Every superhero has a comeback story, or 20.
Growing up as a comic book nerd with an affinity for Spiderman, I could count, using both hands (and both feet), a number of times the wall-crawler was seriously tested by villains ranging from the Green Goblin to Venom and Carnage.
And then there's Captain America. No, not the comic book character. The Texas Longhorns running back. The one who has already made a few comebacks of his own, and a player you don't want to bet against making any more.
That Fozzy Whittaker — nicknamed Captain America by both his teammates and the Texas fan base — has had a trying experience at times isn't a surprise to anybody. And it also shouldn't come as a surprise that, despite an ACL injury that forced him to miss the end of his senior season and workouts at the NFL Scouting Combine and his Texas Pro Day, Whittaker is fighting to keep his NFL dream going.
"It's been like a roller coaster ride," Whittaker said. "You're up here, and you get hurt and you come down a little, and then you have all your family, all your friends, people that have always been supporting you just taking you on the rides. Right now I'm very confident in myself and very confident in the rehab work that I've been putting in. I feel like what I'm doing now will get me right and get me back on the field as fast as possible.
Whittaker chose to perform that rehab work at Texas, with trainer Kenny Boyd and football strength coach Bennie Wylie, rather than going elsewhere.
"There's no better place that I can do my rehab and get the same amount of work that I've been putting in other than here at the university," Whittaker said.
That belief has been reciprocated. Boyd singled out Whittaker's work ethic in making his comeback attempt.
"I think what a lot of what people saw in Fozzy on the field and how he played and approached the game before the injury was exactly how he approached the rehab over the last four months," Boyd said. "His motivation to get better is really second to none. For him, it's not a matter of 'if,' it's a matter of 'when.' I think that's how he approached his daily interaction with me and Donald (Nguyen), who did a lot with him during rehab as well. He's at a point now where I think he's continued to improve himself in getting himself ready for the field.
"In a lot of ways, if you go to the weight room at any particular moment, you don't know something's wrong with him because his effort and the way he approaches his workouts with Bennie and the strength and conditioning staff was similar to before he was injured," Boyd said. "He's such a positive person to be around, his approach to this injury has been nothing but positive and I think he's going to do well."
Some of that approach comes from Whittaker's idol. He said he grew up idolizing Captain America for what he stood for.
"[I liked] just the type of person and character that he holds inside of himself," Whittaker said. "His name's Steve Rogers, and a lot of guys kind of look over the process he had to get to Captain America. He was a guy who was real undersized, a guy a lot of people said, he wouldn't be able to do this, he wouldn't be able to do that.
"Growing up, I was a little undersized guy," Whittaker said. "Some people said I wouldn't be able to do this. I wouldn't be able to play college football at the University of Texas. Some guys will say things like that. And that same kind of criticism that Steve Rogers took and took it in and internalized himself, even after he became Captain America he still stayed humble and still worked for the country. That's the kind of attitude that I like to portray."
When he came to Texas, the nickname stuck. Earlier in the 2011 season, center David Snow — now an NFL hopeful like Whittaker — said that Whittaker was a real-life version of the comic book character. And Whittaker never had a bad day, Snow added.
Fozzy is just an unbelievable person," said Texas coach Mack Brown. "He's the most upbeat human being I've ever seen. Sitting there talking to the pros, they had him at the combine. It's a compliment to be invited to a combine when you can't run, can't workout. I don't think I've ever seen it before. And to take a slot as valuable as those slots are for them to evaluate, obviously they think he's got a chance.
"His knee is doing great," Brown said. "He's doing everything great. He's working for us as an intern this spring because he's finishing his graduate degree by June. I mean, it's just an unbelievable story."
One right out of the comic books. Whittaker has always been one of the more interesting players on the team. He has pet rabbits. He listens to gospel music before games. And he has used his faith to overcome some of his biggest challenges.
The oft-injured Whittaker seemed to get a great chance to be a feature back in 2010, only to see his production limited because of a recurring injury. And despite a fantastic spring once he healed, Whittaker was unseated as a starter by talented freshmen Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron. But instead of moping, Whittaker found his niche, developing into an outstanding Wildcat quarterback — some nicknamed the Longhorns' version of it the "Wild Fozzy" for its success — somebody who thrived on making his fewer touches per game count, and one of the outstanding kickoff returners in college football.
Whittaker averaged a whopping 42.4 yards per kickoff return, taking kicks back against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. And while the Longhorns failed to show well in the Red River Shootout, Whittaker earned plaudits for his performance. He rushed just six times, but gained 43 yards, more than seven per carry. He caught one pass for 15 yards. And he returned his only shot at a kickoff return for a 100-yard score.
But just as the Longhorn rushing attack was catching stride, Malcolm Brown suffered a turf toe injury. Then, against Texas Tech, Bergeron sustained a hamstring injury. Heading into the Missouri game, the rushing offense was Whittaker's. But Whittaker attempted to cut back on a toss sweep play to take advantage of Missouri's overpursuit, and when he planted, his knee gave. ACL tear. Season over."At times, I do get down," Whittaker said. "Whenever I first got injured, I was down, I was upset at myself. Kind of like dang man, this happened? Everything was going so well. We were moving, on a roll as a football team. And this (put) a damper on my spirits.
"But what I've learned is, you can't stay down that long," Whittaker said. "Because if you just stay negative the whole time, then that's how your whole mind will perform, and you will start acting that way. So I said, I want to act positive, I want to stay positive. Because that will only increase my time, if I'm staying negative, that I'm hurt."
Whittaker said he hasn't watched any tape on the play that cost him his season and any chance to go through the regular draft process, saying "I felt it."
"I'm not exactly sure how it happened," Whittaker said. "I'm not sure if it was the turf. I'm not sure if it was [weakness in] my knee. But I knew it hurt."
But he also sees the injury as somewhat of an opportunity. He cited the belief that many people who go through ACL injuries often come back stronger because of the rehabilitation work. And he said he sees each step toward running and cutting full speed as "liberating," actually relishing the cycling and jogging work he's been able to put in. He said he's hoping to be fully cleared to play in September.
Whittaker said he's ahead of schedule, and while he isn't sure where he'll go, or whether he'll go, in the final rounds Saturday, he said his agent had been receiving interest from teams.
Every superhero has a comeback. So did Whittaker ever doubt his?
I never really lost hope like that," Whittaker said. "I've always kept the faith and just always had it in my mind that whatever my mind tells me to do, that's what I can do. Right now, my mind is telling me that I can get back 100 percent healthy and make a team, and go from there. That's what I'm planning on doing."