San Diego State’s J.J. Whittaker climbs the stairs and here comes the verbal dynamite.
“Hey you’re moving a little slow there aren’t you old man?’’ one teammate barks.
“You need to hold on to the hand rail?’’ another chimes in.
Whittaker laughs and so what if crow’s feet accompany his chuckle.
“I hear it all the time,’’ Whittaker said.
Such is the life as a 24-year-old college player.
Whittaker hasn’t really been an Aztecs cornerback since Marshall Faulk’s days. Instead, Whittaker, the former Oceanside High star, is entering his sixth season on Montezuma Mesa.
“I feel blessed,’’ Whittaker said.
The Aztecs praise the NCAA’s ruling as well, the one giving Whittaker another season.
“J.J. is a good player,’’ SDSU coach Rocky Long said. “And he has a great personality that lends itself to him being a leader on the team.’’
Whittaker once was the leader in the trainer’s room, missing his first three SDSU seasons because of knee and shoulder woes. That led to him being granted another year, which gets underway Sept. 5 against the visiting University of San Diego.
It’ll be the first chance for Whittaker to finally put last season behind him. The Aztecs went 7-6 in advancing to their fifth straight bowl game.
But it came with some close defeats, including a 17-16 verdict to Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl.
“In a lot of those games that we lost instead of won, it was a lot about finishing,’’ Whittaker said. “It came down to the wire whether it was end of the third, mid-fourth, overtime. Guys didn’t finish and we didn’t pull through when we needed to.
“We try to preach it and look at it in the huddle but something didn’t click. We have emphasized it a lot more this whole offseason — finish, finish, finish. Our toughness is always there, it’s just a matter of finishing these long games. It’s a long game and long season. This year we can hopefully we can finish.”
Whittaker puts the cherry atop his SDSU career and he’s already landed on the Thorpe Award watch list, cementing his status as being among the nation’s top cornerbacks.
But Long said Whittaker’s impact goes beyond the sidelines.
“He also exhibits the work ethic, want-to and the pride that you want to see in the player,’’ Long added. “He leads in the right way, so that is good for all of us.”
Whittaker, who won two state titles at Oceanside, was keen last year in recording 63 tackles and two interceptions.
He also collected his criminal justice degree and is matriculating for his master’s in homeland security.
“I might go in that field or something where I couldn’t tell you,’’ Whittaker said.
Mum’s the word with us, we cross our heart.
But we can’t help jabbing the elderly Whittaker in the ribs, something he receives from his colleagues.
“I get it every day,’’ Whittaker said. “It’s just, ‘hey old man, you all right there old man?’’’
Whittaker, though, isn’t shy about returning the friendly fire.
“It’s all good; it’s fun for all the other guys,’’ he said. “I call everyone ‘rookie.’ You can be a senior but you’re still ‘rookie.’ It just goes back and forth.’’
Funny but tough-guy linebacker Jake Feley, another Oceanside product and a sixth-year player, doesn’t absorb similar barbs.
“He doesn’t get many of the old man jokes,’’ Whittaker said. “Maybe it’s that long hair. There is something about him.’’
Whittaker has the “it” factor, too, thanks in part to his SDSU longevity.
“I look up to him as a leader,’’ defensive lineman Alex Barrett said. “He has experience and he’s been through it all.’’
And yes, Whittaker conquered those stairs just fine.
Contact Jay Paris at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at jparis_sports.
Sportswriter Jay Paris has written his “Sports Talk” column since joining the Coast News in 2013.
Paris, a Cardiff resident, is a longtime Southern California writer, getting his start with the Orange County Register before coming to San Diego in 1992 to cover the Chargers.
He had the Chargers beat for more than two decades with Oceanside Blade-Citizen, the North County Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune, before being named a sports columnist with the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Paris has won numerous awards voted on by his peers in the Pro Football Writers of America. He has also been a staple on countless media platforms, everything from the KPBS to MLB Network and various radio outlets.
Paris is also the author of three books, with his latest one being, “Shohei Ohtani: The Amazing Story Of Baseball’s Two-Way Japanese Superstar.” He has also written “Game Of My Life Chargers” and “Game Of My Life Rams.”
He currently covers the NFL in Los Angeles for Forbes. com and is a contributor to USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow Jay on Twitter @jparis_sports