Kyle Whitefield didn’t have to go through the 1-9 season, be the butt of jokes about the valley’s newest high school some called the latest elementary or middle school.
The football team’s starting running back wasn’t originally part of the school’s first freshman class to become seniors, but in many ways, Whitefield is the epitome of a Rattler football player, one that with a win Friday will have a shot at wearing a championship ring when he walks across the stage come graduation next spring.
The senior moved into the valley before the start of his junior year, a lifelong football player without a home to hone his skills. Whitefield had already heard chatter that La Quinta was king where football was concerned, had thought about possibly joining Cathedral City High School. Rancho Mirage was only a blip on his radar.
But he and his dad had decided to move to the valley from Gig Harbor, Wash., to be closer to his father’s friends and family, including a family friend whose daughter was a part of the first wave of students at Rancho Mirage.
“So I said ‘Okay, I’ll know her before I know anyone, so at least I’ll know someone,’” Whitefield said. “I hadn’t heard anything about the football team then.”
Back in Gig Harbor during his freshman and sophomore years, Whitefield was caught behind a wave of older, more experienced and skilled players at running back, a position he’s played tirelessly at every level of football since he began in fourth grade. Even getting called up to varsity as a sophomore, Whitefield was still third string, a long ways away from shining on the field.
In choosing to become a Rattler, Whitefield essentially moved into a starting role on a team dedicated to the run game. He didn’t know the hardship of the year before, the Rattlers’ first varsity season where they were laid to waste in seven double-digit losses with a roster lacking a single senior, but that didn’t matter.
“I just told guys ‘We’ve got to go to work … I don’t know most of you, but we can bond like brothers and come together,” he said.
Before L.D. Matthews knew much about the person he was getting as a starting running back, the Rattlers’ head coach knew he instantly liked one thing: Whitefield’s wrestling background.
Unlike so many coaches in the day and age of sport specialization, Matthews treasures kids who play multiple sports, making it possible for them to do so by not making football a year-round sport with mandatory offseason lifting and practice sessions. His quarterback and two running backs – David Talley, Marques Prior and Whitefield – combined to letter in eight sports last year.
But to Matthews, there couldn’t be a better sport to help build a football player who can’t survive without tenacity and will to stay on his feet no matter what he faces.
“(Whitefield) is a football player, he’s tough, and a lot of that stems from wrestling,” Matthews said. “It’s the most demanding sport, if there is one, for toughness, and he really gained that from wrestling, and it shows on the field. He’s not the biggest back in the valley or our division, but some of the hits he’s able to take, and even more importantly not take because he’s really flexible and versatile, that all comes from the work he does on the wrestling mat.”
Whitefield certainly isn’t the fastest back in the valley, one boasting multiple CIF-caliber track athletes, and he’s far from the biggest, but his ability to pack a punch when he needs to and keep his balance while spinning like a ballet dancer to avoid a hit, all while keeping his center of gravity level, is unparalleled in the valley.
“Matthews points this out a lot, and it’s all about my balance. In wrestling, you have to stay balanced when someone is trying to push against you or take you down, so in football when someone is trying to rock you, you keep your feet on the ground and move forward, just like wrestling,” Whitefield said. “You have to keep that center of gravity. Most running backs out there might be really fast or they have great cuts, but you hit them and they go down.
“With me, you hit me, but I’m going to keep going, hit back and keep moving my feet. … I’ll be able to stay on my feet and be able to run you over.”
But with all those moves, the Rattler backfield is far from being all about Whitefield. Prior certainly has more pure breakaway speed, and Talley, armed with both his tailback weapons and above-average quarterback speed, is always a threat to tuck it on an option play and speed through the front seven almost undetected.
Sure, Whitefield gets the bulk of the carries, but far from them all. His 1,357 yards and 23 rushing scores have come on 177 carries, while Prior has picked up 824 yards and 14 touchdowns on 98 rushes. Talley has amassed 389 yards and six scores on 106 rushes.
For someone who is the lone senior in that trio and is seriously looking and hoping for a college to take a chance on him, sacrificing more than 1,200 yards for the good of the team would be hard for a lot of teenagers to take.
But picking the team with the best record or the system that gave him the best chance to succeed was never Whitefield’s goal. He just wanted a school where he knew someone, where he could most easily forge friendships while playing football and wrestling. Those desires for a strong bond, a willingness to sacrifice on a 76-man roster and love for competition in multiple sports is not only what’s made Whitefield so successful, but it’s what has gotten the entire Rattler squad to a place they’ve never been — in Friday’s CIF SS semifinal against St. Genevieve.
Although Whitefield may not have been here from the start, he’s going to play a major role in how the journey these seniors have taken will finish.
“They all took me in and acted like they were my brothers from day one,” he said. “Now you walk around and all the football players high-five each other, and it’s a great feeling to know you can help them out when they need it or they can help you out when you need it.
“With each win, our time together is getting shorter and shorter, but I love being out there with them … and I just really want to win this for my teammates and coach and everyone, to be able to say we were the first team here to do this.”