VANCOUVER — It’s no easy task to spend the years of a college football life in anonymity when you stand 6-foot-5, tip the scales at 248 pounds, and own an on-field intangible that those in the sport label as ‘a presence.’
And it’s even more difficult when said career unfolds in one of the game’s true epicentres of Austin, Texas where Longhorn football remains one of the most identifiable brands in all of sport.
Truthfully, it took an especially tough streak of luck for Blake Whiteley to never don the game-day burnt-orange kit of the Texas Longhorns.
So when the former West Vancouver Highlanders’ receiver sits down for an extended catch-up chat in his new football life as a tight end with the UBC Thunderbirds, and he utters the phrase ‘knock on wood’, you find yourself making a fist, finding a wall, and rapping your knuckles with determined purpose.
“It’s been a wild road,” begins Whiteley, who is on schedule to play in his first game live game in five seasons when the Thunderbirds, picked No. 1 in the conference preseason coaches poll released Monday, open the Canada West season at home this Saturday (7 p.m.) against the Manitoba Bisons at Thunderbird Stadium. “Honestly, I just want to get back on the field.”
Blessed not only with a tight end’s prototypical frame, Whiteley, over his 2012 senior season with the West Vancouver Highlanders, was a player sporting more intangibles than any other in the province.
In addition to being big, tough and mean on the field, he was blessed not only with great athleticism, but with a natural feel for the game.
And if Abbotsford and Notre Dame’s Chase Claypool tops the list of the most uncannily dependable pass-catching hands you’ve seen in the B.C. high school ranks, well, you have to find room to put Blake Whiteley somewhere on that list.
Yet much time has passed since his only season of post-secondary football, back in 2013, when he parlayed one campaign at Arizona Western CC into a feeding frenzy among NCAA recruiters, ultimately ending up on Texas’ radar after being ranked the No. 1 tight end prospect in the entire U.S. junior college system.
AN UNLUCKY LONGHORN
It was back in late January of 2014 when I last connected with Whiteley.
Following one semester at Arizona Western, he had transferred to Texas and was already taking college classes as he acclimated himself to his new surroundings, both athletically and academically, in Austin.
What he told me that day so perfectly encapsulated the dilemma that the vast majority of Canadian skill-position players face when their desire is to give NCAA Div. 1 football their best shot right out of high school.
“I had interest from schools like Nevada and Washington, but as a preferred walk-on,” Whiteley told me as I wrote a story that day for The (Vancouver) Province newspaper. “The (U.S.) coaches told me all the time that it was too much risk for a Canadian guy, especially a skill-position guy. A Canadian lineman is easier to evaluate, but it’s tougher for positions like quarterback and tight end. They just didn’t want to take the risk. But I was confident that going to a juco would eliminate the Canadian factor, and give me a quality opportunity.”
And so for a kid who throughout his high school career had never suffered anything more than self-described bumps and bruises, the next few seasons could not have been any more soul testing.
After taking a redshirt in his freshman season in 2014, Whiteley came to fall camp in 2015 looking to begin his collegiate playing career in impactful fashion at a program which regularly delivers its best to the NFL.
“We had a lot of depth at tight end my first year, so I took a redshirt (in 2014),” Whiteley begins, “but then the next year, going into camp, I tore my ACL and some other stuff in my knee. It put me out nine months until we went into the next spring.”
Then, disaster struck again.
“That summer (of 2016), I tore my labrum,” said Whiteley. “I had just gotten back to full speed from my ACL and within a few months, I hurt my shoulder. So two Augusts in a row, both with season-ending injuries.”
Whiteley hit the grind of re-hab hard, all the while continuing to thrive in the classroom.
He graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in kinesiology in the spring of 2017 and was looking to transfer to another school.
“But it kind of fell through,” says Whiteley. “I got some smaller Div. 1 offers, but I ended up not doing that, and I just decided to enter the work force.”
Whiteley found himself back in Vancouver last fall, and he was soon contacted by a number of CFL teams. He began to work out in preparation for the league’s draft combine, but hurt a hamstring and was unable to continue.
