On the Monday after everything changed in an instant, Andrew Whitworth calls once more. This fall he started several of his work weeks the same way, dialing on his commute to the Rams’ temporary football headquarters in Thousand Oaks, Calif. The idea: to explain aspects of his long career, his secrets to longevity, his endless survival techniques and how all that pointed him toward this season, one he believed would be special—at least until a million-to-one collision on Sunday afternoon cast doubt on a million-to-one career.
On this Monday, he phones during his drive home, the contrast indicative and stark. He hasn’t slept in more than 36 hours. He keeps replaying the freak accident against Seattle the previous day, in the second quarter, that marked the worst possible gridiron luck.
First, context. Yes, Whitworth turns 39 in a few weeks. Indeed, he’s far closer to the end of his career than the beginning. Sure, he had come to believe that 2020 might—finally, actually, for real this time—be his final season. And yet, everyone from his coaches to the game-charting and analytics sites to the left tackle himself seem to unanimously agree that Whitworth was carving out his best season in his 15th campaign. Even against the Seahawks on Sunday, his steady play on Jared Goff’s blind side helped boost L.A. to an early lead.
Then, it happened. The worst case. Whitworth was sliding to his left as he escorted a pass rusher beyond the pocket. Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright, blitzing from the other side of the formation, whiffed as Goff ducked under his attempted tackle, but on the other side ended up colliding with Whitworth. Neither player could see the other, which meant neither player slowed down or adjusted his body positioning. Instead, THWACK. The full force of Wright’s momentum hit the outside of Whitworth’s left kneecap, causing the leg to collapse inward. Before the replay, TV viewers were warned that the injury was gruesome. “If he hits me a little earlier, or a little higher,” Whitworth said the next day, “or just not at that exact moment, it would have probably been nothing but a bad bruise.”
Longtime rivals like Russell Wilson ran across the field to wish Big Whit well, and an outpouring of respect spilled all over social media. At the moment it seemed possible—maybe, heartbreakingly, likely—that this particular injury marked more than the end of just his season.
As the cart drove him off the field, Whitworth wondered two things. 1. Is my career over? And 2. How sweet will it be to take a snap at 40?
Meaning, even in that moment, he was thinking about a return for one more final season, if at all possible, any which way.
Story of his life.
* * *
The Tao of Whit I: While his teammates cemented an upset of the Seahawks, throwing the NFC West into a three-way tie atop the standings, Whitworth needed assistance to traverse the corridors at SoFi Stadium. Already, en route to the X-ray room, he had resolved how he would handle another setback in a life jammed full of them. To the hundreds who were reaching out, he tapped back the same response, even though his fate remained unsure. “I’m thankful for a new challenge and a new opportunity to prove I’m all the things I say I am. I can’t wait for all the work and all the pain ...”
* * *
Over all the years and all the injuries, the job never changed, despite the years that spin by like finger snaps, the health toll exacted every fall and the family—the omnipresent wife, the four beautiful children, the most hilarious nanny in California—waiting for what’s next, whenever a never-ending career finally, one of these years, ends. His peers from the 2006 draft class? Long ago retired. The legends he studied closely? Walked away by 35. Big Andrew Whitworth? He’s 38, his trading cards still read left tackle and he remains as respected as any lineman in the NFL.
One trainer joked the other day that Big Whit embodied the fiercely debated 10,000 Hour Rule popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. But Whitworth deflected this inaccurate info; last he’d checked, his snap total had surpassed 16,000. He had played in 168 games for the Bengals, followed by 56 with the Rams. His 190 starts at left tackle did mark the second most in pro football’s last 25 years. He did star in 52 more games at LSU, setting a school record, missing only one practice to attend his graduation ceremony, tallying 3,500 snaps in college alone. And, yes, he also won a trio of state championships in high school, adding some 50 games to a staggering total that doesn’t include thousands of hours of actual practice. The long and not-short of it, according to teammate David Edwards: “When he was a rookie, I was in first grade.”
That rule? Pffff. A mere prelude for a mountainous man who gets older but never grows old. So what gives? Whitworth is not the rare offensive lineman soaked in proximity glory. There are no commercials, no social media “footprint,” and his face, if familiar to anyone, would be recognizable to only deep-in-the-weeds Bengals and Rams fans. He has made enough money (almost $100 million in salary alone) to never work again. So … why? How? “I don’t even know where to start,” he says.
