Go Long Q&A: How Donte Whitner thrived in a 'scary place'
As a kid, Whitner was hit by a car and told he wouldn't walk again. Instead, he became one of the most feared "seek-and-destroy" safeties in football. Today? He's still thriving.
For our first Thursday Q&A, a weekly feature at Go Long that will catch up with former players, I chat with two-time Pro Bowl safety Donte Whitner.
Few played with his level of physicality. We discuss the time doctors told him he’d never walk again, just how nasty and violent his San Francisco 49ers defenses were, how pissed he is to see a “gladiator sport” softening into “dance,” what really went down with Johnny Football in Cleveland and how Whitner has, today, transitioned to life after football. It’s not easy for anyone, he says. You need to find a way to deal with the game’s PTSD.
These days, Whitner drops the hammer as an analyst for NBC Sports Bay Area. You can follow him on Twitter @DonteWhitner.
I’ve talked to a lot of players three, four years out of the game like you are and it’s such a delicate period. You miss the game. You’ve got a camaraderie that you can’t really duplicate anywhere else in life. What has it been like for you as someone who’s been in a locker room your entire life through high school, college and the pros to find purpose outside of the game?
Whitner: At first, it was a little tough. Preparing while you’re playing is the way to go about it. Especially preparing for that transition. I learned from Jim Tressel early on in my college career that you never want to attach your value as an individual to the game of football. You want to make it something that you do and not who you are. So it was a little easier for me with the transition. I expected the transition to be difficult, and it was. It was at first figuring out what exactly I wanted to do, who I want to do it with and where I want to do it at. So initially I started doing college football for Ohio State my first year out of the National Football League. Received some calls from the network out there in Ft. Lauderdale, I think it was CBS Interactive. Then, I received stuff from the Bay Area, NBC. I received something from the Cleveland Browns. They wanted me to do their television. So I had a lot of interest which made it easier for me to figure out what I wanted to do. And then I made the decision to go into TV in the Bay Area.
It was not as easy as I expected going into it. I expected to just jump on TV and talk about everything I know. There’s actually a lot of work you have to put in during the week. … But I feel like I’m really catching my niche being three years in, being 50-plus shows in. My niche is truth analysis. Telling the truth. Telling them what I see.
There is so much BS out there in the analysis world where speaking the truth is a niche in itself — being fearless and bold and not caring about offending people.
Whitner: Yeah, without attacking people personally. You’re looking at their game, their mentality as a professional football player. That’s why I don’t feel any way when I tell the truth about a certain individual or team or a coach. It’s because I’m not attacking you personally. I’m just saying what I see. And I think I have gained the respect of my peers when I was playing to be able to actually say those things. It was kind of weird at first because you know so many guys. You have personal relationships with so many. But at the same time, you have to tell the truth when one of these guys has a bad game. That’s a hard thing to do, but I have to do it.
Have you heard from guys you played with, like, “Donte, what the hell?”
Whitner: Yeah, yeah. A few. Some that went to my high school. Like Marshon Lattimore and Justin Hardee. They got mad at me when I had to say some things about the Saints secondary and about the 49ers matching up with the Saints. And then one of the players from the San Francisco 49ers, I had to call him out a couple times for his play on the field and then his Dad always sends me DM’s telling me not to talk about his son and defending his son’s game and why he didn’t play in the game. So, yes, I have dealt with some of that backlash. And I don’t expect it to go away. I expect more of that.
There are a lot of former players out there, in the media, who become surrogates for certain teams and certain players. Like it’s politics. Then, there’s guys like yourself staying true to what you believe in it seems.
Whitner: Yeah, you have to stay true to who you are because once you start to fudge it and try to be somebody else, the fans can tell. You can’t BS the fans. If they know that some guy sucked and that’s your best friend — and you’re trying to cover up for them — they’re going to figure that out. I never wanted to be that guy that tries to play the political game — especially when it came to something I’m so passionate about and I love so much. I wanted to bring something different to TV. You have so many analysts who just talk in general. So each week, it’s “What does this team have to do to beat this team?” Or “They have to run the ball.” Or “They have to throw the ball.” Or “They have to catch the ball.” You’re not telling us anything! Maybe you’re just on this show because you made it to the Hall of Fame. Maybe you’re not fitted to be on this show and you’re fitted to be on TV talking. There are fans out there that are tired of hearing that. They really want to hear the details about the game. They want to hear what’s talked about in the locker room.
