Bronco Beat

Mother’s memory inspires Boise State football sophomore to ‘fight for a breath’

“A mother’s love never dies” — and apparently neither does the drive in her son.

Boise State sophomore defender Sam Whitney — inspired by the memory of his late mother — has impressed with his efforts in the weight room and with his attitude, which can wake even the most haggard of football teammates for 5:30 a.m. offseason workouts.

“Give us 110 of those guys that have that same purpose every day,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “If you have that, you’re going to go out and dominate.”

[Upcoming: Join Dave Southorn and Chadd Cripe at 3 p.m. Thursday for a Facebook Live discussion of Boise State football]

Whitney was listed No. 1 at his position on the pre-fall camp depth chart despite playing in just five games thus far. He plays STUD, the stand-up defender that is a hybrid between an end and a linebacker.

“He’s a hard worker, he’s one of the strongest guys I’ve ever seen,” junior Jabril Frazier said. “His work ethic is amazing. He goes out there and practices hard every single day. We need guys like that.”

The woman who saw Whitney play only once in high school pushes him to be the “blue collar” type of guy the staff loves and other players admire.

Jennifer Whitney watched Sam, the younger of her two sons, on the freshman team at Folsom (Calif.) High just before she died after an eight-year fight with ovarian cancer.

“It changed my life completely,” Whitney said. “She never got to see me play varsity, never saw me get to Boise State. I’d like to think she still can see me, somehow. Definitely play for her.

“I saw her fight for years. That inspired me to do everything I can for what I want. I’m not fighting for my life like she did, I’m just fighting for a breath.”

On Whitney’s right biceps is a tattoo that reads “For My Mother,” with the date of her death (Sept. 28, 2011) in Roman numerals. On his chest is another tattoo that reads, “A Mother’s Love Never Dies.”

“I realized after she passed away, I have to do something, need to work hard and get a scholarship,” Whitney said. “If it wasn’t for football, I don’t know if I would’ve had the drive to go to college, but now I have the opportunity to play and get my education.”

That maniacal drive to get better — last year, he was top three on the team in hang cleans, power cleans and bench press in the weight room — is matched by an equally intense presence on the field. And off it.

This summer, he took up fishing as a hobby with junior tight end Jake Knight, a Meridian native.

“He’s an absolute freak,” Knight said. “Fishing is low-key, but not with him. He might scare a few off, but he’s my dude. Just a great guy to be around.”

Being able to fish in the river right behind campus, enjoy a downtown that’s not far, and live in the right mix of people and space is a perfect fit for Whitney. He was committed to Sacramento State, about 15 minutes from Folsom, until two days before signing day — just after Boise State offered.

“I want to live here forever,” Whitney said. “I don’t think I would’ve liked being that close to home. I would’ve felt trapped, but out here, I could kind of get my life started. I like the people, and it’s not as crowded as California.”

Whitney was supposed to grayshirt and join the team in the spring of 2016, but a spot opened up for him to join for fall camp 2015. Coaches initially pondered making the 6-foot-2, 231-pound Whitney a defensive tackle. That seems like a wild idea.

“I came in one of my first days and saw (6-5, 268-pound) Tyler Horn and was like, ‘That’s not happening,’ ” Whitney said.

Last season, coming off a redshirt, Whitney missed eight games because of injury and had five tackles in five games. He has played defensive end in the past, but at the hybrid position, he said, “I like standing up, seeing everything.”

Though he isn’t a physical specimen like fellow STUD Frazier (6-4, 243) or even a uniquely sized athlete like redshirt freshman Curtis Weaver (who first played STUD at 287 pounds), Whitney fits the mold of the position.

“We can do a lot of things with that guy,” defensive line coach Steve Caldwell said. “... Is he perfect? No. But he plays so hard and so fast. ... He makes up for it by the way he plays.

“That’s what Boise State is really known for. You take kids like that, you coach them, and they end up being good players for you.”

Dave Southorn: 208-377-6420, @davesouthorn