During the Monday phone calls that spanned his 15th NFL season, he assessed a career of longevity and survival to share routines that can seem like a TB12 antithesis, to talk storms and fires and global pandemics overcome. As the conversations meandered, they began to tie together, unexpectedly, with everything he did and everything he lived through pointing toward this season. His last. In theory.
Eventually, the big picture of Big Whit sharpens into focus. If age ain’t nothin’ but a number it’s an important one—for him especially—nonetheless. His tally of birthdays and snap counts speaks to something deeper than his four Pro Bowl nods, his well-stocked bank account or his grand standing in the NFL. Instead, the sum points to the soul of a man who long ago decided he wanted to do the same thing, over and over, for as long as he possibly could, for no reason other than perfecting a craft. And, yes, this particular craft consists largely of shuffling backward or plodding forward to impede the paths of other large men. But hey, niche is a niche.
* * *
The Tao of Whit II: The legend of Andrew Whitworth grew among teammates in Cincinnati, where from 2006 to ’16 the hulking offensive tackle lost many a football game and won at pretty much everything else. Sometimes, coaches called him First Pick. Meaning he should be taken first for any athletic endeavor, be it golf (5-handicap), charity flag football (all-time quarterback, with “an absolute hose”) or pickup hoops (6' 7", somewhere between 315 and 350, so trim that veins popped from his calves; able, then and now, to dunk).
As backup quarterback Jordan Palmer witnessed an anonymous giant cull a small but fierce cult of celebrity, he remembers saying something, way back in 2008, that sounds prophetic now. “Whit is going to play as long as he wants,” Palmer told a teammate. “He’s the guy who, at the end, they’ll beg him to play one more year.” And one more year. And one more year …
* * *
On the last Monday morning in September, Big Whit calls on his way to work. He always takes the same route, steering his trusty Navigator—a car he chose because “I could fit all my kids in it”—from his home in Sherwood to the Rams’ facility. Down Westlake Boulevard, past the commuters spilling their morning lattes. Onto the 101. Up Route 23.
On this Monday, like most Mondays, Big Whit follows his unconventional routine. Despite engaging in hand-to-hand combat with other giants for more than 65 snaps the previous afternoon, there are no cold tubs here. No cryotherapy, either. No hyperbaric chambers, avocado ice cream or Theraguns. Whit realizes that NFL veterans in general are playing longer now. But none would seem to approach recovery quite like him, a throwback even among the old guys. When he moved to California in 2017, teammates laughed when he asked them to define “treatment room.” He didn’t know what they meant. He hired a private trainer, Ryan Sorensen, himself a former left tackle, only around then, more than a decade into his career.
Big Whit instead believes in body adaptation, this idea, grounded in personal experience rather than science, that thousands of snaps forced his pain tolerance to keep pace with his pain suffered. He stopped taking any medication, even over-the-counter pain relievers, back around 2013. He didn’t want to stand in Toradol lines.
Imagine that, in light of his medical form. The one he fills out every summer over his own protests, since he’d rather not be reminded. He must compare past versions to remember every injury: just about every finger, on both hands, dislocated; torn elbow ligament (left); damaged AC joints; busted shoulder labrums; one shoulder surgery (left); numerous shoulder injections; torn hip labrums; bone-on-bone impingements in both hips, both of which can no longer rotate; bad lower back (very 38!); the patella surgery (left); damaged knee cartilage (right); ankle surgery (right)—typical, he says, meaning typical to him. Even with the latest entry on that form, Whitworth describes the swelling in his knee post-Seahawks injury as positive, since that means the healing process has begun.
Big Whit discovered his own secrets. Like stay active. He isn’t a huge sports fan, but he does participate in a huge number of sports. “I’m a big walker,” he says. He plays tennis—styling himself, seriously, as a serve-and-volley attacker—and can drain three-pointers, chuck footballs 65 yards and sling a fastball in the low-90s. Big Whit loves golf so much that he belongs to five separate country clubs in three different states and considers the perfect offseason day to be the Trifecta, where he eats three meals on a course. Flexibility, agility, rotational power—all earned by thousands of swings.
