Gophers' Whaley overcomes gunshot with strong play
"He didn't talk much about it," recalled Whaley's mother, Tracey. "He just kept saying, 'I'm going to be all right.' He knew in his heart that he would get back."
The road back has been long and bumpy, and included an arrest last year during his redshirt freshman season. But coach Tim Brewster could not be more proud of the strides Whaley has made on and off the field.
Whaley rushed for 79 yards and a touchdown on eight carries in a victory over Purdue last weekend, giving the Gophers' ground game a much-needed jolt.
"He's a young guy who is very determined to be a success in life," Brewster said after the 35-20 victory. "Where he's from, there's a lot of people that aren't successful in life."
On March 22, 2008, not long after the Salem High School star signed with Minnesota, police say Whaley was leaving a nightclub in his hometown of Virginia Beach, Va., when a vehicle pulled up and a gunman opened fire.
Whaley was rushed to the hospital and Brewster said at the time that "he was lucky to be alive."
"It was like the worst news you want to hear," said Tracey Whaley, who got a phone call shortly after 2 a.m. telling her that her son had been shot. "When I got to the hospital, there was still blood everywhere and the bullet was still in his leg."
She watched her son as tears of frustration rolled down his cheeks. The thought of his football career ending, however, never crossed his mind.
"The doctor told me I was going to have a chance to still play football," Kevin Whaley said with a shrug. "I was just blessed with the opportunity to come up here and keep going."
Tracey Whaley is close to her son, but she was happy to see him move some 1,300 miles away to a new city for a fresh start. He is in a completely new environment, where he might not be the target he was back home.
"I'm glad he's in Minnesota," Tracey Whaley said in a telephone interview this week. "His chances are better there. There, he actually has a chance."
Despite the shooting, Brewster and the Gophers honored Whaley's scholarship and kept him on the team, showing support while he worked his way back.
"They've been big on the field and off the field," Kevin Whaley said. "They give me strength on the field and off the field. I'm just happy to be here and I'm happy for them to pull me in."
Yet his first year in the chilly Twin Cities was not an easy one. He was redshirted and could not play in the games, and his mother sensed a difference in the happy kid she raised. He was arrested last November after fighting with a bouncer outside a Minneapolis club and pleaded guilty to fifth degree assault in February.
Whaley was sentenced to two years' probation, but was allowed to stay on the football team.
"I stayed on him," Tracey Whaley said. "That's part of life. That's part of growing up. He's grown up a lot since then. The more he is playing, the closer he gets back to himself. He just loves the game so much."
After getting sparse action in the first five games of the season, Whaley finally had his breakout game on Saturday. He averaged 9.9 yards per carry, scored his first career touchdown on a 1-yard run and had a 28-yard scamper that set up another TD.
"I knew he could do it," Tracey Whaley said. "I was just waiting for them to put him in there. I'm just real proud after everything he has been through. That's just the beginning."
Star receiver Eric Decker has sorely needed a running back to step up and take some of the burden off him in Minnesota's offense. That it was Whaley who finally came through seemed to have added significance. His teammates made a significant investment in helping Whaley through his off-field issues, and now they are reaping the benefits.
"The last two years, he's had a lot of trials and tribulations and he's learned a lot about himself," Decker said. "The support this team's given him and this university's given him, he's really making the right decisions and going in the right direction. It's great to see. He's a great athlete. He's a great kid. He just needed some motivation and some support around him. You saw on Saturday. The kid can play."