think or what opportunities he might lose out on."
And to comprehend how Jordan Whittington became a true man, you've got to go back to Cuero, Texas. Where, in a town of 8,000 people, the Whittington name looms larger than life, and one brother who was nearly crushed under that pressure ushered his younger brother's growth beyond it.
Jordan Whittington knocked on the office door of Cuero head coach Travis Reeve's on the first Monday of the 2018 playoffs. Whittington had written a contract he wanted the team to sign before embarking on the six-week drive to state.
Reeve was receptive, if a little perplexed. Whittington was a team leader but never the outspoken, rah-rah type. The senior had blossomed into Cuero's best player, furthering his family's legacy while carving a separate niche. Quincey never trained him to be the next Whittington running back wearing No.40 like his Gobbler relatives before him. Jordan instead became a Texas commit as a two-way wide receiver and safety donning No. 3. Reeve maintains Jordan's the only athlete he's ever coached who'd have a gaggle of kids waiting for him after a game to sign autographs.
So when the football player with a cult following stood in front of his teammates in the locker room and asked them to sign a contract he'd crafted, it marked the turning point of their season. Jordan wanted them to practice every play like it was the state championship, to give everything they had for the next six weeks. The Cuero team did it.
"Anybody else could have done that, and I think it would've been received well," Reeve said. "But Jordan did that; every single guy signed it. Every coach signed it. And it was the best six weeks that I've ever been a part of as a high school coach because everybody bought into that."
Cuero ripped off five straight wins, scoring an average of 51.6 points per game to land in the state title with a matchup against Texarkana Pleasant Grove, the defending champions.
On Tuesday of game week, Reeve sat down for his Fox Sports production meeting and was asked if he had a touch count for Whittington.
"I said, 'We don’t really have a number. It's whatever it's going to take for us to win,’" Reeve said.
Whittington was phenomenal all season and the prospect the broadcast wanted to focus on considering his college plans. But he was far from a one-man show. Cuero had two 1,000-yard rushers in its backfield. Their quarterback had thrown for over 2,400 yards to a handful of wideouts.
But Whittington had the hot hand from Cuero's first offensive play when he ran for a 69-yard touchdown. Trailing 21-7 with 3:44 left in the second half, Reeve put Whittington at quarterback. The senior responded by almost single-handedly willing Cuero's offense to a state title. In one legendary perfromance, he nearly doubled his rushing attempts from the entire season. As the second half wore on, everyone in AT&T Stadium knew Whittington was getting the ball and nobody on Pleasant Grove's defense could stop him. Frankly, the only person who would've denied Jordan Whittington that afternoon was Cuero's offensive play-caller. And maybe the refs.
"I think he scored 10 touchdowns that game and four of them got called back," Reeve said.
As the Cuero faithful jumped and screamed in the stands, Quincey sat calmly, a smile slowly spreading on his face as he remembered all the times he looked into a young Jordan's eyes on an empty football field and assured him he'd reach a moment like this one day.
Jordan was not in the first in his family to shine for the Cuero Gobblers. His father and uncle were running backs on state title teams. His uncle, Arthur Whittington, played for five years in the NFL and won a Super Bowl with the Oakland Raiders in 1978.
In the late 2000s, Quincey Whittington was the family's next star in the backfield, donning the signature No. 40 for Cuero just like all the other Whittington boys. The hype and legacy, however, was always a double-edged sword.
"It's good because you're part of something," Quincey said. "It's bad because of expectations. It gives you the drive to fulfill their shoes. But it also was pressure trying to be what people expect you to be because of a last name rather than just being who you are and letting God work things out how they should."
That drive to match expectations powered Quincey through his prep career, where he rushed for 1,903 yards and 26 touchdowns. Once he got to SMU in 2008, he was drained from pushing to evolve into the star people desired him to be. Then, his physical body started to fail him as his mental health withered. Multiple injuries forced him into groin surgery. He transferred to Santa Rosa Junior College in California in a desperate attempt to salvage his career. Then he blew out his hamstring.