Well that, and forget-physics dance moves, according to his wife, Melissa, and nanny, Krista Howard, two women who Big Whit leans on so that defensive linemen can lean on him. “Listen, don’t let him lie, now,” Howard says in her Cajun accent. “Those hips don’t rotate? You put the right song on and that man will get out on the dance floor and start twerking. I always tell him, Listen, big guy, you can’t just drop down because your butt hits people in the chest.”
This Monday, Big Whit rises early, makes coffee and listens to ’90s-era R&B—a routine that all but screams I’m almost 40! and twins nicely with statements he makes about “the Twitters.” For a tackle who once played guard, the thinking being he wasn't athletic enough to shift outside, Big Whit did allow for tweaks over time. So it’s squats. Bench. Grunts that echo across the weight room, like he’s auditioning for World’s Strongest Man. Sorensen recognized the “meathead mentality” but helped Whitworth augment the past few years, extending what had already been extended. Little stretching. Little yoga. A few mobility drills. Boom. “I would argue I’m, like, 10 times the athlete I was when I came into the NFL,” Big Whit says.
Whitworth’s worst injury before last Sunday in those 200-plus starts stemmed from the jacked patella tendon (left), which he damaged further by ignoring severe pain and inflammation for all of 2012. He needed surgery—eventually, he couldn’t do a single-leg extension on that knee—and missed all of the next camp and the opener. He played 14 games in ’13, anyway. Having pushed past the most excruciating pain imaginable, he then told himself, “I’m going to shoot to play until I’m 40.” At that time, this prospect seemed as likely as a starring role on The Bachelor.
Such is Big Whit’s favorite topic to lament: the O-line life. Like, for instance, the membership he snagged from the Bel-Air Country Club—“a courtesy deal,” he quips, for his friendship with Jared Goff. The O-line life is not to be confused with the QB life, he insists, as the conversation winds down on that first Monday. The O-line life means that one mistake in 70 snaps could cost a really talented man his job, where if the rushers who stand across from him succeed just once every week, they’ll waltz into the Hall of Fame. The QB life, he says, is being born tall, thin and blond (like Goff); having a golf hole carved into your backyard (same); being flown to private courses; and given more floor seats to NBA games than anyone can possibly attend. Whitworth, meanwhile, logs onto StubHub, like everybody else, looking for tickets cheap enough to not feel lavish but close enough to not seem embarrassing. Ah, the O-line life, which is what the nanny means when she says, “His personality is equal to his size.”
Whitworth is rolling now, as he pulls into the Rams parking lot, his team having won two of the season’s first three games. His bitching is lighthearted, his lineman-existence lamenting really just his way of saying that he’s happy, content. “I’ll call next Monday,” he says.
* * *
The Tao of Whit III: As the Rams’ VP of community affairs, Molly Higgins long ago realized that athletes could maximize their off-field impact by joining causes they believed in. That’s partly why she created a survey for incoming players, with columns of foundations that could be checked off, matching interests with volunteer opportunities. And yet, as Whitworth handed her back his survey at a table in the team’s cafeteria, she figured he had misunderstood the instructions, or made a simple mistake. His form was an unending series of checkmarks. Higgins doesn’t share this story to denigrate other players; it’s just that no one had ever indicated that every single cause appealed to them before. “I’m interested in them all,” Whitworth responded.
* * *
As promised, Whitworth calls again the next Monday, to explain how he owes his career to far more than golf swings and body adaptation. He needed Melissa, his backbone, his family. They have all lived through some real s---, events that laid a protective layer of resolve over his skin that Whitworth would come to need in 2020. Like playing 11 seasons for the Bengals.
When Nick Saban signed the Monroe, La., native to stay home at LSU, he called Whitworth a pillar. He was both right and had no idea. Not until Hurricane Katrina ravaged the state just before Whitworth’s senior season. Big Whit remembers the lines at gas stations, something like 50 cars stacked on top of each other, as fuel started to run out. He recalls the flooding, the friends worried about relatives in peril, the houses—and lives—lost. The Pete Maravich Assembly Center was transformed into a triage ward, with victims being airlifted in.
