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Whalen's star rises out of the bluegrass

By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 21, 2000


TAMPA -- Coming out of high school in Oregon, he got zero offers to play college football. No Ducks. No Beavers. No Huskies. No nothing.

Believe it when I tell you that James Whalen came from nowhere to a single season of Kentucky Wildcats fame, which got him drafted in the fifth round by the Bucs.

Before encountering people who claim their grass is blue, Whalen tried a California junior college called Shasta, stashed among the extreme timbers of Redding. James caught a mere 19 passes, impressing almost nobody but himself.

Plus, oh, yes, Mom.

Whalen's family by then had left Portland, relocating to northern Kentucky, homesteading in a village called Walton. "Good night, John Boy." His father, James Sr., works for Esco Steel and was transferred to a plant in Covington, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati.

Dad delivered a message: Come east, live near us and we'll take care of your schooling, or you can stay in California on your own. Kid is no dummy.

Whalen's mother, Mary, was eager to help. She had videotaped high school games and put together a highlights reel. "Mom would like to work for ESPN," he says.

Not far down I-75 from Covington, in Lexington, Hal Mumme was a creative new UK football coach in 1997. James showed up at Hal's office with Mom's videos. Mumme took a look. Gave a chance.

"Things happen for a reason," Whalen said Thursday, perspiration still dripping from his first workout with the Bucs. "All my life, I've been begging for chances. Now, from the NFL, somebody says they want me.

"I get drafted by Tampa Bay, then four days later I'm in a locker room with Warren Sapp, Mike Alstott, Warrick Dunn, John Lynch and Keyshawn Johnson. I will try with all my heart, soul, body and mind to make it work."

Okay, let's flash back.

Whalen, at Portland LaSalle High, was all-state basketball. In baseball, he pitched and played third base. Despite catching 68 passes for 1,502 yards and 18 touchdowns as a football senior, James was snubbed by college scouts.

"I was always too small and too slow," he said. "I hoped to get major-college attention at Shasta, where they promised to throw a lot of passes. Stuff happened. We wound up running the football more."

Lightning didn't immediately strike at UK, where the quarterback was the spectacular Tim Couch. James caught seven passes as a sophomore, 23 as a junior. Scoring just three TDs before Couch took early flight to the Cleveland Browns as first overall pick in the 1999 draft.

Whalen clicked with last season's Wildcats quarterback, Dusty Bonner. James became stunningly intuitive at finding openings in zone defenses. His hands were sure, his heart huge and his savvy remarkable.

Whalen caught more passes (90) than any tight end in major-college history. Five more receptions than Couch's prime 1998 target, wide receiver Craig Yeast.

"You can see the wheels turning as Whalen plays," said Jerry Angelo, Bucs director of player personnel. "He knows exactly what he can do, and can't do. James figures it out like few young players I've ever seen.

"Opponents tried to intimidate him. Beat him up. Whalen kept finding openings and catching passes. There's something special in what he does. Setting up an enemy, then beating him. Making just the right little head fake. His confidence is superior, almost bordering on arrogance."

Tampa Bay hopes there can be some Jay Novacek and/or Frank Wycheck in this unusual tight end. Maybe a little Dave Moore. A feel, an ability and a consistency for making vital plays.

As the NFL draft droned, Whalen talked often with new Browns offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael. Couch wanted James as a partner in the pros.

"Then, there came a call from Coach (Tony) Dungy," Whalen said, "asking if I'd like to come to Tampa. I said, "Sure!' Coach Dungy said that was good, because a card with my name on it was on the way to the NFL podium in New York."

James, still not blisteringly fast, gained 40 pounds the past two years. At 230, the Bucs see Whalen as maybe 10 pounds light for an NFL tight end.

He desperately needs to enhance strength. Barbells await. Whalen is no sure thing, but don't waste a nickel betting against his confidence, playmaking knack and concentration.

When the Bucs go to a two-TE set, by October or November, I can see No. 87 lining up along with Moore, the solid Tampa Bay starter. Whalen is a classic "tweener," not quite a wide receiver type and a little shy of being a textbook TE.

"It nags me, in my first Bucs practices, to go into a huddle and not know everything about every play," Whalen said. "It's a complex system. You can't learn it all in six hours, which is the time I've had with my new playbook. Give me a couple of weeks and I'll have it down. I can't wait to play."

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