Jordan wrote about the fear of returning to Cuero as a once-future star. Quincey lived that. When he quit football in 2011 and flew back from the Pacific Coast, his quest to achieve his family's dream was finished.
For a period, Quincey spent night after night back in his hometown contemplating ending his life, waking up the following day having almost done it, then repeated the mental cycle. He started watching his younger brother, Jordan, play peewee football during this low point. Jordan's mother (Quincey and Jordan share the same father) pulled Quincey to the side. Jordan needed a solid male figure in his life.
So Quincey started training Jordan in fifth grade. Quincey's football journey had brought him back to Cuero where he'd hope to build Jordan into a well-rounded man not dependent on a football career that can always disappear in one play.
"I was reliving my life through him," Quincey said. "I was giving him a brother that I didn't have. I was giving him that male support and emotion that I didn't have."
Quincey wasn't a stern father-figure. He was a big brother. A friend. They'd grind through ladder drills on an empty field. When Jordan hit seventh grade, Quincey glimpsed the hints of a potential Division I athlete.
Other athletes did, too, which is how Quincey morphed into a renowned trainer. He used to drive a bevy of small-town kids to nearby football camps in his massive pickup truck. He took guys like former 6-foot-7-inch Baylor defensive end Bralen Taylor and current New England Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe from Victoria, Texas, under his mentorship.
Quincey showed Jordan how to attack the weight room, reformed his diet and helped shape him into a recruitable prospect by his freshman year in high school.
The pair created a mixtape showing Jordan's 40-yard dash, shuttle drills and vertical leap to place him on college radars. Baylor gave him his first scholarship offer shortly after the video was published on YouTube. The program even attempted to persuade Quincey to take the montage down before other colleges viewed it. It didn't work. Jordan had nine offers before his sophomore season kicked off.
Coaching Jordan kickstarted Quincey's second act with the sport that almost ended him. Today, he's a personal trainer and bodybuilder with roughly 800,000 combined followers on his Instagram and TikTok accounts. His son was born on December 24, 2022. And he knows all these blessings in his life don't happen without Jordan.
"That was the reason I lived," Quincey said. "I woke up knowing my brother and these kids were looking up to me to be there. That's what truly saved my life. So when I say my little brother is my savior, my angel, my everything, I truly mean it from the bottom of my heart. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be here today.”
Those brotherly moments in an empty stadium were re-enacted in Jordan's commitment video to the University of Texas. After training, Quincey and a young Jordan sit side-by-side on the bleachers, and the older Whittington asks Jordan to make him a promise.
"If somebody ever asks you what you want to be in life, you look them in the eyes, and you say, 'I want to be a good man,'" Quincey says.
Jordan says he wants to be a good man and a Texas football player. After a joking noogie, Quincey gives some advice.
"Always remember, some dreams change, though," he says.
This is the talk Quincey wished he had as a young man before he placed all his self-worth on his football career and SMU scholarship. Quincey had served Jordan as the mentor he never had. He was also a reminder how fickle football is.
"It's not hard to become a good man," Quincey says today. "But it's one percent to make it to the NFL. There's a difference between, 'I dream about being an NFL player,' and saying, 'Hey, this is what I want to be when I get older.'"
The commitment video ends with a high-school-aged Jordan waking up in his room, mulling over his memory with Quincey.
"Be a good man... Be a good man," Jordan says. "Some dreams change."
Then he lays back under the covers and emerges in a burnt orange shirt.
"And some don't. Texas forever."
Less than three years after he became a legend in the state championship game, Jordan Whittington was prepared to quit football.
He broke his clavicle in the Red River Rivalry after leading the team in receiving yards through the first five games. It was his third season-ending injury. This was yet another derailment in a career that everyone, including Whittington himself, thought was on the fast track to the NFL after he finished high school.
"I can't tell you how hard it is to be 17,18 years old, and to be so completely sure something is going to happen for you, and then it just... doesn't," Whittington wrote in Players' Tribune.
