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WARNER ROBINS, Ga. - Down in Warner Robins, Ga., two years ago, word spread fast about one of the most talented lineman in the entire state. What was especially impressive about the south Georgia standout was that he was only a sophomore.
Standing at 6 feet 2 and weighing 285 pounds at the time, young Jeffrey Whitaker was making his presence known in opponent's backfields. On Friday, his early rise to prominence culminated in being named the latest member of the nation's top prep postseason honor, as an Army All-American.
According to Whitaker's coach, Bryan Way, the Army All-American Bowl selection committee became aware of Whitaker just as early as everyone else.
"They pick the 90 best football players in the country, and to be identified as one of those before you play a down your junior year is almost unheard of," said Way. "He has a lot of natural ability, but he has worked extremely hard to further that ability as well."
Last year, Whitaker fought through a nagging injury all season, and was very dissatisfied with his progression as a player. In addition to his school's practices, Whitaker spent his entire offseason weight training, running hills and doing countless drills outdoors in the summer sun. His hard work and self motivation have paid dividends, both for his team and himself.
"Jeff's development has been crucial to our success this year. When your best player is also your hardest worker, that sort of work ethic tends to rub off on everybody else. He has not let his recruitment go to his head, and he has been working even harder the last seven months, and it has paid off in how he has played this year," said the Demons head coach.
On a 5-2 Warner Robins team that has allowed less than six points per game in the toughest region in Georgia, Whitaker has been the catalyst for his school having its best shot at the playoffs since his freshman year, when they lost to Peachtree Ridge in the Semifinals. For head coach Bryan Way, it has been a great four years with his star player regardless of the record in between.
"It has been quite an honor to coach Jeff. Obviously he is an outstanding football player, but he is an even better person. What I will remember more than the plays he makes on the field is just what a kind, respectful, thankful, and humble young man Jeff is," said Coach Way.
With his selection to the Army All-American Bowl, Whitaker will have a chance to not only perform in front of the entire country January 9th on NBC, but also in front of soldiers responsible for protecting our American way of life. Both Whitaker and his head coach agreed that was an added bonus in his accepting the rare nomination.
"Being from this area, with the nearby Air Force base, military support is big in Warner Robins. I think it is quite an honor for Whitaker to play in this game. Our community has a lot of support for the Armed Forces, so this is just the icing on the cake," said Coach Way.
Whitaker echoed that statement, adding that the ties to the Army may have been the difference in him playing in this particular game. A little recruiting among friends may have occurred as well.
"It feels great; it has been an exciting day for both me and the school. I am grateful for the opportunity, not only to play against some of the best high school seniors in the country, but also for the chance to kind of give back to the troops. I was actually talking to Garrison Smith (another Army All-American) back when I was deciding which game I would play in, and he mentioned that, and it made sense," Whitaker explained.
In an area known for some of the best football in the entire country, surprisingly neither the head coach nor Whitaker could think of a player to play in this prestigious All-American matchup.
"I do not know of any others from the area to be named an Army All-American, so hopefully this will give others a chance to follow in Jeff's footsteps," said Coach Way.
Whitaker knows all about his school's cherished history, from the four state championships to the 158 scholarships awarded over the last 54 years. His ceremony on Friday afternoon was just the latest chapter for one of the most successful programs in the Peach State. The defensive tackle hopes the accolades don't stop, both for him and his beloved school.
"This means everything, for all of my hard work has paid off," said Whitaker. "It also shows that if I keep working hard more will come. Warner Robins has had a lot of great talent from the 70's to now, so I really feel like I am good at my craft, and that this school deserves it."
For his Aunt Cynthia Joseph, it was an exceptionably emotional experience. She has been Whitaker's main caregiver since the young lineman lost his mother during his ninth grade year.
"He is a hard worker on and off the field with athletics and academics," said Joseph. "I have always told him to keep focused, and just be yourself. His mom instilled core values in him at an early age, so I do not have a lot to correct him on. He got a lot of strength from her, and he is still on the straight and narrow path."