The Wolverine

June-July 2017

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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JUNE/JULY 2017 THE WOLVERINE 71   WHERE ARE THEY NOW? When it ended, Michigan survived. Carr uttered his famous locker room line: "You just won the national championship!" Whitley and the others experienced the emotion welling up from the sight of the postgame landscape, down on the surface of the Rose Bowl. "Looking out onto that field in the Rose Bowl, you saw all of those peo- ple had come together — in joy, in love, in unity — for this one common goal," he recalled. "It went beyond the 100 players, to the fans. "It extended itself beyond the sta- dium, to those viewing this on televi- sion. I look back at the pictures. I was just in awe. I can remember just be- ing in awe of how all this transpired. It was like a dream, as freshmen." Whitley didn't anticipate waking up so quickly. It happened, though. Michigan lost the next two games it played, to Notre Dame and Syracuse, to begin the 1998 campaign. Some Wolver- ine fans might had been wondering if the new quarterback, Tom Brady, would ever amount to anything. U-M rallied to share a Big Ten cham- pionship in '98, and finish No. 5 in the nation in '99 with a shootout win over Alabama in the Orange Bowl. "We knew we had the firepower to continue, but the stars had to line up, too," Whitley mused. "I don't think anybody saw a defeat coming." He definitely didn't see what was coming. He'd been named a cap- tain of the 2000 Michigan squad. He hoped to go out like he came in — a national champion. Instead, Carr dismissed him from the team, following an 8-3 regular season, capped by a 38-26 win at Ohio State. That December, Whitley — as he characterizes it — went to help a friend in trouble. He wound up arrested for carrying a concealed weapon and seeing his Michigan career terminated. "I'd say this," Whitley of- fered. "I made a bad deci- sion. There's a difference be- tween a mistake and a bad decision, a bad choice. A mistake is turning left when you should have turned right, maybe you didn't know where you were. "I knew wholeheartedly what the consequences were when I made the decision, but I was laying down my life for a friend. A friend of mine called me, said he was in some type of situation, and I went to his rescue. I shouldn't have done it that way, though. "I was a captain at the time. You're expected to be competent to the full- est. That's what they do when they pick you. I was picked. I was selected by my guys to become a captain. "I knew I made a bad decision. But I didn't want anything to happen to my guy. I was thinking with my heart instead of my head, when I should have been using both." Instead of a captain in a bowl win over Auburn, Whitley became dam- aged goods for the NFL Draft. "I missed the bowl game and dis- rupted some relationships along the way, especially with Coach Carr," Whitley said. "You expect to be trusted to the fullest, but you make a decision like this, which is detrimental." Whitley didn't get drafted. He even- tually signed on with the St. Louis Rams, and played for them from 2002-03. He moved on to the Green Bay Packers (2003-04), and eventually to the Arena Football League's Geor- gia Force (2007-08). When football ran its course, Whitley got into personal training, pursued the trade of pip- efitting, ran a camp involving former teammates Larry Foote and Justin Fargas, and searched for his path. He wanted to start an apparel brand, and still does. "I wanted to do something that would take on a lasting legacy, like the '97 team has done," Whitley said. "I thought about branding Nine- seveN. This would be the brand that represents the dedication to excel- lence that we showed. "It represents that championship type of mentality. These were the things that we were about." His own dedication urged him, in 2007, to finish his Michigan degree, a goal lost when he initially got into trouble. At the urging of a mentor, Whitley ventured back to Ann Ar- bor, knowing the degree completion wouldn't be the toughest part. "There's one thing I must do," he said at the time. "I must go revisit the big boss." So he did. Whitley booked a one- way trip to Ann Arbor in August, called Schembechler Hall and made an appointment with the coach who'd laid down the law a decade earlier. What followed stunned him. "It took all of six minutes for him to not say that he forgave me, but show that he forgave me," Whitley marveled. "It hadn't been forgotten about. It will never be forgotten. But the forgiveness … "I sat down in the same seat I sat down in seven years earlier, right across from him, when I accepted the blow. I sat down in that same seat to accept his approval regarding what he coined as, 'The best decision you'll ever make, besides coming here in the first place.'" Whitley still remembers what those words meant. "Man, that was like the realization of a true father figure," he said. "My son is going to make some bad de- cisions. I'm going to have to chastise him. But I'm not going to throw him to the wolves. I'm going to accept him. He'll see that he's welcomed back. "When I think about that, it brings chill bumps and tears of joy from those thoughts." Whitley's full story isn't written. He drew great energy from the 20-year reunion with his '97 class- mates, and he's hoping to push forward with an ap- parel line. He remembers what was, and hopes for what will be. ❏ Whitley, who completed his U-M degree in sports management and communications in 2007, aspires to start an apparel brand honoring the 1997 national championship team he was a part of. PHOTO COURTESY JAMES WHITLEY

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