DAVID GONZALES Enlarge
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As his award-studded high school career neared its close a few years back, Griff Whalen had a variety of options on the table.
He was a standout football player at Sylvania Southview, as both a defensive back and at quarterback. Dayton, Western Michigan, and Toledo were just a few of the schools interested in having Whalen join their programs.
But he was also a highly regarded lacrosse player who had gained a number of honors in that burgeoning sport, and a lacrosse career in college was certainly being considered.
It wasn't until another unexpected suitor entered the scene that the decision was made for Whalen as to which sport he would play, and where. One phone call from Stanford football coach Jim Harbaugh didn't level the playing field in the pursuit of Griff Whalen, it ended the game.
"Stanford wasn't initially interested when I was getting recruited by other schools, but once coach Harbaugh called and they flew me out here, I fell in love with the place," Whalen said recently from Stanford, which is in the Santa Clara Valley of California, about 35 miles southeast of San Francisco.
"There's the great climate, a beautiful campus, and the academics here are unparalleled. It didn't take a whole lot of convincing for me to make up my mind that I wanted to go to Stanford."
That decision made Whalen a recruited walk-on, meaning he still had to make the Cardinal roster.
"I was extended the opportunity to play on the big stage, but with nothing guaranteed," Whalen said. "I think any athlete just wants the chance to compete, so I didn't mind having to earn a place on the team."
Whalen settled that issue very early and eventually earned a scholarship from Stanford. The Cardinal recruited him as a safety, the position where he earned all-state honors in Ohio, but the athletically gifted Whalen was quickly moved, first to running back and then to wide receiver.
"Griff Whalen -- he's what our football program is all about," said Stanford associate head coach and offensive coordinator Greg Roman. "He's tough, smart, and competitive, and he loves football."
Whalen worked his way into a role in Stanford's multiple receiver sets, and this season played in all 12 games, starting once, and had 17 receptions for 249 yards and a touchdown. With an offense led by Heisman Trophy runner-up quarterback Andrew Luck, the Cardinal averaged 40.3 points per game and rolled up 467.3 yards per game.
"It's an exciting offense to be a part of, and it's pretty complicated. Our playbook is about five times thicker than it was in high school, and our quarterback has about 300 plays on his wristband," Whalen said. "They definitely take advantage of the fact they get some pretty smart players on the team here."
Stanford, which closed out the season by beating Oregon State 38-0 for the Cardinal's seventh straight win, will test that offense against Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 3. Stanford went 11-1 this year, with the only loss coming to unbeaten Oregon, which will be playing in the national championship game.
"A lot of the credit for our success goes to coach Harbaugh," Whalen said about the Stanford coach and former Michigan quarterback. "A team kind of tends to take on the personality of its coach, and he won't let us relax. He's not that kind of guy. His enthusiasm is why we are where we are."
Whalen (6-1, 185) is the only player from Ohio on the Stanford roster. He played in 12 games last season as a sophomore and made two starts. Roman said Whalen's understanding of the Stanford offense has allowed him to increase that role this season as a junior.
"Griff Whalen is very, very dependable. He's a student of the game," Roman said. "One of the things Griff is very good at is getting open. Griff has a good feel for getting open. In many third and intermediate [yardage] situations, Griff Whalen has come through for us."
Whalen said he and his Stanford teammates are approaching the preparation for the Orange Bowl game the same way that Harbaugh has had them approach the season -- all out.
"Some people say the season is a marathon, but coach Harbaugh doesn't believe that. He says it's a sprint, full speed ahead, all of the time," Whalen said. "He'll keep us focused, and there won't be any celebrating over the season we had. Winning this bowl game is very important to us."
Whalen, an engineering major, spends most of the year in California, keeping up with the demanding curriculum, training with his teammates in the offseason, while also playing on a club lacrosse team at Stanford. When his football days are over, he expects his choice of where to play college football will pay long-term dividends.
"When I decided to go to Stanford, a lot of people back at Southview were surprised, and some of them didn't even know where it was. At the time, Stanford football was not that big on the map," said Whalen, whose great-grandfather is Charlie Seaver, a former Stanford golfer and a highly decorated amateur in his time.
"That perception has changed now, and Stanford football is known around the country, due to the success we've had the last couple of seasons. It's been exciting to be a part of it, and I'm real pleased I had the chance to play here and get a great education at the same time. When it comes down to a career after football, you can't beat a Stanford degree."
Contact Matt Markey at: email@example.com or 419-724-6510.