Tonight’s the NFL draft, but my name won’t be getting called. I decided to return to Texas for one more year. At first, when I’d be telling people why, I just said the normal athlete things. We have unfinished business. I’m coming back to win the Big 12. I want to help lead our team. I can still improve on X, Y and Z. But that’s not the whole truth.
The truth is more complicated. It has to do with something you won’t hear that many athletes talk about: fear. Fear of failure. Fear of the unknown. Fear of what happens next.
Truth be told, I actually decided to skip the draft because I was afraid the NFL might not work out for me. And I was scared about what that would mean. When it came down to it, I had to be honest with myself and realize I wasn’t ready to face the possibility that I wouldn’t be playing football next year. And that I’d have to figure out something else to do. The fear of that possibility … it really got to me.
I can’t tell you how hard it is to be 17, 18 years old, and to be so completely sure that something is going to happen for you, and then it just … doesn’t.- Jordan Whittington
If you would’ve told me a few years ago that it’d play out like this for me, I wouldn’t have believed you. Because for a very long time, this whole football thing … it seemed like it was destined to go a certain way. My dad’s whole side of the family are all football players. I have an uncle who played in the Super Bowl, my older brother played D-1. Ever since I was little, everyone talked about me as the next Whittington you’d be watching on TV on Sundays. Then, right on cue, I blew up in high school and balled out in the state championship game. I get the five-star label. I’m the No. 2-ranked athlete in the country. And since I’m from a small town in South Texas, everyone where I live knows who I am. Everyone is talking about me, dreaming about where I might end up, feeling like it’s only a matter of time before they can say they know an NFL player.
I get to UT, and the transition goes super smoothly. I’m holding my own. Everything’s lining up as expected. I look up one day in the spring and ESPN has me on the freshman All-America watch list. It was all falling into place.
But then, out of nowhere, came the drop. And it came fast.
In my first college football game, the second time I ever touched the ball, I tore my groin. Just like that, out for the season. One year later, first game again, same quarter, same end of the field, inside the 10-yard line again … torn meniscus. Year 3? It was going good at first. Things were looking up. Through six games I was leading the team in receiving and was top five in the conference. Then I dove for a ball against Oklahoma and broke my clavicle. My season was basically done again.
I can’t tell you how hard it is to be 17, 18 years old, and to be so completely sure that something is going to happen for you, and then it just … doesn’t. For almost my entire life, football was all I really knew, and then, over the course of a few years, I kept having it taken away from me. It was overwhelming. I felt lost — like I wasn’t who I was supposed to be, because I wasn’t doing what everyone had always known me for. At one really low point after that meniscus tear, I even called my mom back home and talked about giving up football altogether.
It was like: “Maybe this isn’t for me, Mom. Maybe this is God giving me a sign that I need to do something else.”
I remember telling her, “I know y’all are depending on me to do this, and I don’t want to let everyone down, but I just don’t know if I can do it anymore.” And Mom, I mean … she’s just the best. She stopped me in my tracks. “No one is depending on you for anything, Jordan,” she said. “You don’t have to worry about us.” Mom told me she just wanted what was best for me, and to listen to my heart, but not to give up unless I was positive it would make me happier. It was like: “Get your degree and then we’ll figure it out from there. But I have your back regardless.”
After I stuck it out and had a fully healthy season this past year, a bunch of scouts were in my ear telling me that I should declare for the draft. Don’t risk another injury. Take what you can get. That sort of thing. And, in a way, I get it. But I just kept coming back to … Well, what if I don’t get picked? Or no one signs me? Then what?
I didn’t have an answer. And it scared me.
I feared that I’d end up back in my hometown and be the kid who “almost made it.” I feared that my family and friends would view me as a failure. And, coming up in a single-parent household, watching my mom struggle to make ends meet, I always had it in my mind that I was going to take care of her. 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 and 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.”
That image, the possibility of that coming true … it was scarier than anything I could imagine.
Bigger picture, I feared that I would be lost as a person. That I’d have no identity anymore. I kept coming back to the same question, over and over.
Who is Jordan Whittington without football?
To be completely honest with you: I didn’t really know. And that was scary as hell. So yeah, fear ultimately was the No. 1 reason I couldn’t leave.
But now I’m realizing that’s not all bad. The cool thing is, feeling that way, knowing that I was uneasy about my future, it’s something that’s actually helped me get to a much better place. Once I got to a point where I understood that I may need to veer from football, I knew that I had to start creating a backup plan, exploring fields that interest me, and taking advantage of all the networking resources that are here for me at Texas.
I wouldn’t say I know exactly what I’d do for a living if football doesn’t work out, but I’m more prepared for that possibility now, and more willing to love something else outside of football. So I definitely think I can be just as happy, or even happier, if football falls away. I’ll miss it, of course. But I’ll be content in knowing that I gave it my best shot. It’s like that old saying: If you’re walking to catch the bus, and it leaves without you, then you messed up … but if you were running to catch it, and it takes off without you, maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.
I made the decision to come back for one last season at Texas, so I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure it’s special.- Jordan Whittington
And you know what? The way I see it, with me, that football bus hasn’t quite driven off yet. I made the decision to come back for one last season at Texas, so I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure it’s special. You know all those other things I talked about when I made the decision to return to school? All of those things are absolutely still true. I do have unfinished business. I do want to win the Big 12. I do want to help lead the young guys on this team, and help them to understand that sometimes things aren’t going to go the way you planned, but that you can still persevere and make it through. I want to be vocal and supportive and set an example for those who will come after me. And I’m going to work like hell to improve as a player, especially in Coach Sark’s offense, which is the best at getting you ready for the NFL. This university, this community, being a Longhorn, it means the world to me. It’s family. So I want to ball out this coming year for all the Longhorn fans around the world.
But at the same time, I want to be real. More than anything, I want to leave Texas as someone who’s ready to succeed in the world, and to make a life for myself. Whether that’s on a football field or it’s not. And no matter what happens next, I’m going to savor everything for one more year.
One more year to grow. One more year to become a better football player. One more year to lead my team. One more year to network. One more year to find out what life after football may look like for me.