It’s a refrain made popular by a handful of recent Stanford football players: as recruits, they weren’t seriously considering the Cardinal until they made their trek to the Farm. Then Stanford skyrocketed to the top of their list.
Griff Whalen was no exception. The Ohio native’s focus was on the Midwest until his visit, but after meeting with then-coach Jim Harbaugh, he was sold. But unlike most of his teammates, he could not cushion the distance from home with a scholarship offer—if he wanted to play for the Cardinal, he would have to walk on.
It’s a daunting decision, particularly when he had interest from schools that could have given him a scholarship. But the combination of Harbaugh’s energy and Stanford’s recent history with walk-ons at the wide receiver position made the risk (and financial investment) one worth making—just the year before, Ryan Whalen (no relation) had come to the Farm and earned a scholarship within two weeks. He was a model Griff could emulate.
“[Harbaugh] said I’d have a chance to compete for playing time and a scholarship. The year before, Ryan Whalen had earned a scholarship so obviously I knew there was some truth to that,” Griff Whalen said. “Hearing it is one thing, but seeing that just the year before a wide receiver walked on and earned a scholarship and started playing right away—it was pretty big.”
Years later, as Griff is slated to start for the Cardinal in 2011 and Ryan is off to the Cincinnati Bengals after a successful Stanford career, the two Whalen’s stories are as eerily similar as their last name: recruited walk-on wide receivers that turned down opportunities at other schools to come to Stanford and earn full-rides and starting roles. And if it wasn’t for Ryan’s success during the 2007 season, Griff may never have taken the risk of coming to the Farm.
“It would have been a different decision process,” he said.
As it stood, Whalen’s recruiting process was quite a bit different from any other Stanford player. Like many, he was a multi-sport athlete in high school. He came from an athletic background—his great-uncle is Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver. But instead of following his footsteps to the diamond, Whalen played lacrosse, which does not often cross over with football in the same way that baseball, track or basketball do.
“I think one, maybe two other guys out of about 115 have played before,” he said of his Cardinal teammates.
Whalen was so serious about the game that while he was sending out his football highlights, he sent out his lacrosse reel, too. He focused on schools where he might be able to play both sports, like Syracuse and Ohio State. But his options were relatively limited, and his attention shifted more toward football exclusively and schools such as Dayton, Western Michigan and Toledo before his decision-altering visit to Stanford.
Since matriculating, the rising senior’s progression has been gradual: he saw spotty time as a true freshman, tallied his first catches as a sophomore and became a reliable slot-receiver as a junior. And this past fall, after two seasons, he was put on scholarship.
Now, with Ryan Whalen and Doug Baldwin graduating, Griff Whalen has all but locked down a starting role for 2011 opposite classmate Chris Owusu. While Stanford generally likes to keep position battles open as long as possible, Whalen spent the entirety of spring practice with the first team.
“It’s been pretty natural. I’m comfortable in that role. It’s good to keep getting more reps and gain more experience,” he said.
With the starting job essentially in hand, he’s passed many of the benchmarks he’s set for himself.
“It should be every walk-on’s goal to come in and earn a spot on the team and see how far they can go—if they can get playing time, become a starter and earn a scholarship,” he said. “That’s everyone’s goal—to work as hard you can and see what you can do for the team.”
And, in a turn of events that takes his story full circle, he attributes some of his success to his lacrosse background. He played on Stanford’s club team as a sophomore, and he sees the skills needed for the two sports as somewhat interchangeable.
“All of the different movements you get from it is kind of like basketball, trying to guard people and juke people and evade people. I think that translates really well and it’s hard to replicate that in the spring if you’re just training or playing baseball,” Whalen said. “It has helped me a lot.”
Griff Whalen will begin the final chapter of his Stanford career this fall, seeing the field for the first time on Sept. 3 when Stanford takes on San Jose State.