Tijai Whatley can surf. An incoming freshman A-back from the Darlington School in Rome, Whatley even once won a trophy in a competition.
He learned to surf when he lived in Hawaii for a little less than a year when he was 9. He moved there to live with his father, Tifton, who was stationed there with the Army. Whatley also spent the better part of his freshman year of high school in Colorado Springs, Colo., where his teammates called him Georgia.
Whatley’s parents are not together, and this is one way the family has made the best of it.
“I wanted them to experience different things, different cultures,” said Whatley’s mother, Nakita Jackson.
That has conditioned Whatley, who will enroll at Tech next week, to be ready for college – unafraid of new things and comfortable around a new set of people.
“I’m not really nervous around people,” Whatley said. “I see a group of people and kind of just go up and be, like, ‘What’s up, guys?’”
“With Tijai, I think he can adapt to any environment,” Tifton Whatley said.
Whatley’s life has been a process of adjustment from the start. When Jackson was pregnant with him, she had been told that she was having a girl. She had a name picked out – Tiffany, a nod to Tifton – and pink clothes to match. When Tijai was born (in Germany, where his father was deployed), they scrambled for a replacement name. Tifton’s sister suggested Tijai (pronounced tie-jay).
“When he was little, he saw the (baby) pictures,” Jackson said. “He said, ‘I was a girl at first?’”
Recently, as he sat on a couch in his family’s ranch-style home in Rome, in a neighborhood not far from Berry College, Whatley’s engaging and affable personality bubbled forth, sharing a string of personal traits and quirks. Such as:
He has an affinity for movie soundtracks, including (but not limited to) “Twilight,” “Divergent” and “High School Musical.”
“Everybody loves ‘High School Musical,’” he said.
He is something of a sneakerhead and, in his words, is “a big fashion person.” He owns about 20 pairs and has given away many more. On this day, he was rocking black Nike VaporMax sneakers, which go for a little less than $200. He also has a weakness for hats and sunglasses. (Rather fortuitously, he is all in on Tech’s switch to Adidas as its gear provider. “My closet has a ton of Adidas in it,” he said.)
He once made a vehicle that, he said, was constructed with, among other things, a lawnmower engine, tires borrowed from a neighbor, a go-kart steering well, a bed frame and a lawn chair. “It didn’t work for that long,” he said. “About a week.”
He was born with 12 fingers. At birth, the extra digits were tied off and withered. Whatley still has small bumps at the base of his pinkies. Schoolmates joke with him, he said, asking him if he’s so good at football because he’s an alien.
His older brother La’Kai (he also has a younger sister on his mother’s side and four siblings on his father’s side) might be as athletically gifted as him. La’Kai, who recently graduated from Georgia Southern, coached himself on a club team in Statesboro and won college club national titles in the 200 and 400 meters. When he transferred for one year to Division II Saint Augustine, he ran the 100-meter dash in 10.62 seconds and won the CIAA javelin title a couple of weeks after his coach suggested he learn it to help the team pick up points.
The biggest football challenge he has faced was the ankle injury in his sophomore year, when he fractured his ankle and tore three ligaments. He had already received his first scholarship offer, from Cincinnati, but the injury put everything on hold. Not knowing what the future held, he feared that perhaps his playing days were over. His mother called it a humbling moment and sharpened his focus on academics.
While his rearing has taken him back and forth across the country, football has been a constant, at least. He began when he was 6, his mother said. His father said he continually professed a dream to play in the NFL.
In Colorado Springs, he started as a freshman at cornerback at Coronado High, a team that was in the second-largest classification tier in the state and went on to make the playoffs. His father was an assistant coach on the team.
“When I was bringing him out here, I told the coaches, ‘Hey, man, my son’s coming out. He’s pretty good; check him out,’” Tifton Whatley said. “The head coach actually told me later – Tijai had a week of practice – he told me I didn’t do a good job in explaining how good this kid was.”
He was a star at Darlington from the start. He rushed for 1,170 yards and 10 touchdowns in only seven games before a severe ankle injury ended his season. As a senior, he rushed for 1,502 yards and 23 touchdowns. He was named all-state and the Region 6-A North offensive player of the year.
Tech offensive line coach Ron West, who recruits the Rome area, was drawn to a running back with size (he’s 6-foot-2 and about 190 pounds), speed and the grounding of a private-school education.
“I think the biggest thing is, a lot of times at A-back, our position, you’ve got to have some explosive power to be able to block those people down on the perimeter,” West said in a Tech-produced video on signing day in December. “And that’s what I see he can do. He can run the ball, block and he can make plays. That’s the key playing A-back for us.”
After committing to Tech in the summer before his senior year, Whatley turned down recruiting interest from Notre Dame and UCLA.
“He’s very explosive,” Darlington coach Tommy Atha said. “His ability to accelerate is one of the things that I really think makes him different. He can change direction on a dime, and his ability to operate in small spaces has really made him an effective runner.”
That isn’t only what made an impression on Atha, who years ago coached Whatley’s father at Rockmart High. In his three years coaching Whatley, he saw a player who was hardworking and not an attention seeker.
“Tijai’s always been the kind of kid to be complimentary to his teammates and humble on the field,” Atha said. “I think he’s an example of that to the other kids. He gives the other kids on the field the feeling that they have value.”
The next step is playing A-back for the Yellow Jackets, where his skills as a runner, pass catcher and blocker will be put to the test.
Returning A-backs Clinton Lynch, Qua Searcy and Nathan Cottrell figure to command most of the playing time, but there’s room for Whatley to earn playing time on special teams and position himself for a spot in the lineup in the future.
And, after an itinerant childhood, Whatley has the opportunity to settle in at Tech and stay awhile.
“I’m wanting to become a much better football player than I am now,” Whatley said. “Just kind of develop my skills. And from an academic standpoint, just getting a great education and having something that will lead me in the future – a degree.”
This story is the first in a series of profiles of members of Georgia Tech’s incoming class for football.
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