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Faith, Family and Football

By Melanie Moffett
In Center Block
Oct 28th, 2014
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Andrew Whitworth on and off the FIELD. What he’s doing in Cincinnati and at HOME in Monroe.

article by Michael DeVault

You don’t have to tell Cincinnati Bengals offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth how far Cincinnati is from Monroe. It’s a distance the AFC Pro Bowl lineman knows all too well as he navigates a successful NFL career, raising a family with his wife, Melissa, and trying to maintain close ties to his hometown. Yet, through all the game day travels, Spring training sessions and players’ union meetings, Whitworth has managed to make the distance seem just a little smaller. And the community here at home is better for it.

Shortly after he signed with the Bengals in 2006, Whitworth and his wife established the BigWhit 77 Foundation with a goal of filling a niche in his hometown. A West Monroe Rebel, Whitworth came up in this community and he said he was inspired by the way the people of the region reached out to embrace him. That’s something he’s always wanted to give back. “We’re trying to find new ways to inspire people and make people’s day,” Whitworth said of his foundation’s work.

The foundation serves this mission through the Whit’s Warriors program, a scholarship awarded to students of merit from high schools in Lincoln and Ouachita Parish. Each year, more than 150 outstanding students apply for scholarships of $1,000 each to go toward college expenses. To qualify, the students must have maintained a 3.0 GPA, taken part in community and campus service activities, and taken advantage in either the arts or athletics opportunities offered by their schools. Last year, 30 students received scholarships from the organization. In addition to receiving scholarship funds, students also benefit from mentoring relationships to help them better prepare for the transition from high school to college. In the end, Whitworth believes Whit’s Warriors is about achieving dreams. “It’s about inspiring kids and helping them reach their dreams, helping them feel like they have the ability to dream,” Whitworth said.

But BigWhit 77 isn’t just about high school kids. At the other end of the spectrum, the foundation provides hope of a different sort through an adoption aid fund. Couples seeking adoption are thwarted too often by the high costs associated with the process. Whitworth’s foundation is changing that by offering financial grants to prospective adoptive parents, in order to minimize the costs associated with adoption. The effort is called Open Arms, and it is quickly becoming one of BigWhit 77’s central missions, which makes sense, given Whitworth’s motives for the foundation to begin with. “I want everyone to feel welcome and everyone to feel loved,” Whitworth said.

The foundation offers other services, too, including a Christmas program to help families in need celebrate the holidays and the Broad Horizons effort, which provides after school services to at-risk youth. Whitworth said the foundation is his way of staying connected and having a positive impact on the community that gave him the foundations he’s needed to succeed both on and off the field.

Whitworth sometimes finds the work of running a foundation remotely to be challenging. Distance can get in the way of maximizing impacts, and even with a dedicated staff and volunteer network, Whitworth recognizes that being out of town from July through January can prove difficult. During the season, he utilizes email and telephones to keep in touch with foundation staff. “That’s one of the things that makes the foundation a little harder. We’re not there for so much of the year,” Whitworth said. At 32, Whitworth is just beginning to look to life after football. And, while he enjoys the game and the opportunities it has afforded him, he sees a silver lining. “One of the most exciting things about when my career is over is coming home and focusing my energy on the foundation,” he said.

For now, though, Whitworth must continue to split his effort between the foundation’s work and the game of football, which makes the foundation possible. Here, too, Whitworth has set ambitious goals. “We’re three and one,” he said of the 2014 season. “It’s a good start to the first quarter of the season, but there’s still a lot of season ahead.” At LSU, Whitworth got a taste of the national spotlight when the Tigers won a national championship in 2003. Though he was just a Sophomore, he started all 14 games. Now, he’s set his sights on a larger prize. “It’s been a fun time. We’re just trying to find a way to get to that big game and win us a Super Bowl,” Whitworth said.
For an SEC player who spent the majority of his youth and career playing on southern fields, Cincinnati has provided its own set of challenges. Particularly, there’s a bit of difference in the weather. Whitworth was shocked the first time he awoke to find a foot of snow on the ground and businesses still operating. “Schools are still open, and everything’s just the same,” Whitworth said. The resilience of an Ohio winter became something the southern Whitworth clan began to look forward to. “We appreciate it now. We have a lot of fun with the kids, with the snow days,” Whitworth said.

Since football is a sport played during the fall and winter, Whitworth said his family has gotten used to not being home for the holidays. “I’ve never had an August, because I’ve always had training camp. I’ve never had a Thanksgiving or Christmas at home.” Instead, his family and Melissa’s family travel to Cincinnati for the holidays. “It kind of makes it feel like home for us,” he said.

For those months of the year, the Whitworth family is all about football. In fact, Whitworth’s two-year old son, Michael, is “obsessed with football. It’s all he wants to talk about all day.” Sarah likes the game, but she has one major concern, according to Whitworth. “She requests every week that I don’t run through the fireworks. She gets real mad when Dad does the run through.”

If football has left a mark on Andrew Whitworth’s life, he’s not going to leave the sport without leaving his imprint on it, either. And while his 6’7″ build can leave a strong impression on an opposing team’s defense–in 2010, he caught the first touchdown pass by a Bengals offensive lineman since 1995, and he’s known for hitting hard–it’s off the field where Whitworth is leaving a bigger mark, as a players’ representative during a time when professional football is faced with challenges to the way the sport is played on the field and the lives the players lead off of it.

Whitworth embraces some of the new rules, which he credits with improving player safety. But, he also recognizes the changes they’re bringing to the sport. “There are some plays that used to be in the game of football that aren’t there anymore,” Whitworth said. Gone are the days of the big, late hits, the crushing blindsides and the tell-tale thwack of helmet-to-helmet contact. But all of that is little cost in a sport where men put their lives on the line to entertain their fans. “I think when you weigh guys’ futures and their overall health, you want to make sure that you’re not crossing a line that says it’s okay to put their lives in danger just for us to have an exciting game,” Whitworth said. “I think it’s crucial that we take care of guys and worry about health and safety. There’s nothing that says you can’t play the game competitively. We haven’t taken the fun out of football.”

Changes are afoot off the field, too, where a series of high profile scandals have rocked the NFL. Stories of domestic abuse and off-field violence have appeared at regular intervals for months. Whitworth said the NFL is taking note, but he also pointed out that society at large should, too. “I think it’s a bigger problem for society than just for the NFL,” Whitworth said. The numbers bear that out, as domestic violence rates are more than three times higher in the general population than they are in the NFL. Still, Whitworth points to his fellow players and dismisses protests from some players justifying personal behaviors off the field. “I’m a proponent that we should be held to a higher standard,” Whitworth said. “I don’t care what guys say about not wanting to be a role model. You are a professional athlete. It’s not up to the players what they become. That’s up to the fan.”

For Whitworth, football has given him a tremendous set of opportunities, opened up doors to service and supporting his family well. And Whitworth believes players should be thankful. “They’re given a lot, and we’re treated exceptionally well,” Whitworth said. “By that, we should respect it, live in a way and act in a way where families can look and see that not only do the players act like a professional athlete on the field, but they act like it off the field as well.”

In the meantime, Whitworth focuses on raising his three young children–and looking forward to their fourth, which is set to arrive sometime soon–and to bring them up to appreciate the opportunities they’ve been given. Together with Melissa, he also tries to keep them grounded in the faith that has brought them this far. “We pray with our kids every night,” Whitworth said, expressing hope that they’ll grow up to appreciate the lessons he and Melissa are teaching them now. “Faith, hope and love need to be the greatest thing for us. We try our best to make that happen every day.”