It was in and around that time when he got a call from UBC head coach Blake Nill, who in his prior coaching life at the University of Calgary, distinctly remembered the impact that Whiteley’s play as a high school senior had had on him.
MORE THAN A LITTLE LIKE LOFFLER?
It’s media day on campus at Thunderbird Stadium, yet as the entire group of incoming UBC football players gathers for an introductory welcome, Whiteley remains as anonymous as ever to those unaware of his back story.
“When I approached him, the first name I mentioned was Taylor Loffler’s,” Nill recounts of the former Kelowna Owls’ superstar quarterback, who after falling into similar anonymity to Whiteley during his injury-plagued career in the defensive secondary at Boise State, came out of mothballs in 2015 to join UBC in Nill’s first season on the Point Grey campus.
“(Whiteley) is in an almost identical situation (to Loffler) in that he’s had two serious injuries and was just never able to get back on track (at his NCAA D1 school),” begins Nill. “That can really take its toll mentally.”
Loffler, of course, made one of the most memorable returns to form in U Sports football history over his lone season with the ‘Birds.
Jack Tatum-like in terms of his impact from the free safety position, Loffler owned the back end of the UBC defence and was one of the players most instrumental in helping the ‘Birds beat Montreal and win the Vanier Cup national championship.
Not too soon after, he was selected in the CFL draft and these days, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Loffler in the midst of his third pro campaign with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Whiteley, however, after going five seasons between live snaps, has even more rust to shake than Loffler. Nill knows that patience will be the key as the big tight end tries to work off the inactivity of so many lost seasons.
“He’s a hometown guy, he wants to give something back to his city, and he’s got two years (of eligibility) left,” says Nill of Whiteley who nonetheless, would be eligible for the CFL draft following the 2018 campaign. “We’ll see how it goes with Blake, but really, we want to focus on helping him start to gain some momentum…help him get to his potential. I think I can help get him to the next level.”
HE JUST WANTS TO PLAY
“I can remember the one time that he dropped a ball, and that was in practice and games,” laughs his former high school coach, current West Vancouver Secondary vice-principal Shawn Anderson, when asked about Whiteley’s pass-catching prowess over a senior season in which he led all of B.C. Triple A football (68 catches for 1,118 yards and 16 touchdowns in 11 games). “It was against Notre Dame. I remember it because he just caught everything else. They weren’t these flashy catches, but he could just stick one hand out, and with his palm, just nail a catch.”
Yet ask those who know him well, including Anderson, and the bottom line is clearly centred around how happy Whiteley is to just get the chance to play football again.
Anything above and beyond would be welcome, but there is a big first step yet to be taken.
“He hasn’t played since that his first spring game at Texas,” reminds Anderson, “so yeah, he just wants to play. I love the fact that he went to UBC. They’ve got a great quarterback (Michael O’Connor) there. A great coaching staff. And they are a stable program. I hope he can take advantage of all of that and just get on the field again.”
As UBC’s incoming class of players assembled at its on-campus academic study centre last week, it was no surprise that Whiteley walked in with new teammate and fellow NCAA Div. 1 transfer Sheriden Lawley, a defensive lineman from Abbotsford’s W.J. Mouat Secondary.
“I can distinctly remember playing against him in high school,” says Lawley of two meetings in the 2012 season, both won by Mouat, including Whiteley’s final high school game, a 55-20 Subway Bowl quarterfinal clash played, fittingly, at Thunderbird Stadium.
“I remember this big 245 pound guy and I think he had 13 catches against us in one of the games,” Lawley continued. “We’ve had a lot of similar experiences and although I hadn’t talked to him since we were both in high school, we have a bond because of what we’ve both gone through.”
For Whiteley, now svelte and ready at 235 pounds, the chance to finish his university career at home on a national title-contending team would be fitting for someone who has faced nothing but adversity since the day he headed to Texas.
“You know, it didn’t really work out how I wanted it to when I went down there to Texas, so that’s why I’m excited to be back here and to have a successful, injury-free season,” Whiteley begins, before adding “Knock on wood.”
If you can, find just such a surface, clench a fist and proceed to rap those knuckles hard. The football gods would most definitely approve.
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