Do you ever think back to the time when you got hit by that car at six years old, your legs are shattered and you’re not sure if you’re even going to be able to walk again? Let alone play football, ever?
Whitner: Absolutely it can shape and mold you. And as a child, you don’t really know what’s going on. So when you get hit by a car and you’re in a MRI machine and you wake up with casts from your chest all the way down to your toes, you don’t really understand what’s going on. So when the doctors told me that I wouldn’t walk and play sports, I didn’t really know what they meant. My Mom, it hit her harder than it hit me. She was the one who told me that I would walk and I would play sports. She wanted to continue to beat that into my head. So when I was going through all those rehab sessions and crying all the time, she would be super hard on me. She’d say, “Stop crying! You can handle it!” I’m like, “Man, I can’t even move these legs and you’re yelling at me?” I’m crying. I remember those times.
And then, eventually, I ended up being able to walk—with braces. And then I ended up being able to walk without braces. And then eventually I signed myself up for football because she felt like it was too dangerous. I forged her signature, signed up, snuck to practice. And then my uncle was coming to see a cousin of mine play, like two years ahead of me, and he saw me. And he was like, ‘Whoa. You should see your son play. He’s really good.’ She tried to take my equipment. She wanted me to stop. Every day after school, I would ride my bike up to practice until eventually she said, ‘OK, you can play.’ That’s how it started.
Back to when you got hit by the car, do you remember the detail of that all? Do you remember that day?
Whitner: I was playing catch in the driveway with one of my cousins and there was a wire that connected, like, two houses. The ball hit the wire and goes into the street. I remember sprinting out after the ball and then I looked to the left and I remember seeing the sky and then I remember waking up in an MRI machine. As a kid, I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know if it was spaceship. I just knew I woke up in this big white tube that was making a lot of noise. And then I remember waking up in a hospital bed with a bunch of flowers around.
There’s no feeling of just… pain?
Whitner: No pain, no pain. I don’t remember any pain from it. I just remember being flipped over. I remember seeing the sky and then I remember waking up in the MRI machine. I don’t remember anything else.
Three months in a full body cast, right?
Whitner: Yes, three months in a full body cast from the top of my rib cage all the way down to my feet. I was pulled around in a red wagon for the majority of those three months. It was summer so you see all the other kids running around, playing and you’re stuck in this body cast just sitting around in the hot sun. So it was difficult. And at that point, you don’t know if you’re going to walk. You have this cast on. I’d see the kids running around and get sad — I’d talk to my Mom and Grandmom about it. But they helped me recover from it. That’s why it’s all about self-belief. If you believe in yourself and you’re willing to put the work into it, it’ll happen. That was my first case of believing in myself.
With that accident, when you’re told you might not walk again, as a little kid, was there any part of you that was demoralized? Any part of you that was like, “What is my life even going to be?” Or were you too young to compute all of that?
Whitner: I think you’re too young to compute all of that in that moment. I think it’s just the shock of being in this body cast and not being able to move and run around with the other kids. I wasn’t worried about never walking or playing sports because I don’t think I understood what that meant. So it was more so wanting to run around with the other kids.
So, at what point do you become this seek-and-destroy missile of a football player?
Whitner: The first day I ever put the pads on. You have that drill, the Nutcracker, right? Two players lay on their back. One has the ball. Whoever gets up fastest with the most momentum is going to win. So, I think we had that the first day of pads and I just went full speed and hit helmet to helmet, facemasks, and it just felt good to me. Everybody went crazy in the circle and I went, “Whoa, I can do this all the time.” So, that’s where it started: That first day of the Nutcracker.
You had the Nutcracker, the Oklahoma drill and Bull in the Ring was where you could really get your bell rung.
