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January 11, 2011

MAKING THE RIGHT MOVES - Eddie Whitley's love of chess has helped him line up the pieces to Tech's defense as the free safety

By: Jimmy Robertson

Eddie Whitley's love of chess has helped him line up the pieces to Tech's defense as the free safety.

Eddie Whitley has never played in the Sugar Bowl, but he certainly remembers his first trip to the French Quarter.

He wasn’t there downing hurricanes or tossing beads. By his guess, he was only 11 or 12 at the time and playing in an AAU basketball tournament, and he went with his mom to take in the sights and sounds of New Orleans’ famed tourist spot.

While there, he saw an elderly gentleman sitting on a seat with a chessboard in front of him. To play the man cost $5, so Whitley asked his mom for permission, she granted it, and Whitley paid the man the money.

“I gave the guy $5, and I thought we were gambling,” he said. “I thought I’d get the money back if I won.”

Whitley learned the game from his mother, almost on a whim. As a kid, he and his family sat around one night watching Searching for Bobby Fischer, a movie about the legendary chess player, and Whitley’s mom asked him if he wanted to learn how to play. Ever inquisitive, Whitley intensely watched every move his mom taught him and memorized them all. She decided to test Whitley’s skills, and after one game, he beat her.

Years of playing made him somewhat of an expert, so he easily disposed of the man in the French Quarter. After winning, he held out his hand, expecting the payoff. His mother quickly grabbed him and ushered him away.

“I beat him, and I was like, ‘Where’s my money?’ and my mom told me, ‘Nah, you were just paying to play him,’” Whitley said. “I wanted my money and she kept telling me not to worry about it. But I remember the guy telling people that I was going to be something special.”

Indeed, he is. Though good, he hasn’t quite become the next Bobby Fischer. Instead, he’s become special as a student at Virginia Tech and as a player for the Hokies’ football program.

He mans the critical free safety spot in Tech’s defense, quarterbacking the defense and moving the pieces into the proper positions. The defense is his personal chessboard, and he loves it.

Tech’s coaches love it, too. With Whitley out there, they feel pretty confident in one thing – most opponents will have a hard time putting Tech’s defense into ‘Checkmate.’

In his first season as a starter, Eddie Whitley finished third on the team with 80 tackles and intercepted two passes.

While chess provided the challenge for his brain as a kid, Whitley challenged his aggressive side by enrolling in a football league at a rather young age. He begged his parents to let him try out for one of the Little League teams in their hometown of Matthews, N.C., just outside of Charlotte, when he was 6. But his late autumn birthday rendered him too young for the league and forced him to wait an excruciating year.

In the meantime, his mother and father suggested flag football, a precursor to Little League. But Whitley incredulously refused that offer. Football involved tackling to the ground, not some soft two-hand touch version.

“They had flag football for 5- and 6-year-olds, but I was like, ‘No, that’s for little kids’ – like I was so much older than everybody else,” Whitley said. “But I wanted to play tackle football outside.

“So I did karate that year and I hated it. I told mom, after it was over, ‘I’m done with karate. Put me in football.’”

As he became a young adult, he started to become consumed by other things – not all of them good. Two incidents shaped his path, and both let him know that he wasn’t in charge of his future.

He realized he was God’s pawn in this game of life.

While in middle school, the uncle of one of his friends approached him and a couple of others one day about his nephew, William Bulls. The uncle expressed profound worry over Bulls’ choices and begged Whitley and the others to steer their friend in the right direction.

“He told us, ‘Get Bulls straight’ – Bulls was his nickname,” Whitley said. “He told us that Bulls was doing a lot of things his mom didn’t like, so he wanted us to get him back on the right path.

“Little did they know, Bulls was influencing us to do the same thing, but I lived on the other side of town, so I wasn’t getting into it as much as he was. I was like, ‘He’s good, he’s good.’ Then the next week, we get a call saying that he was dead. He had been shot in the head in a drive-by [shooting].”

The incident floored Whitley and rattled his parents. They moved him out of that middle school at the end of the year and into another one a little closer to their home to get him away from some bad influences.

Whitley, though, knew better than to get involved in the things that young adults can get involved with these days. He was smarter and raised better than many of his friends. His mother was a schoolteacher, always stressing education, and his dad – whom he idolizes – had served in the U.S. Army and was working his way into a management role at a local trucking company, so he was always stressing discipline and hard work.

“After that moment, I realized there was no need to do anything stupid,” Whitley said. “That [his friend’s death] set my life straight. That was the hardest time of my life, though, to lose a friend like that.”

The second incident that helped shape his life path was tamer by comparison, though certainly painful. A member of the Butler High School football team at this point, Whitley was developing into a college prospect and receiving attention from several ACC schools.