Big Whit learned something that summer, as he helped teammates gather and disperse all their extra athletic gear. Something that stuck with him ever since. “That’s burned in my mind—to help,” he says during commute No. 16,000. Give or take.
Two seasons into his Bengals tenure, Big Whit had already started a foundation—and not the stamp-your-name-and-image-on-it kind. He already knew which causes: grants for adoptions, scholarships for high school students, seminars on leadership, toy drives. He didn’t know then, but he was learning to maximize his impact on those around him. Even the Pro Bowl snubs and the six postseason losses in those frustrating Cincy years taught him to lead when it wasn’t easy or convenient.
The Rams signed Whitworth in free agency in ’17 in part because of the man he’d grown into, which is a strange and true thing to say about a man his size. GM Les Snead saw Big Whit the same as Saban: as a pillar for his program, too. On the flight into LAX, Whitworth turned to his wife and told her they had to be realistic, that the Rams were young and inexperienced, that he would probably retire soon, meaning his dreams of winning a Super Bowl were effectively over. “I’m going to help rebuild the locker room and bring that veteran presence and help Jared grow up,” he said.
His L.A. tenure would become so much more—and so much more personal—than that. Wildfires raged in November 2018, spreading near the team’s facility, forcing dozens of families like the Whitworths to evacuate their homes. Uncertain and scared, Whitworth asked coach Sean McVay if he could address his teammates. He stood before the Rams and pointed out the mass shooting that had taken place at the bar down the street that week, followed by the fires. Hundreds had lost their lives. Thousands had lost their homes. He told the Rams how his own family had stuffed four kids, two dogs, one nanny, jewelry, passports and Melissa’s grandmother’s cookbook recipes into the car and bolted to a hotel in the middle of the night, the smoke thick, the air steamy. In the frenzy, they forgot one child inside and had to run back in.
The Rams, Whitworth bellowed, were no longer at remove. They were in it with their neighbors, like the youth baseball team he coached. They needed to use their platforms, raise money, help. Whitworth started by donating his next game check to first responders. He would donate every check for the rest of the season, each worth more than $60,000. “He’s our poppa bear,” McVay says. “Just a great, consistent, authentic capacity for people.”
Big Whit pauses on the phone two years later, the gravity and intensity flooding back. The Rams would host the Chiefs on Nov. 19, and the Whitworths would open their luxury suite to families of victims and first responders. L.A. would triumph that Monday night, a 54–51 thriller, and Whitworth would take Goff to the suite after and everybody would cry their eyes out. “Moments like that,” Whitworth says, “are why I’m still playing.”
That season, he finally won a playoff game. He also lost a Super Bowl. He had told friends and teammates he planned to retire after ’18, same as he’d said for most years since the patella scare. Younger lineman had begun to roll their eyes at him. Turns out, no one had to beg Big Whit for one more year. He always wanted to come back
As this season approached, his survivor story took a pandemic twist, then an injurious one. The Whitworth family came down with COVID-19, after their nanny was infected during lunch with a friend. Andrew and his wife experienced mild symptoms, like loss of smell and taste, headaches and runny noses. But Melissa’s father—who they had exposed—was hospitalized for five days. They worried they might lose him. Eventually, he recovered. Eventually, they all did.
When Goff wondered how much he should donate to various causes, he knew exactly who to ask, utilizing his blind-side protector like the oversize Siri that Big Whit has become. As the tackle pulls into the Rams HQ on another Monday, he’s framing the pandemic scare as both a surmountable obstacle and a developer of the scar tissue necessary to carry teams, like this one, beyond reasonable expectations. Before this season, the Rams were thought to be declining, at least outside their building. They’re 6–3 and tied for first in the NFC West now, in large part, Goff says, because “we’ve got guys who have been through the mud.”
None more than Big Whit, the consummate teammate who never saw himself that way, who keeps coming back as much to build as to win, meaning, he hopes, this season and next season. “I’m not sure he ever saw the leader he would become,” his wife says.