Whitner: Oh yeah. You’re going to find out who’s tough and who’s not.
Is it like a war of attrition? You’re doing these hitting drills and there’s a lot of guys who won’t come back for that second day of hitting drills. And then there are guys like you who embrace it, enjoy it, want more of it.
Whitner: I think it is a war of attrition. But at the same time, the game is changing and the mentality of the players is changing. So when I speak about the players now, I can’t speak as if it’s me out there playing or playing by certain rules. … The middle of the football field is always supposed to be a scary place. Anybody who grew up playing football knows that. They know that if you go into this danger zone, you deserve to get your head knocked off. Only the toughest can go in there. But, now, they’ve changed that. They’ve changed that part of the game. They’ve taken that emotion out of the game to where a big hit can actually propel your team to win a football game. It can actually propel your offense to be better. It can propel your special teams to be better.
When you look at your career, the hit in the 2011 divisional round when you laid out Pierre Thomas, that completely changed the momentum of that game, that team, and I don’t know if we see that kind of hit today. Is the middle of the field still a scary place? Are there still those momentum-changing hits?
Whitner: My last couple of years is when they started to change the rules. When we had me and Dashon Goldson at safety in San Francisco, we used to whack guys. We would do it legally but they were so vicious that they had to throw the flag on us. And then the league would come back, on Wednesday the following week, and say “You know what? We called the flag on the field. We gave you a 15-yard penalty. But it was actually a legal hit.” That’s when they were first starting to change the game so it’s totally different. You have guys like Stefon Diggs — who’s a great receiver, who’s having a tremendous season — but these are guys who would’ve never even thought about touching the middle of the field. I watched the game the other day and heard the announcers say, “He’ll run any route! He’ll run inside, he’ll do this!” Yeah, but there’s no danger in there. Why wouldn’t he run every route?
You look at the numbers this season and, historically, the records will fall one by one. Points and touchdowns all make fantasy football fun and the league is embracing gambling now. I imagine it’s not all by accident that the rules are what they are — and it’s only trending one direction. Maybe “safety” is the No. 1 driving force, maybe it’s a façade. Either way, it’s going that way. To you, what is the league losing by going that way? Is this a necessary evil or are we losing the soul of the sport?
Whitner: You’re losing the integrity of the game. Because it was all about, put in as much work as you can with your teammates and just go out there and worry about winning the football game and to get one more point than the opposition. Now there are so many other things tied into it where they change rules every week to allow the offense to get one up on the defense and score more points, to make the fans more excited, to make them want to buy more tickets. Right? So it’s all about the fans and all about profit margins. It’s not about the integrity of the game. … Stop changing so many rules. Let football players be football players. You know what you signed up for — you signed up for this physical sport. Give the defensive backs back some of their rules. Maybe we should be able to jam guys a little bit past five yards. Everything right now is geared for the offensive side of the ball.
I’ve always thought that the owners and the commissioner have been trying to find a middle ground that doesn’t exist, that they feel it’s important to project to the Moms in America, “Look, this game is safe. Sign up. We’re going to take away concussions.” When you can’t. Unless you eliminate blocking and tackling and make this flag football.
Whitner: Absolutely. And it’s on a decline. It’s on a steady decline. The parents don’t want to put their children in harm’s way. Nowadays, you can’t really trick these parents. It’s hard to trick them. We have the data and we know what this can do to our children so it’s going to get to a point where you sign something that says, “Hey, you’re signing up for the game of football. You understand the repercussions of your actions playing this. Are you willing to do this?” Because you can’t just take the physicality out of the game. You’re making it flag football. Football is a gladiator sport. That’s why so many people love it! Because everybody can’t do it and have the courage to do it. So, when you sign up, you understand the risk and you understand the reward. There is no middle ground for the game of football. It’s helmets and shoulder pads. It’s physicality. It’s grown men running at full speed into each other. You cannot prevent injury.
The league could just embrace what it is, have guys sign a waiver — “it’s a physical game and you know what you signed up for” — but I don’t know what the sport’s going to resemble in five to 10 years.
