Commentary

Whitfield says yes to Western Michigan hoops, no to big-time football

Originally Published: September 9, 2008
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

Flenard Whitfield inked his letter of intent to play basketball at Western Michigan on Nov. 15, 2007.

[+] EnlargeFlenard Whitfield
Detroit Free PressFlenard Whitfield doesn't think his football career is completely over just yet.
As news events go, it didn't even register on the sports radar. Whitfield, after all, had given his verbal promise to the Broncos months before and while considered a good prospect, he was never on the stratosphere of say, Memphis' Tyreke Evans.

Eight days after he signed, Whitfield caught a touchdown pass -- his sixth of the season -- as Detroit's Martin Luther King High School became the first Detroit Public School League team to win a state title.

And then things got loopy.

Newly named Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez showed up at Whitfield's team banquet. Gridiron coaches from defending national champion Florida came to the school. LSU staffers, who would later claim the national title, sniffed around, too.

With a state crown, more than 400 yards receiving in his senior season and a 6-foot-7, 220-pound frame that made cherry-picking the pigskin over miniscule defensive backs a cinch, Whitfield suddenly became a hot commodity.

And then things got really loopy because, in an age when letters of intent are about as binding as Hollywood marriages, Whitfield did the unimaginable. He said, "No, thank you" to college football's royalty to play mid-major MAC basketball.

"It wasn't hard turning them down at all," Whitfield said. "I had made my decision a long time ago and I had my mind set on what I wanted to do."

Right now that's basketball.

In four years, who knows?

Whitfield won't play a down of college football but still doesn't believe his career on the field is over for good. There's always the NFL, he argues.

It wasn't hard turning them down at all. I had made my decision a long time ago and I had my mind set on what I wanted to do.

--Flenard Whitfield

Sounds crazy, but crazy already happened once at Western Michigan. The Baltimore Ravens recently signed offensive tackle Joe Reitz to the practice squad. Prior to NFL training camp, the last time Reitz strapped on a helmet was in 2004, when he lined up as a tight end for Indianapolis' Hamilton Southeastern High School.

In between he became an All-MAC basketball player and the Broncos' third all-time leading scorer with 1,713 points.

"If you would have told me this could happen when I was in high school, I would have thought you were a little crazy," said Reitz, who has added 30 pounds in three months to become a tackle. "Then the summer before my senior year, Coach told me two or three [NFL] teams called about me. I was stunned. I never planned on playing football again."

Reitz now serves as the prototype for a Steve Hawkins basketball player.

A few years ago, Hawkins attended a Tom Izzo clinic and remembered the Michigan State coach explaining how virtually every member of his national championship team also had been offered a football scholarship.

The notion stuck with Hawkins, who now classifies his favorite type of basketball player as a football player in high-tops.

"It's the toughness, the tough-mindedness that it takes to play through pain," Hawkins said. "You see it all the time. In a basketball game, a guy gets tired, he looks at the bench and tells the coach he wants out. It's accepted. You don't see that in football. These guys play with broken bones, torn ligaments. It goes with the mentality."

When Hawkins first spied Whitfield in summer AAU ball playing for The Family, he was actually recruiting other players. But every time he looked up, Whitfield was outmuscling someone else for a rebound.

[+] EnlargeFlenard Whitfield
Western Michigan AthleticsFlenard Whitfield chose mid-major basketball over big-time football.

For a coach who puts a premium on defense and the boards -- last season the Broncos ranked 37th nationally in field-goal percent defense and 34th in rebounding margin -- Whitfield was a dream.

And when he heard Whitfield also was being courted for football, Hawkins liked him even more.

He smartly paired Whitfield with Reitz on his official visit. The two talked about making the improbable possible and about how closing a door on football doesn't necessarily mean the key is gone forever.

"I told him to just concentrate on being a great basketball player," Reitz said. "I know my strength and my muscle improved dramatically while I was in college. Flenard already has great hands and a great football body. As he gets stronger his body is going to look totally different. If he works at it, he could still play in the NFL."

Hawkins swears he never sweated Whitfield's commitment. Even while the who's who of college football descended on Detroit, he believed Whitfield would honor his commitment.

"If you didn't know the kid and you didn't know the family, it would have been enough to concern you," he said. "When you know his mother, his father, his sisters and Flenard, you knew that commitment was golden. I'm not saying he wasn't going to be tempted but I knew his commitment was as solid as could be."

True to form, Whitfield never wavered. Though he came to Martin Luther King mainly to play football for James Reynolds, the winningest coach in Detroit public school history, he never viewed himself as a gridiron great moonlighting on the parquet.

His comfort level was on the basketball court, where he led the team with 19.6 points per game as a senior and took an undermanned King squad to a surprising spot in the district playoffs.

"To me, I wasn't good at football; I was athletic and my height gave me an advantage," Whitfield said. "I considered myself a basketball player. My heart was always in basketball."

Now it's there full-time. Two weeks ago, as the Gators dumped Hawaii in their season opener and Michigan looked like it could use anyone in a loss to Utah, Whitfield went for his first individual workout with Hawkins.

It is his first fall without football in a long time, and though he admits it's strange, Whitfield seems to be adjusting just fine.

He's watching football but thinking basketball.

"Bowling Green beat Pittsburgh," he said. "That's the MAC making some noise. I think we can do the same thing -- in basketball."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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