* * *
The Tao of Whit IV: Way back at the ’06 NFL scouting combine, a meeting took place inside a small room in Indianapolis. Three men sat at a table: Whitworth, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis and Paul Alexander, the offensive line coach. Whitworth waxed about Katrina and Saban and his collection of championships from high school and college. When the meeting ended, Lewis turned to Alexander. “S--,” he said. “If we’re lucky enough to draft him, I won’t need you.” Lewis had no idea then how long Whitworth would play, or even that Whitworth would play that long for him. Instead, he saw an everywhere-he-goes impact, the kind that would come to define a man and his long career.
* * *
Relationships matter, Big Whit says on another drive, on another Monday, after another victory, this one over the football team in Washington. The Rams are 4–1 now, in large part due to the bonds they’ve forged, and no one connection is more dynamic, unexpected or suited to become the next breakthrough buddy show on Netflix than the antagonistic friendship between the old-man tackle and his wunderkind coach. Sean McVay references the movie Twins (which came out when he was 2). “I guess I’m Danny DeVito, and he’s Arnold [Schwarzenegger].”
The blocker who laughs at injuries and casts large shadows would seem to hold little in common with his boss, who in caricature, if not reality, is depicted as a heavy-on-hair-product boy genius who sips rosé out by his pool. Big Whit is actually older by almost four years. Friends say the two men bicker constantly, to the great amusement of everyone around them, with Whitworth at once a subordinate and an older-brother type. And yet, McVay so respects his tackle that he will accompany him for golf rounds even though the coach doesn’t play. (In true McVay fashion, he refuses to even swing a club, lest he not be perfect at something.) Sometimes, they finish each other’s sentences. Sometimes, they simultaneously send two versions of the same text. “It’s like watching the little gorilla go after the big gorilla,” says Howard, the hilarious nanny. Their families have vacationed together, with the coach breaking out nerdy custom-made notecards for pop quizzes—what comes first: vulnerability or trust?—while their significant others slink away to roll their eyes.
The answer to the question the coach posed is vulnerability, by the way. McVay read that in the tome on team-building, The Culture Code, by Daniel Coyle. He will extend the example even further as it relates to his captain and this season. He says that he never met another person as empathetic as Big Whit, and, that for all his left tackle’s size and swag and Jordans—“let’s just say he’s a high-maintenance offensive lineman,” McVay quips—Whitworth is as vulnerable as anyone in Thousand Oaks, even after the injury. Especially after. That’s exactly why his teammates trust him.
Hence the Rams’ start that surprised most, but not them. After McVay gave his blessing (trust), Big Whit hosted the Rams’ linemen for offseason pandemic workouts in the makeshift gym the tackle built in his three-car garage. Both wanted the younger lineman—the Rams started four with almost zero experience in ’19—to be tougher. They understood, as Big Whit points out, how the college game had spread so far out that the physicality in the pros can tend to jar the ever-more-nimble young brutes up front. Sorensen paced the group through workouts, focusing on upper body for two days, then lower body the next, with yoga mandatory after every session. “They all adopted his grunt mentality,” Sorensen says. Which was important, especially now. If Whitworth could imprint his ethos before a pared-down training camp, he could gift the Rams an advantage unavailable to other teams. To do that, he would need to share his ancient wisdom and hard-earned life experience (vulnerability).
Whitworth laughs. Relationships matter. Maybe even enough to vault the Rams back into the playoffs.
* * *
The Tao of Whit V: Even the supposedly mundane O-line life comes with perks, like advice from a hockey player once known as the Great One. Yes, Wayne Gretzky told Whitworth to “make them rip that jersey off your back” during one country club round. But with the way he’s still playing, that might not be after this season. It might not even be after the next one. “I have a feeling we’ll be together for a long time in some capacity,” McVay (DeVito) says.
* * *
Over 15 seasons, however this might end, the game of football evolved around Big Whit. He evolved over that time, too. More symmetry. Think of the run of tackles taken in every first round now. In ’06? One went that high, D’Brickashaw Ferguson, who played 10 seasons—and retired five years ago! He watches Big Whit from afar and gasps, “I can’t believe he’s still playing!”
In Whitworth’s early years, offenses dropped into shotgun formations on only third-and-long; now many do that more plays than not. As seasons passed, defensive linemen added new techniques. “These guys are borderline MMA fighters, the way they’re rushing now,” Big Whit says, growing animated on his drive. “They all have these moves. Watch [teammate] Aaron Donald’s arms and hands when he’s rushing. It’s like trying to block a windmill.”