But a workout one early summer afternoon changed that. As a defensive back, he leapt over a receiver near the sideline and his cleat stuck in the artificial surface. His knee hyper-extended the wrong way.

“I couldn’t even get up to walk,” Whitley said. “I tried to lift a couple of days later, and I was trying to do conditioning drills. Then I went to the doctor and he did an MRI and told me that I didn’t have an ACL. I had probably torn it several years ago, so I had to have surgery.”

That cost him his final high school season.

"Coach Beamer told us on our visit that if we got in a car wreck and got hurt going down the mountain [at Fancy Gap], then he was still going to honor his [scholarship] offer. He told me I could still have my full scholarship here, and my mom and dad were like, ‘Yeah, this is it right here.’ That was when we realized it was meant to be.” – Eddie Whitley

N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien, widely respected in the coaching profession, rarely makes mistakes when it comes to recruiting local talent. But his hesitancy to commit to Whitley and his family when they were ready to commit to him ended up working in Tech’s favor.

Whitley vividly remembers the conversation between his mom and O’Brien before his senior season and shortly after his injury. She was on speakerphone with O’Brien, and to sum up the conversation, he turned her off.

“Coach O’Brien told her that if I couldn’t come back and run and perform like I wanted, then they weren’t going to hold my scholarship,” Whitley said. “My mom was like, ‘Okay, that’s cool,’ and she told me to tell him we’d call back and to hang up the phone.

“Then she told me to call Coach [Kevin] Sherman [Tech’s receivers coach] to set up a visit for that Thursday.”

Whitley went to one of Tech’s summer camps while in high school, but his parents had never visited Blacksburg. So Whitley called Sherman, and a few days after that conversation with O’Brien, the Whitley family headed up Interstate 77 toward Virginia.

His parents quickly fell in love with the campus and even purchased some Virginia Tech gear. But what really won their hearts were the words from head coach Frank Beamer.

“Coach Beamer told us on our visit that if we got in a car wreck and got hurt going down the mountain [at Fancy Gap], then he was still going to honor his [scholarship] offer,” Whitley said. “He told me I could still have my full scholarship here, and my mom and dad were like, ‘Yeah, this is it right here.’ That was when we realized it was meant to be.”

Whitley waited a week before committing to Tech on a national broadcast by ESPNU. After he put on his Virginia Tech hat, he looked over at his mom, who stood tucked away behind one of the cameras.

She was crying.

“She thought I had made the right choice,” he said.

Whitley came to Blacksburg in the fall of 2008 and played right away. Tech’s staff placed him at one of the cornerback spots and he spent most of his freshman season learning behind guys like Macho Harris and Brandon Flowers. Then the staff moved him to free safety his sophomore season, where he learned behind Kam Chancellor.

Finally, heading into this past season, he was moved into the starting role. The young child who grew up moving chess pieces all over a chessboard was going to be in charge of moving the pieces to Tech’s defense into the proper position.

He found himself in the perfect place.

The 2010 season turned out to be a breakout campaign for Whitley, who flourished in his first season as a starter right from the opening kickoff. Against Boise State in the season opener, Whitley finished with seven tackles and forced a fumble in Tech’s loss to the Broncos.

He continued making plays despite some nagging injuries. He missed one game midway through the season, but returned down the stretch and made arguably the play of the year with his end zone interception in the North Carolina game that prevented a touchdown.

“I was surprised at how quickly he started out so well,” defensive backs coach Torrian Gray said. “He got banged up and he wasn’t the same Eddie who started out that Boise State game, and he’s just now gotten healthy here toward the end of the season.

“But he’s just like D.J. Parker and Kam Chancellor. We can’t do the things we want to do defensively without a guy who is into it, and Eddie’s been a guy who has been so consistent. He hasn’t always been healthy, but he’s been consistent and he’s made some huge plays when we needed them. I’m proud of how he’s played.”

Whitley finished the season with 80 tackles (third on the team) and two interceptions. More importantly, he provided leadership to Tech’s young defense, helping the unit rank tied for second nationally in interceptions with 23.

Whitley returns for his final spring practice and final season in 2011 and will need to provide more of that same leadership considering that the Hokies lose secondary stalwarts Rashad Carmichael and Davon Morgan.

Next year, this defense again will be Whitley’s defense.

“Coach Bud isn’t on the field and Coach Gray is up in the press box,” Whitley said. “There is no one out there but us. You can’t hear, like you can in practice. You’ve only got three timeouts, and you’re not going to call one every time there’s a miscommunication.

“So I see this as my defense. Everyone has to know what’s going on and play as one. But they have to get the checks from me. I feel it is my defense.”

It’s his chessboard, and he’s used to winning in that game. Only teammate Greg Nosal has come close to defeating him, once playing him to a draw.

This past season, he was the Bobby Fischer of Tech’s defense. Tech’s staff, teammates and fans only hope next season produces similar results.