A Fumble, Then Recovery

Ike Whitaker has returned to the Virginia Tech football team after undergoing rehab for alcohol abuse.
Ike Whitaker has returned to the Virginia Tech football team after undergoing rehab for alcohol abuse. (Josh Meltzer - The Washington Post)
By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 27, 2007

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- The night began this past December as Thursday nights typically began for Ike Whitaker: at a teammate's house playing beer-drinking games with friends, everyone eager to build a buzz before they headed downtown and then to a party at the Omega Chi fraternity house, a place so familiar they called it "OC."

Whitaker spent a lot of nights like this, but this one felt different. Along with the usual frivolity was a sort of finality.

"Hey, this is the last night," Whitaker told his buddies. "This is the last night."

They laughed and continued drinking, moving on to clubs downtown before finally arriving at the party.

The next morning Whitaker woke early, enveloped in the familiar feeling of fatigue and a hangover. He wanted to climb back in bed, but he couldn't. It was his first day of alcohol rehab.

After two years of partying, Whitaker had finally confronted what he and others had suspected, but what he, until that point, could never admit to himself: At 19, he was an alcoholic. While his teammates at Virginia Tech prepared for the Dec. 30 Chick-fil-A Bowl, Whitaker entered the Mount Regis Center in Salem, Va., where he lived for 27 days, receiving treatment for alcoholism.

Whitaker, the Hokies' backup quarterback, has returned to campus, recovering but wary. Over the past year and half, he squandered a chance to contribute to the team. He watched his grades fall. He showed up to practices with beer on his breath from the night before. He lost weight. He lost his identity, and he needed to do something before he lost much more.

"I knew I was drinking too much," Whitaker said last week, five days after finishing his inpatient program. "I knew I was going downhill."

* * *

Whitaker drank for the first time in 10th grade, his first season as starting quarterback at Northwest High School in Germantown. He sipped his first beer at a party with some teammates, like the starting quarterback is expected to. He was a quarterback with a big arm and a bigger smile, engaging and eager to make friends.

At first, Whitaker wasn't trying to get drunk, just have a good time and fit in. His motivations changed as his star rose on the field. He became one of Maryland's most sought-after recruits, the third-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the country. As a senior, he led Northwest to the Maryland 3A state championship and was named The Post's All-Met offensive player of the year.

His drinking increased between his junior and senior years, and the success he had on the field blinded him to his growing problem. A gaggle of friends at his side, Whitaker spent his final spring break of high school in Cancun, Mexico, a destination chosen for its lack of a drinking age. He drank heavily for six straight nights, and the trip's exuberance carried over once he returned.

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