The Wolverine

June/July 2017

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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70 THE WOLVERINE JUNE/JULY 2017 BY JOHN BORTON J ames Whitley found himself living a dream, becoming a freshman on-field performer for a national championship college football team. He discovered to his dismay how quickly dreams can get clotheslined, when impulsive action meets the law and a hard-and-fast code of conduct. Some two decades after he first stepped onto the field for the Wolverines, he's dis- covered a level of peace, for- giveness and acceptance. He's been given a restored sense of belonging through a coach who once had to set him aside, but ultimately wouldn't cast him aside. Whitley didn't know any- thing about Michigan football when he flew into Detroit's Metro Airport from Norfolk, Va., in December 1996. He just associated the Wolverines with strength and winged hel- mets … and now the snow gently drifting earthward. "It was absolutely beautiful, but I'm from Virginia, and it doesn't snow here much," Whitley admitted. "It's gorgeous, but at first I questioned it. It was like, I don't know if I really want this. I might want to go down south. "Once I got into it and understood there are going to be four complete seasons in this midwestern region, and I'd be able to experience all of that, it changed." Michigan promised him nothing but an opportunity, and he grabbed it. Scarcely more than a year later, he and his teammates were competing for a national championship in the Rose Bowl. He'd made the decision to come north largely through watching the Wolverines battle Alabama in the Outback Bowl a year earlier. Lloyd Carr's crew lost that one, 17-14, but Whitley saw something special. "I saw the energy that really car- ried over into '97," he said. "I told myself after that game, I made a great decision." He recalled running the University of Michigan Golf Course over the summer, churning up and down the steps of Michigan Stadium, and prepping for that now iconic season. Around him ran a host of talented freshmen, like running back Anthony Thomas and fellow defensive back William Peterson. Whitley didn't lack for mo- tivation, after meeting the next Heisman Trophy winner, Charles Woodson. "I thought, you're going to be lining up next to this guy, so you better be ready," Whit- ley recalled. He became ready. So did Pe- terson and DeWayne Patmon — three true freshman de- fensive backs who, operating in the considerable reflective glare from Woodson and Mich- igan's other secondary standouts, contributed significantly as rookies. Whitley launched a career that would eventually see him record 187 tackles and six interceptions over the course of four seasons. But prepara- tion time for the Rose Bowl offered a very minor hint of enforced disci- pline to come. Whitley overslept one day in bowl preparations, missing a team meet- ing. He found himself demoted in terms of the extent of his action in the Rose Bowl, although he still man- aged a sack and one pass broken up in the Wolverines' 21-16 triumph over Washington State. "In the national championship game, you've got two freshmen out there — William Peterson and De- Wayne Patmon — first play of the game," Whitley recalled, somewhat wistfully. "We had three freshmen in the defensive secondary that played. "We were so ready for it. Every day we went out, knowing we had this thing in our hands. We just had to hold on. We prepared like it was our last practice. That game came down to the wire."   WHERE ARE THEY NOW? James Whitley Completes The Process Whitley racked up 187 tackles and six interceptions while playing on Wolverine teams that won three Big Ten titles and one national championship during his four years in Ann Arbor. PHOTO COURTESY JAMES WHITLEY The James Whitley File Michigan Accomplishments: Played as a true freshman on the national cham‑ pionship team of 1997 … Performed as a part of three Big Ten championship teams (1997, 1998 and 2000) … Secured 187 tackles and six interceptions over the course of four seasons. Professional Accomplishments: Played 25 games in the NFL from 2002‑04, with the St. Louis Rams and the Green Bay Packers … Recorded 46 tackles and four passes broken up in his career … Played in 2007 and 2008 with the Georgia Force of the Arena Football League. Education: Bachelor's in sports management and communications from Michi‑ gan in 2007. Michigan Memory: "I could sum it up in just a sentence: the best decision I've ever made. Michigan!" Family: Has a 12‑year‑old daughter, Nyemah Semaj Whitley. Nyemah means "A blessed gift" in Arabic, while Semaj is James spelled backward.

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