NORMAN — Dom Whaley spent his life trying to prove to football coaches he could perform. When he finally found a coach who believed in him, injury struck and kept him from the field.
Call it fluke. Call it sports. Call it the Sports Illustrated cover curse. A player is only worth something to a coach if they can stay on the field. Whaley was replaced.
This is the continued story of the Sooner who went from walk-on to the cover of Sports Illustrated to third-string running back in three seasons.
Whaley arrived at OU with his only college football experience coming as a backup running back at Langston. Before that, he spent his final two years of high school at Lawton MacArthur, where he was also a backup — to future Sooner teammate Javon Harris.
But once Whaley joined the Sooners, he got bigger and faster, and in 2011 he burst onto the college football scene. Whaley rushed for 131 yards and four touchdowns in OU's season-opening win over Tulsa. He didn't stop there and had a team-high 627 yards and nine touchdowns before injuring his ankle on the Sooners' first play against Kansas State.
After recovering from the injury, Whaley spent his senior year watching a junior-college transfer carry the ball, went undrafted and then unsigned by the Seattle Seahawks, who were interested but showed concern over his ankle.
Then on June 12, Whaley underwent ankle surgery to fix the things that the Seahawks were “unsure” about. He will take the next year off to rehab and try again for a shot at the NFL.
Coming back from an injury turned out to be a little bit tougher than Whaley thought the first time.
“I came back pretty strong,” he said of his senior season. “I was 100 percent, but once you lose a step or two initially, that gives room for other people to take over, I guess. As the year went on, I progressed and it got better and I got closer to where I was, but by then it was a little too late, I felt like.”
By that point, though, Oklahoma football already had fallen into a routine. Damien Williams and Brennan Clay's feet were the ones flying across the field. Williams and Clay played all 13 games. Williams carried the ball 176 times for 946 yards, scoring 11 touchdowns. Clay rushed 93 times for 555 yards and six touchdowns.
“The way (my junior) season started off so well, I felt like I still had so much more to prove,” Whaley said. “It was cut short by the injury. Then my senior year was also hindered by the injury. I wanted to do so much more playing and wasn't able to take that opportunity.”
Whaley played just six games as a senior and tucked the ball to run just 39 times for 243 yards and one touchdown.
“It's real cutthroat pretty much,” Whaley said. “They said they felt like Damien was the more productive back and they were going to go with him throughout the rest of the season. I mean, of course it bothered me but you've got to take all that like it is. I can't go home and cry about it. All you've got to do is try and get better.”
When the season ended, Whaley devoted most of his extra time away from school to training. He lifted in between classes at Oklahoma and found a personal trainer at Athletics Republic in Edmond. He ate better, treated his body better, all to give him the best shot possible at OU's Pro Day.
He didn't test as well as he hoped, but the Seahawks showed interest, then didn't sign him. He had the surgery. Now, he still lives in Norman. He's taking classes toward his degree in economics. He knows how important that piece of paper will be if another football coach won't give him a shot.
He is trying, though, for another chance.
“I got a lot of good experiences at OU,” Whaley said. “I did enjoy that experience. I wouldn't say it's the experience I wanted, my football career is not done yet. It hasn't ended.
“I've run into another speed bump, but I've been doing this all my life and I will come back strong from it. It's just counting down now the days until my return.”