Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Whitner's Leadership Extends Beyond the Playing Field

Bills rookie McKelvin feeling right at home

July 6, 2008

Clifton Brown

Rookies often have trouble adjusting to a new team, new city, new system and new coaches. Not Leodis McKelvin. He feels right at home with the Buffalo Bills, thanks to a teammate's welcoming gesture.

McKelvin is staying with Donte Whitner, the Bills' starting strong safety. The living arrangement is temporary, until the rookie cornerback finds his own place. But Whitner's decision to roll out the welcome mat speaks volumes about his role as a team leader and how seriously he takes it.

The Bills have made a huge investment in McKelvin, the No. 11 pick in the draft and the first cornerback selected. They expect him to play well right away and to be a cornerstone in their secondary for years. Whitner, in his third season, plans to help McKelvin realize those expectations with hands-on mentoring and motivation.

Call it a good sign for the Bills, that one of their young players is leading a rookie in a positive direction.

"To succeed in the NFL, it's not only about what you do on the field," says Whitner, who broke into the Bills' starting lineup as a rookie after being selected No. 8 overall in the 2006 draft. "It's the whole package. How much film do you study? How well do you take care of yourself? What choices do you make off the field? It's all part of how successful you become.

"That's why I reached out to Leodis after we drafted him. I'm there for him. He's my new teammate, part of the Bills family, and I want him to do well. The better he plays, the better we'll be. And I'm serious about winning."

When asked if he expects the Bills to make the playoffs, Whitner makes it clear how serious he is. "Do I expect us to make the playoffs?" he says. "I'm guaranteeing it." He has delivered that message to McKelvin, who was rated by many scouts as the best cornerback in the draft.

"He drives on the football; he has tremendous opportunity to play in the punt return game," says Mike Mayock, draft analyst for the NFL Network. "When you watch coaches tape, you can really see the quickness and the change of direction. The only thing he doesn't have is ball skills. He gets his hands on an awful lot of footballs without intercepting them. But I haven't seen him miss a tackle in the tapes I watched."

When McKelvin was drafted, he had no idea Whitner would take such a personal interest in him. Giving someone defensive keys is one thing. Giving someone the keys to your house is another.

"I was a little surprised when Donte said I could stay with him," says McKelvin, a native of Georgia who played at Troy. "But that shows you what kind of guy he is."

McKelvin and Whitner watch tapes together in the theater in Whitner's basement. Of course, not all of their time is spent focusing on work. They love to play Madden.

"Beat him all the time," says Whitner.

Maybe McKelvin is just being a gracious guest. But according to Whitner, they get along famously, listening to the same kind of music, enjoying many of the same television shows. Although McKelvin is the rookie, he is less than two months younger than Whitner.

"Leodis isn't a big talker--he's a doer," says Whitner. "We have the same kind of personality. It works."

Veterans who are team leaders have something to gain by taking an active role in helping rookies get acclimated to the NFL. The quicker the rookies figure it out, the better the team does. And how many stories do we read about players getting in trouble off the field? Whitner believes close bonds between teammates can help avoid that.

"I'm not saying that young guys will never get in trouble if they have vets looking after them," says Whitner. "But having a support system helps. Seeing older guys do the right thing has a tendency to rub off."

Shortly after the Bills open training camp in late July, they will elect team captains for next season. Here's a suggestion for the Bills: Elect Whitner as a captain. Obviously, he is already acting like one.

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