Whitner: I don’t either. And I don’t know about the enrollment because it’s in a steady decline. So I don’t know what it’s going to look like in a couple years, either. But I know the years that I played and the years leading up to me being in the National Football League, those were the best years because that was physical defense. I remember the Baltimore Ravens. I remember Brian Dawkins and the Eagles. … I don’t know if you can make a gladiator sport into what? Dance or something? Cheerleading? I don’t know if you can do that because this is a gladiator sport.
So, let’s look back at better times. To your playing days. Some good memories, some not-so-good memories. How do you look back at your time in Buffalo?
Whitner: I loved being drafted there. I’m glad they saw something in me to want to take me so high. But I feel like I was drafted into the wrong system. In a Tampa 2 system you’re really relying on having a dominant front, a bigger strong safety who can come down in the box and take on crack blocks, shoot the “B” and “C” gap from the edge, have some safety blitzes that come off the edge and you’re really supposed to be a bigger guy. Me being drafted at 5-10 ½, maybe 200 pounds, I never fit that role. We never played quarters defense. We would play some man to man. But when you have smaller guys who are quicker and faster, they succeed and excel better in defenses where you can play a 3-4 and you can disguise a lot. You have zone blitzes and seam/flat techniques that they can play. Not just coming down in the box, taking on “Z” receivers that are trying to crack you and playing Cover 2 all day with an insufficient pass rush. You’re just hanging the guys out to dry. So when I went over to San Francisco, they played a defense that actually fit my attributes. A 3-4 system. Different disguises. Different looks. Not just sitting out on the hash, playing Cover 2 vs. Randy Moss and Tom Brady. So I appreciate my time in Buffalo. I appreciate the tough times we went through there. The tough games, in the cold.
Running backs just breaking straight through and having to chase them in the open field, I appreciate those times because being able to see that firsthand and having to put my body through that mental torture knowing that each and every game six of these balls are going to break out on the safety… it makes you appreciate getting to a place like San Francisco where you have a bunch of guys who actually want to do their jobs and you have the opportunity to just do your job. You don’t have to worry about other guys and things that are going to go bad. You just do your job and enjoy winning.
So the Bills draft you, and you don’t believe they allowed you to do what you do best? That was Dick Jauron, Perry Fewell and the Tampa 2, right?
Whitner: That was their Tampa 2 defense. Sometimes, you can draft guys into the wrong system. It doesn’t mean they’re a bust or they didn’t make enough plays — you’re not putting them in a position to make plays. We didn’t have the guys like Chicago had up front with Urlacher at the linebacker position controlling everything. We just had a bunch of guys. Sometimes, it was guys off the street. We would have so many injuries and so many losing seasons that when it came down to Week 14 and 15 and 16, you might have a guy next to you who was just on his couch two or three days ago. So those are some of the defenses I played on there. And it’s hard to make plays without going outside of the system.
For you, it all came together in San Francisco. Those defenses were special. They were nasty. They were violent. What was it like to be a part of that all?
Whitner: It was a very, very violent football team. We had individuals that were violent and then, collectively, you knew what you were going to get when we stepped onto the football field. Guys might get arrested during the week. They might miss practice. They might sleep during meetings. But when we stepped on the field, on Sunday, you knew what was going to happen. You knew you were going to get hit in the mouth each and every snap. And I learned a different level of football being in San Francisco. Being with Vic Fangio and Ed Donatell, they were the best teachers. They didn’t just throw something on the board and say, “Hey, this is Cover 2. You have a spot drop here. You have to do this.” They were really good at teaching the why — why we’re doing this. We understood, “Why we’re playing this coverage? Why we’re disguising like this? Why are we running this blitz from here? Why are we playing man to man to this side and zone to this side? Why are we leaving certain guys in zero coverage?”
That’s what I understood when I got there and that’s why we had so much success. The best coaches in the National Football League are teachers first. They teach. They have patience. And they expect their players to not make the same mistakes over and over. They never change or waver in the way they teach the game.
