As the Rams tussled with the Cardinals in Los Angeles last Sunday, scratching and clawing to stay in the game, Andrew Whitworth stood on the sidelines, wearing a mask and team-issued sweats, trying to hold back tears. He knew the odds. For his team, which was attempting to lock down a playoff berth without its starting quarterback (Jared Goff) or a star receiver (Cooper Kupp), and its top running back playing on a bad ankle (Cam Akers) while their second running back was out (Darrell Henderson). And the odds for himself, a tackle who turned 39 in December, roughly a month after he tore the MCL in his left knee.
Even a giant like Whitworth doesn’t last most of 15 pro seasons and play more than 230 games while engaged in unending hand-to-hand combat without understanding one indisputable fact: Nothing in the NFL is guaranteed. Should the Rams have lost, he knew that more than their season might be over. That the freak injury against Seattle could mark the final play of a career worthy of Hall of Fame consideration. He did not want that consideration—yet. “It made me crazy emotional,” Whitworth says, “and that’s when I started to realize, Man, I’m ready.”
Big Whit says this on Tuesday, more than seven weeks since the injury, after the Rams eventually held off the Cardinals to clinch both a playoff berth and a third game against their division rival Seahawks. He had called Sports Illustrated throughout the season, on various Mondays, even the one after the injury, to detail a life spent in the trenches for a piece that ran under the headline “Father Timeless.” This time, Big Whit delivered better news. He planned to return to the lineup on Saturday in Seattle, should he not experience any medical setbacks this week. And, in an unexpected twist, his glimpse at a future without football had steeled him to return for another season (God, team, family and health willing).
For the seven weeks after his kneecap collided with the full force of Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright, Whitworth tried to put the future out of his mind. He couldn’t impact his team’s record, so instead, he went to work, rehabbing with a relentlessness that Aaron Donald might envy. Big Whit knew that, in order to return this season, he would need to shelve any hopes that he could return to full health. There would be risk involved—and the risk would be higher simply because of the number of candles on his birthday cake.
The injury itself had been good, as far as football injuries go. He hadn’t torn his ACL in the collision, there were no bone fractures, and his PCL suffered only minor damage. He didn’t need surgery, instead focusing on restoring the range of motion in his kneecap through a series of mind-numbing, repetitive stretches. He needed to re-learn how to bend. He used muscle stimulators and recovery machines, day after day, inch after inch, workout after workout. And while he hoped to return, he didn’t know for sure that he could until the doctors allowed, of all things, a return to the golf course.
Big Whit is a big golfer. He calls his perfect non-family day The Trifecta, and by that, he means that he’s at any course so long he eats all three meals there. He started with a little chipping and a little putting and graduated to full swings while wearing a knee brace. He started to feel like an athlete again, rather than a man who bent one knee for a living. And the more he swung, the more he thought, considering his future and how much football meant to him.
By then, he needed only to strengthen the injured knee as he eyed a 2021 return. Once the Rams made the playoffs, he believed his career had been extended. His orthopedic surgeon told him, “This is really fast.” But once Whitworth passed every functional movement test, any lingering concerns were alleviated.
In fact, when Whitworth called on Tuesday, his oldest daughter, Sarah, was riding with him. They had just finished discussing how nervous she was over his return. She didn’t want him to get hurt again. Dad told daughter that he had chosen the physical risks of football, that he had done all he could to overcome his injury and that he had made a commitment to his team. He left out how much he simply loves the game, how close he knows he is to the end. “That’s really good, Dad,” Sarah responded.
Back in the fall, Big Whit said multiple times that he expected this to be his final season, although he laughed about how he had been saying that for years. He’ll need to add to the just-kidding tally, it seems, however the playoffs shake out. The more time he spent away from the Rams, the more Whitworth realized how much he loved his daily existence—his team, goofing with Goff, the O-line room, the culture, his little-bro-head-coach Sean McVay. Usually reporters ask Big Whit if he plans to retire. This time, he asked himself, noting how well he had played earlier this season, when Pro Football Focus rated him one of the league’s top lineman. The answer his heart returned registered at least as mildly surprising: he didn’t want to step away.
Now, on the eve of another playoff game, against a hated rival, on the road—the exact type of game that keeps an old man like Big Whit returning, year after year—he says, “I’m pretty jacked up to come back, that’s for sure,” and “I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t [return] next season.”
Well, perhaps there’s one. For all the snaps, all the games and all the seasons, Big Whit has done most anything an NFL player can do but one: win the Super Bowl. Imagine that. The 15th year. The promise. The gruesome injury. The rehab. The comeback. All that’s missing is the ending, one that Big Whit, gratefully, gets another chance to shape.