North Texas Daily

Zac Whitfield impacting defense despite leaving team after his mother fell ill

Zac Whitfield impacting defense despite leaving team after his mother fell ill

November 12
00:04 2015

Reece Waddell | Senior Staff Writer


During a recruiting trip to Sherman, Texas more than four years ago, interim head coach Mike Canales walked into senior defensive back Zac Whitfield’s home and took a seat. After meeting his mother, Victoria, and his father, Jerry, Canales noticed a two by four sitting upright by Victoria’s chair.

“I asked her, ‘What’s that for?’” Canales said. “She goes, ‘In case I ever need it for Zac.’”

Intrigued by her candor, Canales followed up by asking if she ever had to use the intimidating block of wood.

“She said ‘no.’ He’s special,” Canales said. “I saw that the first time I walked in the home.”

Though praised for his personality by Canales, the road has been far from easy for the Whitfield family.

Last year in North Texas’ regular season finale against the University of Texas at San Antonio, the Mean Green forced a punt in the waning moments of the game to give its offense one last chance to tie or take the lead. Zac was on the return team, and while his teammates all got away from the bouncing ball, he tried to field it. The result was a muffed punt and subsequent loss for North Texas.

Despite causing a turnover that ultimately cost his team the game, overcoming last season’s debacle has not been Zac’s toughest challenge.

“My mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and an enlarged artery in her brain,” Zac said. “She actually had to go to the ER [Sunday] night. But she copes with it well. She’s an inspiration.”

Zac said his mother, despite her multiple medical conditions, has always been there to support him on the football field. He recalled one night when Victoria ran all the way down the bleachers with him, step for step, after he broke off a long run when he still played running back.

“She’s a special person,” Zac said. “She has a very high sense of humor, and she can make anyone laugh. She’s my biggest fan.”

His mother’s medical condition coupled with the unfortunate ending to the 2014 campaign led Zac to leave the football team and return home to Sherman last spring.  It was not until he received a phone call from North Texas cornerbacks coach LaMarcus Hicks that he considered playing football again.

“I felt like when [Hicks] called me, it was God telling me to finish what I started,” Zac said.

Zac Whitfield runs a practice play on Tuesday at Apogee Stadium. Though the Mean Green has had less than a stellar season, they push through and practice regularly.  Brittany Sodic | Staff Photographer

Zac Whitfield runs a practice play on Tuesday at Apogee Stadium. Brittany Sodic | Staff Photographer

The thought process behind Zac going home was twofold. Along with wanting a break from school and football, he also wanted to take care of his mom.

More than anything, though, Zac said he just felt overwhelmed.

“I just wanted to have some time to myself,” Zac said. “When I went back home, I also wanted to be with my mom. I have a big role in taking care of her when I’m there.”

The break was short-lived. After getting phone calls from his coaches, Zac made a beeline back to North Texas and rejoined the team late in fall camp. Canales said he has no doubt Zac’s mother played a large role in him returning for his senior season and was happy not only for Zac, but for Victoria as well.

“I think she had a huge impact because she got to be a part of this again. She got to wear the shirt she always wears with Zac’s number on it,” Canales said. “It was great to see her again and with a smile on her face. Obviously it meant a lot to him and a lot to her, too.”

Shortly after his return to the team, the Mean Green lost two of its starting defensive backs in senior Kenny Buyers and freshman Cedric Fernandes. Before he knew it, Zac found himself climbing the depth chart and starting the season opener at Southern Methodist University.

“I think I’ve been having a good season without really having a camp,” Zac said. “The guys have really helped me come along with this new system they’re running.”

The numbers support his claim. Along with playing in every game this season, Zac has North Texas’ only two interceptions and ranks fifth on the team with 32 tackles.

“He’s really been a godsend for us, for him to be there and fill in, acclimate himself to the team,” defensive coordinator Chris Cosh said. “He has a grasp for the big picture.”

The defensive back said more than anything, he has tried to pass on his knowledge from four years of playing to some of his younger teammates during a season riddled with trials and tribulations.

Junior quarterback DaMarcus Smith said the value Zac brings to the team cannot be overstated.

“He means a lot. He’s one of our team’s senior leaders, and of course he’s pretty good,” Smith said. “With a lot of young guys coming up through the program, he’s a good person for them to look up to.”

With just three games left in a Mean Green uniform, Zac said he intends to make the most of his time in Denton. Upon graduating, he said he plans to go into coaching at either the high school, junior college or collegiate level.

As for his legacy at North Texas once he is gone, his head coach said it should be pretty clear.

“You can always say he was the player that came back to contribute and help this program,” Canales said. “He’ll always go down as a player that cared more about the team than he did himself. That tells the whole story of who Zac Whitfield is.”

Featured Image: Whitfield takes a breather on the sidelines during football practice at Apogee Stadium on Tuesday afternoon. Brittany Sodic | Staff Photographer

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