And those personalities you had on defense, what is the real value to having nasty, belligerent players who want to want to destroy other human beings out there? Instead of choirboys?
Whitner: You can have a few choirboys at certain positions but then you have to have guys who just do their own thing. Football was really their last resort. Guys who come up in tough communities that when they finally get to the National Football League, they just need a little bit of tweaking. They’re rough around the edges and you clean them up just a little bit. But you need those guys who are willing to run through a brick wall, that you might have to check now and then, to win games. Because it’s not a nice place out there. It’s a very nasty place on the football field. It’s grown men really trying to take each other out. So you need these type of guys. You can’t have too many choirboys out there. I’m sorry to say it but you can’t have too many out there.
So who were those players for you guys?
Whitner: It was Aldon Smith. It was Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. We just had guys everywhere. We had depth everywhere. But all these guys were just mean guys. They weren’t the nicest guys when you saw them in public. But when they stepped on the football field — and that testosterone gets going — it’s going to get really ugly. We had a bunch of those guys. All you had to do was get us to Sunday.
Do you remember much from Cleveland? That 2014 season was crazy. You guys were 7-4 and had all the “Johnny Football” madness and it fell apart.
Whitner: Cleveland was really weird. I came in and, initially, they just wanted me to lead and it’s hard to lead a bunch of guys who don’t want to be led. Guys that don’t understand — a bunch of young guys who think they know it all and just want to do it their way, what are you going to do? You can’t run around and put your hands on people. And that 2014 season, we were tied for first in the division. Brian Hoyer was our quarterback and the head coach didn’t want to put Johnny Manziel in the game. Kyle Shanahan (then the Browns OC) said a few months ago that he asked to be let out of his contract because they made him put Johnny Manziel in the game that season. And then, who made that call? Was it ownership calling down to actually sabotage our season? We were all tied in the division — 7-4, going to the playoffs, five games remaining — and you put Johnny Manziel in the game. So Johnny goes out there and he doesn’t have a good first series. OK, he doesn’t have a good first half. OK, he doesn’t have a good first game. Why does he remain the starter? What are we trying to prove here?
I don’t know if they thought they’d have some Johnny Madness and sell more tickets but it backfired and we didn’t win another game that season.
How bad was it? We’ve heard all the stories about how he wouldn’t put in the time. What did that look like day to day?
Whitner: Man, fame is something that can’t be described and can’t be articulated. It’s a dangerous thing. Johnny had the talent. Johnny could’ve been somebody’s back-up quarterback for years to come, get the ball out on his first read, manage the offense, run screens, play in one of these offenses that’s playing now. But he was a guy that was just uncontrollable. You could not control Johnny Manziel. Off the field, on the field, he was going to do what he wanted. And you can’t have that at the quarterback position. We can’t trust you with the ball in your hands each and every play. Yes, he had great plays — magnificent, magical plays at Texas A&M. Yes, he could do that a little bit in the NFL. But you cannot make a living just running around and throwing the ball up. That’s never going to work. You actually have to put the study into it and the time into it.
So there were many off-the-field things that he was involved in that he thought was more important than the game of football. And he understands that now. He understands that football was the most important thing in his life and he lost it because he didn’t put the time in and the effort and he didn’t take it seriously. So it was a blown opportunity for himself. But more so, for our football team which was relying on Johnny Manziel.
What a cautionary tale. Was it really just the partying? Going out during the season and not putting in the work?
Whitner: Yeah. Partying. Being involved in other things. Feeling like other things off the field are more important that the actual football team. And that showed. When he had that Vegas trip and he had that disguise on with the fake mustache and all that, that just showed me that you think you’re in a movie or something. I don’t understand what you’re doing. If you’re hurt and they’re telling you “Don’t leave,” then guess what? Johnny, you’re hurt. Do not leave the city. Don’t go to Las Vegas. It’s not that important. You can go to Las Vegas any time.
And, like you said, it’s the team that suffers. You had the one year with Washington, your career wraps up and, now, how do you want people to remember you as a player?
