It's certainly no secret that football is a game of recklessness. It's commonplace for players to run full speed before making a crushing hit or taking the crushing blow. It happens on nearly every play of every game and certainly there is no room in the NFL for men that can't take the physical pounding.
Luckily for James Whitley, that is a good thing.
Whitley, the 5-11, 185-pound safety for the Packers not only doesn't mind the contact, he thrives on it. However, while most players' willingness to stick their head in a pile-up yields positive results, Whitley almost lost his job over it.
When Whitley suffered a concussion during training camp on August 4, he was forced to sit out for over a week. When he tried to play on August 16 against the Seahawks, he received another head injury. That caused Whitley to miss the next two preseason games versus the Saints and Jaguars.
By that point, Whitley's pain may have rested in his head, but it also hurt his bid for a roster spot. Playing in the preseason is vital in determining a player's worth and when that player isn't on the field, it can make him and the team very uncomfortable. Yet, it never was a concern according to Whitley.
"I was like 'whatever happened was supposed to happen,'" Whitley said. "That's all I really thought about it. I didn't think about my concussions. I just thought about what I could do to get better and making sure I could heal up properly. I wanted to show what I could do if they used me in a game."
Well, the Packers had a pretty good idea of what Whitley could do. They knew how he received the concussions in the first place, which was by throwing his 185-pound frame around as if he were a 250-pound linebacker. The coaches knew that Whitley's physical style, coupled with his ability to play cornerback in a pinch would benefit them in the long run.
Despite not seeing much preseason action, Whitley secured a roster spot and now finds himself in an important backup and special teams role with the Packers. He made a special teams stop in the opener at Carolina and played on the kick coverage units against Chicago in week two. Against the Colts, Whitley also returned two kickoffs for 33 yards.
None of this should come as a surprise, however. After signing with the Packers in time for the last three regular season games last season, Whitley also played a prominent role on special teams units as well. He had six tackles in those three contests and also had five stops in the two postseason games.
Whitley insists that whatever role the team has for him is fine and it's his job to perform wherever he's asked to.
"I want to be on the field," Whitley explained. "That's pretty much it. Whatever role they have for me, that's really my goal.
"I'm still in the learning stages of this defense but I've grasped it enough that they feel comfortable enough to put me in this position. The scheme is great but it's the learning part, the repetition of being out there, being active and making the calls that's important."
By now Whitley has enough NFL experience to succeed but it didn't come easy. After he enjoyed a stellar career at the University of Michigan, Whitley went undrafted and played in the CFL for the Montreal Alouettes. Eventually he signed with the Rams before landing with the Packers, but despite these struggles, Whitley said he was always optimistic he'd get to this point.
"I'm in a position I always wanted to be in," Whitley explained. "As far as I can remember I wanted to be an NFL player. Through faith and determination, it's what has gotten me to this point. I'm a blessed man.
"My little league coach had a taste of the NFL but he didn't quite make it. He showed me the ropes and everything special he learned from his standpoint. I was eight years old then and I fell in love with the game. I understood it and his experience made me better growing up because I told myself that if I ever had the chance, I was going to make the best of it."
Besides inspiration from his little league coach and his work ethic, Whitley said there's one other key component that separates him from some football players that never quite make it. He refers to a football commercial to illustrate his point.
"I'm talking about the commercial where the big guy is pumping iron and he throws the weight down and he says the biggest muscle in the NFL is the heart," Whitley explained. "That's what it boils down to. That's what allows people to compete at the highest level.
"I think that commercial is so true. Ultimately, the heart divides everyone apart from one another."
Whitley has taken this message very seriously and still uses it today, not just on the field but away from it as well. In his spare time he relays this message and other advice to elementary students.
"I like to talk to the youth and see what their focus is and allow them to understand where I came from and the things I was thinking about when I was growing up," Whitley said. "I talk about the things that allowed me to go to college and compete and want to play professional ball as well as be an overall positive citizen."
Whitley said he just wants to be someone younger people can look up to and he got the idea to talk to youth kids when he was in high school.
"It started when I did a muscular dystrophy camp," Whitley explained. "That really prepared it all. That is a heck of a disease for anyone to carry and these were youths that were struggling with this disease. We had a chance to serve as their caretakers for a whole week.
"It really hit me in the heart to where I wanted to give everything I had to make a change in their life. I think words can make that change."
Perhaps it's his speaking skills that allow Whitley to put his situation into the proper perspective.
"It's been a long traveled road but it's not over yet," Whitley said. "I have many more miles to go. For the long haul, you have to have the endurance to stay successful or be successful in this league.
"The game of football boils down to just wanting to do it, really. It's your will to succeed and your will to do what you are capable of doing. I've been taught that from day one when I was eight and I've stuck with it."
Just as Whitley said much of his football success is due to his heart, it's also evident that his heart has made an even bigger difference away from the gridiron and in the lives of others as well.