Mario Whitney said he wasn't even nervous on Aug. 28 when he played in his first football game in almost two years.
"No nerves," he said, laughing. "I was really just more excited than anything else."
Whitney, one of the area's most celebrated high school football players of all time during a brilliant career for Jackson, is back on the field at Garden City (Kan.) Community College -- and loving every minute of it.
"It's just great to be playing again," Whitney said during a recent telephone interview from Garden City, Kan.
And if Whitney's first outing in nearly two years is any indication, he hasn't missed a beat. The 5-foot-10, 200-pound tailback with sub-4.4-second speed over 40 yards gained 101 yards on 21 carries during a 27-17 victory over Dodge City, Kan.
Whitney sat out the Broncbusters' second contest -- Saturday's 41-13 loss to national junior college power Coffeyville, Kan. --with a minor ankle injury that shouldn't force him to miss any more action.
Through two games he still leads the Jayhawk Conference in rushing yards per game with that opening performance.
"So far everything is going well," Whitney said. "I really like it here."
High school phenom
As a Jackson senior in 2001, Whitney rushed for 2,782 yards and scored 43 touchdowns, giving him career totals of 5,027 yards, 90 touchdowns and a 9.3 yards per carry average. He gained 463 yards in one game, which at the time was a state record. And he won multiple state sprint titles in track.
"He's the best I've ever coached, and one of the very best I've ever seen," veteran Jackson coach Carl Gross said recently. "I can't think of anybody else that I can tell you was a better high school football player."
Many of the nation's major college programs felt the same way. Whitney was one of the most highly recruited running back prospects in the country. He decided to attend the University of Missouri.
But things simply never worked out for Whitney during a brief career with the Tigers. As a true freshman during the 2002 season, he saw sparse playing time in the first two games --rushing for nine yards on five carries and returning two kickoffs for 45 yards -- but suffered an injury and was redshirted.
The following spring, Whitney was shifted to wide receiver. He left the program a short time later, reportedly dropping out of MU amid hard feelings with some coaches. But he said, "I don't really want to get into it."
A long, winding road
Whitney returned to Jackson after departing MU. He considered transferring to Southeast Missouri State University and playing football for the Indians -- he even told the Southeast Missourian that was his plan -- but it never materialized.
Then last year, he headed west to Arizona and enrolled at Scottsdale Community College, where he intended to practice with the team while redshirting. He did practice for a while, but Whitney said an anticipated school loan never came through and he dropped out of the junior college.
But just when it looked like Whitney perhaps might never play football or attend college again, his current opportunity presented itself. Whitney said he contacted MU wide receivers coach Andy Hill, who has strong connections with various Kansas junior colleges.
"I always got along with coach Hill real well. He gave me a few possibilities, and this worked out," Whitney said. "I just wanted to do something. I was tired of just sitting around. I wanted to go to school, but more than anything else, I missed the competition."
Getting things together
While Whitney is glad to be back on the field, he is just as happy to be getting his academic situation in order. He said he is on schedule to graduate from Garden City this year, after which he should again be an attractive recruit to various major colleges. He will have two seasons of Division I eligibility remaining.
"I'm happy to actually be doing something with my life, because a lot of people doubted me all along," said Whitney, who indicated that he plans to also run track at Garden City and might even decide to pursue that sport at a four-year university.
Gross is pleased to see Whitney playing football again -- but he's also much more elated that his former star is back in school.
"I'm excited he's back in football, but the biggest thing is he's going to school," Gross said. "The thing I told him is it's so important to get an education."
Whitney, who said he would like to eventually get into teaching and coaching, believes some of the bumpy roads he encountered since graduating from Jackson High School have helped in the long run.
"A lot of experiences I went through, on and off the field, helped make me a better person," he said.
Added Whitney, chuckling: "I'm sure a lot of people wonder what happened to Mario Whitney. Tell them I'm doing fine."