NEW ORLEANS — The San Francisco 49ers spent Super Bowl week at the swanky Downtown Marriott just off the French Quarter, worlds apart from a mobile-home park in northeast Kansas.
That’s where linebacker Michael Wilhoite’s dreams began, leading him to two high schools, Washburn University, the United Football League, and finally to the glitz and glamour of playing in Super Bowl XLVII against the Baltimore Ravens.
“You think about these moments as a kid, and you play outside, and you say, five … four … three … and you take a shot or you take off running and dive into the end zone,” Wilhoite said. “You dream about those things, and it’s finally here, and I’m grateful.”
Wilhoite, a rookie inside linebacker, is one of two Washburn players in the Super Bowl, dubbed by some in Topeka as the WU-per Bowl. Baltimore cornerback Cary Williams also played for the Ichabods. And San Francisco tight end Delanie Walker played for MIAA rival Central Missouri.
Williams and Walker entered the NFL as late-round draft picks, Walker in the sixth round by the 49ers in 2006; Williams by the Tennessee Titans in the seventh round in 2008. At least they would get the benefit of the doubt in training camp.
Wilhoite would have to prove himself over and over as an undrafted overachiever.
So when Wilhoite walked to midfield of the Georgia Dome for the coin toss of the NFC championship game against Atlanta two weeks ago in just his seventh NFL game, he was not just representing the 49ers as their special-teams captain. He was a symbol of so many overlooked and unappreciated athletes who have to climb to the top the hard way.
“My goal is to inspire everybody … to show coming from a trailer park, coming from a small high school, coming from a small college, you can make it,” he said. “Against all odds, you can make it. A lot of people get discouraged if something doesn’t go right, if they don’t go to a big high school or a big college, I just love to show you can make it.”
Wilhoite says he and his two brothers never lacked for anything in their three-bedroom house at Redbud Estates, a manufactured home community in Manhattan. His father, Greg, was a janitor in the Manhattan school district; his mother, Jan, was a computer operator for the Farm Bureau.
“They both worked hard every day, 9-10 hours a day so I had whatever I needed,” Wilhoite said. “I was fed every day, went to baseball tournaments and football tournaments.… Anything I wanted, they provided. It never bothered me that I lived in a trailer. It made me proud, this is what made me who I am now. I tell people all the time, the things I learned to do, I learned right there in the neighborhood, and I’m very happy about it.”
Wilhoite, a quarterback and outstanding basketball player at Manhattan High, moved to Topeka and lived with his grandparents for his senior year because he wanted to play basketball at Highland Park for coach Ken Darting, a friend of his father’s. But football would be his college sport, and he played a handful of positions in six years at Washburn, counting two redshirt years because of injury.
He began at free safety, was moved to outside linebacker, then rush end, and because of an injury to another player, back to free safety.
“He kind of went around the horn,” Washburn coach Craig Schurig said, “but he’s so intelligent, he picks up on things so fast, and his work ethic is tremendous. But when (NFL teams) were looking at him for the next level, they didn’t have film on him as an inside linebacker.”
Wilhoite’s athletic ability, versatility and unselfishness hurt him despite an outstanding pro day in 2011. He was seen as a player without a position.
“To help the team, I had to play different positions,” Wilhoite said. “It wasn’t about me or what I was going to do after college. To me, it was about winning as many games as possible as a college athlete. If that meant playing free safety or defensive end, or quarterback, whatever they asked me to play, I was going to play. It’s the same thing I would do here.”
When Wilhoite went undrafted following the 2011 season, he moved to Overland Park, stayed with the family of Washburn teammate Ben Bianchino and worked out at 68’s Inside Sports, hoping to sign with a team after the lockout ended. That didn’t happen either.
Not even the Chiefs, 20 miles down the road from where Wilhoite was training, gave him a look.
“I wondered that at times and was hoping they would call, but maybe they didn’t see in me what was needed to be on the team or possessed what it took to play on the team,” Wilhoite said. “But I wish the best for them. A lot of my family and friends are big Chiefs fans.”
Wilhoite was working in a shoe store when he signed as a linebacker with the Omaha Knighthawks of the United Football League. The UFL played a five-game season, which was enough to catch the eye of the 49ers, who had another Washburn player, wide receiver Joe Hastings, on the roster in 2011.
“I had never played linebacker in my life until I got to the UFL,” said Wilhoite, 6 feet and 240 pounds. “I used that experience as a research project. There were former first-round picks on the team that I could learn what the NFL was like. The coaches had all worked in the NFL, so I made sure to pay attention to them in case I ever got a shot.”
The 49ers signed Wilhoite to the practice squad on Dec. 14, 2011, and he remained there for the first 11 games of the regular season before he was promoted to the active roster for the Dec. 2 game at St. Louis. In front of family and friends, in the Edward Jones Dome, he made two special-teams tackles against the Rams.
“When he made his first tackle on special teams,” said Schurig, who was at the St. Louis game, “everybody on the team congratulated him when he went to the sidelines … (Jim) Harbaugh … the special-teams coach … he had to make his way through a tunnel of them. They knew how hard he had worked.”
In just five regular games, Wilhoite recorded seven special-teams tackles, which ranked seventh on the team, and that led to his being voted special-teams captain for the NFC championship game at Atlanta, where he made two more tackles.
“It was definitely earned,” Harbaugh said of Wilhoite’s serving as captain. “You talk about the concept of a meritocracy on a football team and that’s your shining star, that’s your shining light, one of them, Michael Wilhoite. Players knew that, evidenced by the way he plays and produces in practice and in games. That was a popular announcement, announcing Michael Wilhoite as the special-teams captain.
“Everybody sees it, everybody appreciates it. It elevates a player on a team in the eyes of everyone on that team.”
Cary Williams took advantage of an opportunity at Washburn when he decided to leave Fordham University.
He spent the majority of the 2008 season on Tennessee’s practice squad, was released in 2009 and picked up by Baltimore, where he became a full-time starter in 2011.
“I had a long journey as well,” Williams said. “It just so happens, I didn’t have to go to the UFL or the CFL or anything like that, but seventh-round draft picks get cut, too.
“There couldn’t be two better people … two guys who worked their butts off at Washburn, fought and scraped for years,” Williams said of himself and Wilhoite. “It’s good to see two guys who didn’t squander an opportunity and made the best of their opportunities. Wilhoite is a great player, and hopefully he can last a long time in this league, because he definitely has the work ethic.”
Williams had two interceptions for the Ravens this season, including a 63-yard return against Cleveland for his first career touchdown. He also sealed the Ravens’ win over New England in the AFC championship game by intercepting a Tom Brady pass.
“Once I saw the ball in the air, I knew I had an opportunity to catch that and make a play for my teammates,” Williams said. “The most emotional part was me and Ray Lewis talking in the end zone. He was talking about how happy he was for me. He said, ‘We’re going to the (Super Bowl) now,’ so I said, ‘I’m ready. Let’s go.’”