Whitner: As a player, I want them to remember me as fearless. I never cared how big a guy was. When he had that football, I was coming full speed. If you run me over, you have to continue to run me over for the entirety of this football game. At some point, I am going to get you. It was just like “seek and destroy.” And now that I have a chance to look back at it, it’s like “Whoa. You were really in that mindset to be playing like that?” It looks kind of dangerous now. So I want to be remembered as somebody who was fearless and put it all on the line when it all mattered.
And you beat the “Bountygate” Saints, a team that was really trying to take peoples’ heads off with money on the line against your team.
Whitner: It’s ironic, right? They’re the ones paying and I’ll do it for free. If you touch the ball, that’s just the way we played. That was our brand of football. Physical. And that affects teams physically and psychologically.
When you look at your game — and the way you played it, the high level of physicality you played with — is there anybody in today’s game you think could’ve played in the game you did?
Whitner: Budda Baker. He plays fearless. He’s not the biggest guy — probably 5-10, 190 pounds. But when you watch this guy, he’s like a missile on the football field. He is attacking each and every person out there, no matter how big you are, how fast you are. I would say Budda Baker definitely could’ve played. I don’t know how long he could’ve lasted because he’s still a smaller guy. But he could’ve played. Definitely. One-hundred percent.
You’re right. I talked to Budda a couple years ago for a story at B/R, after his brother died, and that was on his mind. He was bringing some pent-up aggression to to the field.
Whitner: One thing I have to say is guys do have that adrenaline and that testosterone. And there’s a place and a time for it. So when you do get out of the game, you have to know that this just doesn’t go away. This doesn’t just disappear. There’s a lot of self-healing and a lot of counseling and a lot of things NFL players must do so they don’t carry this on throughout their life and deal with people in society the same way they’ve dealt with people on the football field. There is some form of PTSD within every guy that played out there.
You, personally, how have you dealt with your PTSD?
Whitner: I do a lot of meditation. A lot of transcendental meditation. I do a lot of reading. I do a lot of self-actualization. That stuff helps. Especially when you do things to target the frontal cortex of the brain — that controls everything. That controls temperament. That controls mood. That controls anxiety. That controls depression. That controls your emotions.. So if you get into the meditation and you learn how to sit with yourself and think properly, I think that can go a long way to healing and getting a lot of that aggression out of a lot of these guys.
And for you, it’s helped then? How do you meditate?
Whitner: You sit with yourself. You center yourself, first and foremost, and then you just say a mantra over and over and over again in your head for an extended period of time. Fifteen, 20 minutes. And then I actually incorporate a lot of hot yoga these days as well. A lot of people think hot yoga is more so for the flexibility and the muscles but it’s primarily through the mind — going through fight-or-flight mode. You go through fight-or-flight mode every play in the National Football League. That hot yoga puts you in fight-or-flight mode to where you feel like you have that pent-up anger in you, that uncomfortability being in that hot room, a panic mode to where you’re like, “Hey, I’m going to die! I want to react and leave the room!” Being able to control your mind and say, “Hey, I’ve been here before. Let me focus on my breathing. Let me take deep breaths and I can get through this.” Hot yoga and transcendental meditation are two great forms of meditation that can actually help you release a lot of the anger. The anxiety. A lot of that fight-or-flight mode that these guys go through on a daily basis.
You mentally have to work through something.
Whitner: That’s fight-or-flight mode. Your heart starts beating really fast. Your mind starts wandering all over the place. So if the walls are closing in, that’s similar to you encountering a negative situation in real life or a situation you have to think through. Hot yoga and transcendental meditation are tremendous for these things.
If a team calls you up and asks if you have 10 to 15 snaps in you, what would you say?
Whitner: (I’d say) “Oh, absolutely. You see these abs?! I can get in there on some third downs and cover these tight ends and run around a little bit.” So, absolutely. I always feel like I can do that.
Could you play in today’s game, though?
Whitner: Could I change my game and just tackle guys low? Probably so. Could I suit up now and give you 20 plays? One-hundred percent I’d do it. But would I enjoy not playing the game the way I like to play it? I don’t think so.