March 05, 2010
Every program has its share of highly touted busts, some of which you could see coming (hello, Willie Williams), some of which you couldn't. Certainly no one at Virginia Tech back in 2005 could have forecast the depths of the eventual descent by hyped quarterback signee Ike Whitaker. He not only fell far short of expectations as the next in a growing line of athletic Hokie QBs -- by his own account in an interview with coach Frank Beamer's Web site, Whitaker showed up to meetings and practices drunk, and eventually stopped showing up. His scholarship was pulled in 2008 after three unproductive seasons.
Still living in Blacksburg but with "nothing going on in my life" last fall, Whitaker said he drank every day and was forced to steal what food he could. "Alcoholism had completely taken over," to the point that he decided on suicide, right after a final trip to Tech's football offices to bid farewell to the Hokies' director of football operations, John Ballein:
"I wanted to go and see Coach Ballein one last time because he had been good to me through my toughest times. ... I remember that I had a bag of alcohol, I had been drinking all night and all morning, and that I was in his office. I don’t know exactly what I said to him, but I’m sure it was something to let him know that I was saying goodbye and that I appreciated everything that he ever did for me and that I’m very sorry that I let him and Coach Beamer down.
"Well, I never made it out of his office. He told me that I wasn’t going anywhere and that I certainly wasn’t going to hurt myself. He took the bag of alcohol out of my hands and told me that I was coming with him and that we were going to get some help. I thank God for Coach Ballein."
That was only five months ago -- according to Whitaker, his longest sober streak since he started drinking -- but Ballein's intervention has given him a reason to stay straight in the short term: Whitaker is in recovery and working out in preparation to throw for scouts at Virginia Tech's on-campus pro day later this month. (At 6'5" and 230 pounds, his physical presence alone should turn some heads: "If there’s one scout who sees something he likes, that’s just icing on the cake. I’m confident that I have the tools. If I can impress a scout, any scout, I’m talking indoor football, the Canadian league, the UFL ... if it can open some doors for me, continue to help get my life back on track, then it will be well worth it.") Even most coaches willing to steer a former player off the street and into rehab wouldn't go so far as to open their field to him again.
This is not feel-good schmaltz. Redemption stories do not always end well; Whitaker is only months into a fight that could last the rest of his life. People don't always escape their demons. In this case, though, at least Whitaker had enough life to go grasping for another chance he didn't think existed, and was lucky enough to find someone willing to give it to him. This is the one he can't afford to let get away.
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Hat tip: EDSBS