Texas moved him to running back when he enrolled early, just a couple months removed from the state title, to mask depth issues in the backfield. He tore his groin in the 2019 season opener, the second time he touched the ball. He switched back to wide receiver ahead of the 2020 season but tore his meniscus in the first game and was again done for the year.
His once-promising path was morphing into his brother's injury-riddled college football experience, and he was ready to give it up. Jordan writes about calling his mother back in Cuero and breaking down because he knew everyone depended on him to excel in football.
As much as Quincey had tried to shield Jordan from pressure growing up, instilling in him good character was more critical in the long run; Jordan had grown up in a single-parent household and placed the honus on himself that one day his football prowess would make it so his mother never worried about money.
"So, to be honest with you, my worst fear, or nightmare, or whatever you want to call it, was this image in my head of me flaming out at football, and struggling, with no backup plan, and then my mom calling me up one day asking for some money for groceries, or to get the car fixed up, and my response having to be: 'Sorry, mom. I can't afford it,'" Whittington wrote.
When he called his mother after the second season-ending injury, she took the weight of the family off his shoulders. No one was depending on him. All he needed to do was get his degree, and they'd figure out the rest. Together.
After the 2022 season, his first complete year, Whittington says numerous scouts told him to take whatever the NFL would give him. The first time Quincey and Jordan spoke about the NFL was in the hospital last December after Quincey's son was born. They weighed the pros and cons, but mostly, Quincey insisted he was behind Jordan no matter the choice. Would it be awesome if Jordan became a part of that one percent to make it to the league? Of course. Would his being denied a professional career change the fact Jordan saved Quincey's life? Never.
"The biggest accomplishment of my life is being able to be a part of helping him and assisting him to being the man he is," Quincey said.
Jordan didn't attain the gaudy stats to rocket him up NFL draft boards in his fifth and final season at Texas, catching 34 passes for 387 yards and a touchdown. Yet he walks onto AT&T Stadium Saturday, perhaps more popular than when he first took the Texas football world by storm in 2018. The stat sheets never register a player like Whittington's impact.
Where's the box score indicator of Whittington sprinting across the field after an interception, missing a tackle, getting up and chasing down the defender to force a fumble and give Texas the ball back in a game against TCU they won by three points? How about countless downfield blocks to spring Texas's running backs?
He's been the culture-setter for a Texas team in the Big 12 Championship game two years removed from a 5–7 season. After his broken clavicle, he was the first guy in the facility getting treatment on his body for months on end. This season, according to Steve Sarkisian, six or seven players have joined him in the wee hours of the morning.
"I don't know if there's another guy in our locker room who's more respected than Jordan Whittington," Sarkisian said.
Who is Jordan Whittington without football? That's the question he asked himself in the Players' Tribune article and he wasn't sure what the answer was.
Football has been woven throughout his life story. The generation that raised him achieved gridiron glory. The game brought him the high of an MVP performance in the state championship. It sank him to a dark place after three brutal injuries. He returns to the same stadium on Saturday where he was exalted five years ago, representing the school where he was humbled and then cherished.
But football was never who Jordan Whittington was. Football was the vehicle that allowed him to do so much good with his life thus far. He used it to leave every program he touched better off than when he entered it. Whittington's heroics gave Cuero their first state championship in three decades. His work ethic and selfless play established the culture that propelled Texas to the Big 12 Championship.
"He's everything that you'd hope for one of your players to be," Reeve said. "He's been a great representative of not only the Texas Longhorns but of Cuero. He's made us all very proud."
And football gave him a stage to display his character. Because football didn't rebuild his brother's life, it didn't write that vulnerable essay in the Players' Tribune and it didn't motivate a chunk of players to set their alarm hours earlier than usual to show up with him at the facilities. Jordan Whittington did that.
"Look at him now," Quincey said. "Everybody talks about his character. Everybody loves Jordan. Opportunities are flying through the roof because of his character, the way he holds himself, how he respects women, how he respects the team, how he's a leader. Guess what?
"That's a great man.”
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