Days from taking the field for Super Bowl LVI, Whitworth was named the 2021 Walter Payton Man of the Year for his community service work and excellence in the game. In a six-minute long speech, Whitworth urged more engagement and action from his peers and told a story of how it all became that much more meaningful this year.
Whitworth's emotional story of investment
After the Rams' Week 7 game against the Detroit Lions at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, the 40-year-old Whitworth was approached by a young player "like we knew each other forever."
"I couldn't place him. It made me so nervous. Had I actually played long enough that a coach's son or player's son is playing against me? He stopped that. He said, 'Hey man, you're not going to remember me. I'm Derrick Barnes. You spent time with me when you were a young player in Cincinnati at the Boys and Girls club and it meant the world to me. You used to sit with me and talk to me about life. And I was just a little kid. I want you to know how much it meant to me.'
"I said, man. He goes, 'You know what? The main thing I wanted to say, Whit. I made it. I made it to the NFL, big Whit.' "
Whitworth was drafted by the Bengals in the second round of the 2006 draft and remained with the franchise through the 2016 season. Barnes, a 22-year-old linebacker, was born in 1999 and would have been between 7-17 years old when Whitworth was there. Barnes attended Purdue and was the Lions' fourth-round pick in the 2021 NFL draft.
The more experienced player said the story isn't about him, but about the possibility for any player.
"I was floored for how special that was," he said. "But I don't tell that story to say I did anything special. I hope you don't see that video and think theres anything special about me. But I hope that you see it and you think this. On that Tuesday off day, when every guy sitting in this room [who] has played knows I'd rather be at home, I made an investment in him. And I didn't even know it. I think that's a great lesson for all of us. None of us know when the moment is going to present itself. The key is to always be available when it does."
Whitworth's call for more action
Whitworth has always been active in his NFL communities. He launched the "Big Whit Homes for LA Families" program in 2021 and donated $20,000 after each home game to repair homes in Louisiana, where he grew up, and move Los Angeles residents dealing with housing insecurity into more affordable places. He works with non-profits to help people pay for rent, groceries, down-payments, repairs and home furnishings.
"I'm here to tell you we have more work to do," Whitworth said. "Social media has been great for bringing awareness for all our causes. But that's not enough. We need more action. Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, this is the truth: The people who come to see us play, who watch our game on TV, buy our jerseys, who follow you on social media, they're why our game exists. It's why we have a field to play on. We are financially supported and provided the opportunity to play a kids' game, because of the support we receive from communities across the county and across the world.
"But how are we supporting back? In what ways are we paying it forward to the same communities we all grew up in, we all came from, or maybe the people that we've seen struggling along the way we got to where we are?"
Set to become the oldest starting offensive lineman in Super Bowl history, Whitworth urged players to make a kid smile, tell them they believe in them or step up financially. And to use their platform to hold local governments and officials accountable to programs and funding for giving children "an equal playing field to chase every dream they ever had."
"It's called an investment," he said. "You can apply those three things to any charity or cause you have a passion for. You can invest your time, you can invest your finances or you can invest your voice, doesn't matter which, we just have to keep investing in each other. Let your heart lead you all the way."
He has also hosted military veterans at games, served as co-host for the team's Make-A-Wish Foundation annual event and in 2020 challenged teammates to donate to social justice non-profits after the death of George Floyd. He pledged to match all donations, and contributed more than $215,000 in that year alone. He also supported the city's regional food bank and school STEM Labs.