The twin evolutions, how they tie together, plus the Big Whit impact on the big picture of two franchises and the NFL, leads those close to him to suggest—nay, demand—that Whitworth receive Hall of Fame consideration. For the longevity. For the pancake blocks. For the elder statesmanship. For the Pro Bowl nods. For surviving Cincinnati. For transforming the Rams upon the franchise’s move back to Los Angeles. For the family that supported him to be part of the ultimate accomplishment. For the nanny to crack more jokes, perhaps about his blazer and how it might or might not fit. For another comeback, if all goes well. For all of the above.
Goff, unprompted, kicks off the Big Whit 4 Hall campaign. “If he doesn’t get in,” the quarterback says, “who should?” Lewis echoes that sentiment with a “no doubt.” Snead goes one step further. “If Big Whit’s not considered,” he says, “I don’t think I’ll ever buy another ticket.”
* * *
The Tao of Whit VI: Big Whit wasn’t sure what to expect when he posted his desire to return on social media late Sunday. But rather than disappoint, the outburst of love overwhelmed him beyond anything imaginable. Troy Aikman, who had worked the broadcast of the game, called Whitworth—a childhood Cowboys fan who was floored by the well wishes from one of his idols. “Get better,” Aikman told him. “Get back.” On various platforms, Whitworth also heard from dozens of parents, all strangers who sounded the same theme. His play, vibe, longevity, secrets—Whitworth meant so much to so many. They need him to return. He needs to return for them.
* * *
On the Monday that everything changed, Whitworth knew the kind of season he was having. He knew that anyone who had considered him simply an elder statesman ignored important things like game film. “I respect this craft too much to not be great at it,” he says. In the season-opening victory against Dallas, he graded the highest of any Ram on Pro Football Focus (95.2) and snagged his highest mark in a decade. In a longer-term PFF analysis, the site found that Whitworth allowed the lowest pressure rate (3.7%) of any offensive tackle from his generation, ranking slightly better than the recently retired Joe Thomas (3.9%), a 10-time Pro Bowler with the Browns.
Then, this. The worst-case. Or maybe not. The very night that Big Whit suffered the injury, he received what amounted to good news for an injured football player. His prayers had been answered. He had torn only his MCL and a minor part of his PCL; the rest of the ligaments looked healthy, and there were no fractures. He didn’t need surgery and could return in six to eight weeks—as opposed to months—if rehabilitation went as expected. “It’s a testament to what an alien you are,” the team doctor told him after the MRI scan. The timing was not lost on either man. It meant that Big Whit could return just in time for a playoff push.
He called his wife before heading home, and they started, as always, to put a plan together. She would schedule a blood test for Tuesday, so that doctors could study what foods would best help his body regenerate. Their nutritionist would slap together a new diet plan. Sorensen, the trainer, would help Big Whit attack the rest of his 15th season the same way he attacked the beginning of it, through COVID-19. Whitworth even hired a driver, so as not to waste time or hurt the left knee while getting around. Not even 24 hours after that cart took him off that football field, he desired to come back. He wants to play, and would consider—and weigh—a return in ’21 if he cannot come back this season.
With a somber mood hanging over a team that just finished its biggest win of an already successful season, Whitworth went to work on Monday, after some typical R&B and coffee time to set his mind right. Same as always. He would give everything he had to rehab. He would lift his teammates spirits, rather than the other way around. Plus, swelling! Regenerate!, he implored his cells. He told the Rams that they’d lost games this season only when they didn’t play to their potential, while emphasizing that they had already won without him and would continue to.
In some ways, despite the injury and the promise of the season that it halted, Whitworth saw the tumultuous events as an extension, a fitting addition, to his larger story. This was another setback to survive, and should the Rams continue to win and he returns for the playoffs, for the Super Bowl that has eluded both pillar and franchise, what better ending could Big Whit write than to fall, get up and win the whole damn thing?
There’s only one drawback. He laughs. “Unfortunately, they don’t make movies about linemen.” Ah, the O-line life.