Friday, September 26, 2008

Whitner's shot heard 'round the room

Jerry Sullivan

September 25, 2008

George Wilson is not known for brevity. The Buffalo Bills’ backup safety could turn a simple hello into the Gettysburg Address. But when I asked how many players objected to Donte Whitner’s late hit Sunday, Wilson got right to the point.

“None,” Wilson said Wednesday afternoon. “None of them.”

From what I could gather, the players loved it. When Whitner tackled Oakland’s Johnnie Lee Higgins after Higgins showboated his way into the end zone, he had the full support of his teammates. Their only regret was that they didn’t get a shot at Higgins, too.

“Hey, I imagine there were 10 other guys who would have done the same thing if they could have caught him,” defensive tackle Kyle Williams said. “I’m a little heavy and was further down the field, or I would have done it.”

If you think Whitner’s teammates were behind him, you should see what Bills fans are telling him on Facebook and MySpace. To them, Whitner was chasing an intruder out of the house, striking a blow for the franchise. He could run for mayor right now.

Dick Jauron took the predictable stand, saying Whitner has to control his emotions. But deep down, the coach had to be giving his young safety an attaboy.

“I was talking to Thurman Thomas,” Whitner said. “He told me that when he played here, someone on the defensive side — like Darryl Talley — would have done the same thing.”

Maybe it was a coincidence that Whitner did it on the day Bruce Smith was honored, with the old Bills in town. But it was a statement of competitive resolve. It said, “This team is different. You do not show us up in our house.”

This is the same young player, remember, who guaranteed the playoffs this season. Whitner wanted everyone, including his teammates, to understand the Bills were playing to a different standard. That means playing with the healthy bravado all great teams possess.

“Yeah, I was pretty much saying the same thing Sunday,” Whitner said. “You can go back to last year, when I said we weren’t punching bags for teams coming in here. Teams need to know they can’t come in here and show you up.”

On a team of bright, competitive guys, Whitner has become an unquestioned leader. As a 21-year-old rookie, he bided his time. But once the Bills cleaned out the old guard, Whitner was ready to take over as a leader and spokesman.

Whitner relishes the leadership role. That’s one of the reasons the Bills drafted him eighth overall in 2006. He had the physical talent. But he also had a bright, inquisitive nature and a fierce competitive temperament — an ideal combination for a young team leader.

The guy gets it. Early on, he reached out to Thomas, who told him how the team had bonded at Jim Kelly’s house in the old days. Whitner began hosting his defensive teammates at his house on Thursday nights. He believes a team can’t be truly close on the field if they’re separate away from it.

Last New Year’s Eve, on locker clean-out day, Whitner said he was going to start watching film right away and get ready for the new season. He said he was determined to do everything in his power to turn things around here.

The hit on Higgins was instinctive. The playoff guarantee was not.

“I think he knew what he was doing before he even made his statement to the media,” Wilson said. “I know he did, because we spent a lot of time together this offseason and that was one thing we discussed. He told me he was going to make the prediction. My response was, ‘I’m with you 100 percent, and I know the other guys are as well.’”

They were behind him 100 percent Sunday, too. Wilson guarantees it.

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