Cody Whitehair looked upon a raucous ballroom at the Dallas Omni Hotel during the first day of Big 12 Media Days last summer.
From his seat on top of a raised platform, the senior offensive tackle could look out over a smattering of colorful characters, taking the shape of media members, opposing coaches and players, cheerleaders and mascots of both the big head and normal head variety.
To his immediate right, a banner adorned with his name and a picture of him decked out in full gameday regalia. Currently though, Whitehair was wearing his second uniform, a black suit jacket with a silver Powercat on his left breast pocket and a white shirt with a purple tie.
From his seat, reporters asked him to look forward and find what he wanted to get out of his final season in Manhattan.
“My biggest thing is I think I’m going to have to step up my leadership,” Whitehair said. “Especially with all of the guys that left that are leaders.”
The 2014 class left a big hole with the graduation of senior offensive leaders like Tyler Lockett, Jake Waters and B.J. Finney. Now it was Whitehair’s turn to lead a team rebuilding from the loss of almost all of their major offensive weapons.
Whitehair, ever a competitor, would accept no excuses standing in between the team he was now a captain of and success.
“I’ve been a part of some pretty successful years here at K-State,” Whitehair said. “I think my biggest thing is just to finish strong. Finish out by going to a bowl game and just preparing the younger guys to take over where we left off. I think that’s a big thing about being a leader as well. It’s important to get those younger guys ready and take the next step and if we can do that it will be a pretty successful senior year.”
Success, like many things, is in the eye of the beholder. For K-State, success has been many things. At times, success has been winning conference titles, other times success has been a victory over North Texas State to win your first game in three season.
For Whitehair, his senior year has been just as dramatic. Heartbreaking injuries saw a 3-0 record turn to 3-6 and then with hard work, trust (and maybe a little luck) saw 3-6 even out at 6-6 with a win over West Virginia to lock in a sixth straight bowl bid.
“You know, from where we were in the middle of the season, how hard we worked to get back to being bowl eligible and everything, it’s just so great,” Whitehair said after bowl practices began earlier this month. “As a senior, going out like that, I really appreciate how the guys have worked, but we’re not done yet. We have one game to go.”
That one game, a Liberty Bowl match-up versus the Arkansas Razorbacks, a team that the 2011 Cats played down in Dallas for the Cotton Bowl. That was Whitehair’s redshirt season, and since then he’s started in 50 the past 51 games in his entire career at K-State.
“He’s someone who’s been there, done that,” senior wide receiver/quarterback Kody Cook said. “He’s started since he was a freshman after he redshirted. He’s someone who’s been there consistently, someone you can lean on. He’s a good lead. Everything you want in your left tackle and a leader, that’s who Cody Whitehair is.”
“You know that he’s going to take care of his business and then some.”
Offensive lineman, as a rule, are not the spectacles. Odds are most K-State fans don’t remember a B.J. Finney or a Cornelius Lucas block, they remember the big run or the pass resulting from the block.
But earlier this season, fans of trench warriors were treated to a battle for the ages as Whitehair protected his quarterback, junior Joe Hubener, against Baylor’s 6’9”, 280 pound walking, talking meme and defensive end Shawn Oakman.
“I’ve heard from a couple of friends and former players that I did pretty good in that game against Shawn Oakman,” Whitehair said. “I played with a chip on my shoulder. He got the best of me two years ago when we were down there. He won some and I won some but at the end of the day, I feel like I had a pretty good day.”
The Wildcats almost came away with a huge upset victory at home versus a battered Bears team but out of that a message was seemingly sent, Cody Whitehair can be a bad, bad man.
Teammates even count it as the most fired up they’ve ever seen the usually mild mannered, workmanlike offensive lineman.
“Probably the Baylor game where the defensive end (Shawn Oakman) got in his face,” Cook said with a grin on his face. “And then (Whitehair) kind of finished him off a little bit. That was pretty impressive to see. That’s a moment where you look up and say, “Wow, Cody is damn good.”
Junior defensive end, Jordan Willis, said no one he’s gone up against, Big 12 or otherwise, has matched up to facing Whitehair in practice.
“I’m sure whoever gets him, he’s going to be special for them,” Willis said. “And I’m happy for him and proud of him because he’s worked hard. He’s a four-year starter and every time he steps out there you understand why everybody has respect for him. I have tons of respect for him.”
Members of the K-State nation aren’t the only ones taking notice of Whitehair’s talent. After some rumblings about possibly declaring for the draft a year early, he has done nothing but improve his draft stock in his senior year, ranking second among all possible offensive tackles entering the NFL draft in 2016 according to NFLDraftScout.com.
“I think he’s a first round talent,” Cook said. “He’s an All-American, honorable mention All-Big 12, I think he should’ve won it but props to the Baylor guy that did win it. Any team that takes him after the first round is going to get a steal and anyone who gets him in the first round is going to get someone who works hard and competes for their job.”
It’s that hard work that former K-Stater’s who are currently in the NFL or have gone pro have said will pay off big time when Whitehair is getting paid to play on Sunday’s next season.
“I was talking to (former K-State and current Detroit Lions offensive lineman) Cornelius Lucas a few days ago,” Whitehair said. “He said, ‘You know, with what I learned at K-State and how I learned to work and it’s helped me through.’ I talked to (former K-State linebacker) Ben Leber at Big 12 Media Days, he said ‘Those will be some of the best times when you work the hardest, but it will help you out down the road.’ So I think it will help me out down the road.”
When Whitehair gets to the NFL, he’ll have a lot of those times to reflect on; Reaching a No. 1 ranking and winning a Big 12 title as a freshman, winning a bowl game for the first time in over 10 years as a sophomore and his countless award and accolades he’s collected over his career including being named to this season’s First Team All-Big 12 by the coaches and Phil Steele and earning honorable mention honors for Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year.
However, in spite of all of his success and all of the highlights he’s witnessed and been a part of, it’s this past season, the 6-6 rebuilding affair that saw the Wildcats suffer one of the worst losing streaks in the Bill Snyder-era, that Whitehair says he’ll look back on.
“I think this season is one I’d look back at,” Whitehair said. “Being a senior captain and everything. The stuff we had to go through. The challenges we had and the obstacles this season and how we overcame them, I think it will stick with me forever.”