Whitney Mercilus was an above-average defensive end his sophomore year at Garfield High School in Akron, Ohio. Like so many thousands of other young men playing the game in the tenth grade, he just didn’t stand out.
"He was really raw," Garfield coach Bob Sax remembered. At 6’0" and 185 lbs., there really wasn’t much that made Mercilus remarkable – or memorable.
Then, one fateful day, Whitney reached in to help a teammate during a weight lifting session, and his whole life changed. A freak accident led to the loss of the tip of Whitney’s left index finger when it got smashed between the weights and the bench.
For some players, this may have been the end of football – a sign that athletics just wasn’t the way to go in life. For Mercilus, it was a catalyst: a seemingly catastrophic moment that would change him, and the course of history, forever.
"That (accident) opened his eyes," Donald, his younger brother offered up when asked about the injury, "to see that anything could happen any day. I guess he looked at life in a new perspective."
From that day forward, the older Mercilus no longer took life as it came to him; he pursued it, hunted it in fact, like he does opposing quarterbacks.
He focused in the training room. He focused on film study. He became not only a student of the game, but a man driven to get the most out of his mind and body in pursuit of his goals.
And it paid off.
Seemingly overnight, Mercilus went from an average player to three-star prospect. By his junior year in college, where he amassed 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles for the University of Illinois, many considered him a guaranteed first round NFL pick.
That group included Rick Smith, general manager of the Houston Texans, who used the team’s first round pick, 26th overall, to draft the fiery young player.
Just as he did in high school and college, Mercilus has proven that, like his more famous teammate J.J. Watt, he knows how to hunt greatness. When the opportunity arose to get on the field for the first time as a starter, the zealous preparation paid off and Whitney sacked Titans’ quarterback Jake Locker twice. That game marked the beginning of his starting NFL career and continued his rise from mediocrity to feared all-pro linebacker.
To date, Mercilus has amassed 32 sacks, 116 solo tackles and five forced fumbles in just over three years as a starter. Each year, he just keeps getting better.
In some alternate universe, Easily Defeated Whitney let that freak accident in the Garfield High weight room turn him into a quitter. Thankfully for Texans fans, in our world, Mercilus is anything but easily beaten.
A few weeks back, during Texans training camp, Houston Texans linebacker’s coach Mike Vrabel was going over technique with the outside linebacker group. While the majority of the players stood there focused on Vrabel’s words and actions as most students would be, there were two players who weren’t content to sit back. Fellow starter Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus were on Vrabel, acting out the techniques, asking questions and visibly trying to get the most from a guy who won multiple Super Bowls. It was a stark contrast to what was happening in a lot of the other position groups and one that stuck out as a highlight of that day's practice.
The two of them then attacked what Coach Vrabel was showing them like they do opposing offensive tackles--with an obvious will to take what they need to succeed from the opportunity placed in front of them. This hands-on approach to learning and pulling every iota of knowledge they could from their position coach went on until the whistle blew and beyond. It was more than obvious that both players have a will to improve and the drive to do everything they can to make improvement a daily reality.
With Mercilus, this zeal to take life by the horns doesn’t end on the football field, as evidenced by his involvement in anti-bullying initiatives, local youth football camps and other community outreach programs around the Houston area and the world. He truly strives to make his community a better place each and every day.
Recently, Whitney characteristically took his community efforts to the next level by launching a new charity, the WithMerci Foundation. His drive to make a difference in the lives of children with disabilities has not only created pivotal moments for these kids and their families, it caught the attention of the Texans leadership.
During yesterday’s annual Texans Luncheon, Mercilus was honored with the 6th annual Spirit of the Bull award for excellence on the field and in the community.
His response to the award gave a telling peek inside his selfless drive:
Blessed to receive the Spirit of the Bull Award at the team luncheon. Thank you Mr. McNair & team for the honor. pic.twitter.com/TrVJz1nCqZ— Whitney Mercilus (@Merci380) August 30, 2016
With this kind of heart and drive, pushing a Pro-Bowl caliber player on the rise, Texans fans can rest assured for some great moments coming this season, both on and off the field, courtesy of the reigning Spirit of the Bull award winner. Stay tuned. The best is yet to come.
The WithMerci Foundation provides advocate services and support to families of children with disabilities and special needs.