He was 22, a Carolina Panthers third-round draft pick out of Georgia, a rookie linebacker still learning the ropes. Then, everything changed.
“About midway through the season, Dan [Morgan] dislocated his shoulder,” Witherspoon said Monday. “I remember Jack Del Rio in our Monday meeting saying, ‘Hey Spoon, get ready to play.'”
Witherspoon says he leaned on the team’s veteran linebackers as he prepared to lead. A group that included Mark Fields, Dan Morgan, Hannibal Navies and Kory Minor showed the kid how to play like a pro.
“Those were a group of guys I got to look forward to, say, ‘Hey, what can I do? How can I do this?'” Witherspoon said.
Now, he’s in St. Louis to return the favor.
The Carolina rookie who was thrust into the spotlight in 2002 has now logged a decade and some change in the NFL. He has 173 games, 151 starts and 740 tackles on his resume. In 2010 he won the Ed Block Courage Award, an annual honor given to a player who best represents inspiration, sportsmanship and courage. He’s also started a second career; his sustainable beef farm, Shire Gate, is located in Owensville, Mo.
Witherspoon, who turns 33 next month, still has game. The Rams wouldn’t have brought him back for a second stint (he played here from 2006-09) if he didn’t. But his wealth of knowledge is probably more important than the remaining pop in his pads.
“He’s played the game for a long time,” Rams defensive coordinator Tim Walton said. “He gives you depth and leadership at multiple positions. That leadership and that experience is valuable in this day.”
“His leadership and experience, it’s second to none,” Rams linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar said. “He’s been around. He understands the defense. He can still play. He’s got it in the tank. Witherspoon is a guy we are going to depend upon, we are going to need.”
Perhaps no one needs him more than Alec Ogletree.
The former Georgia Bulldog was a top-15 talent before an untimely DUI arrest sank his stock. St. Louis took him 30th, and the Rams have shown no signs of shyness when it comes to presenting him as a starter at outside linebacker in 2013.
The veteran says he was not instructed to specifically mentor the rookie, but he realizes it’s part of what he agreed to when he signed a one-year contract to extend his career.
“That’s always an understanding as a veteran,” Witherspoon said. “The league is not what it used to be. It’s not everyone for himself … You’ve got to carry everybody along, and bring everybody up the same way.
“Part of the reason I’m here is to be a veteran leader, a guy who can lead these guys in the right direction.”
Ogletree acknowledges the newfound asset in the locker room.
“You’re able to take a lot from a guy like that,” he said. “He has been around the league. He knows the system. I try to learn a lot from him, and he’s willing to help.”
Witherspoon is more than willing.
Hopefully Ogletree uses him for more than just football advice.
Follow Ben Frederickson on Twitter (@Ben_Fred), or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org