In Kentucky football, it’s been a few years since Cat fans have had a really great tight end to crow about. In 2004, in the last game of the season against Tennessee, Kentucky moved a promising young receiver from Boyle County to the tight end spot. Hopefully, for Coach Rich Brooks, what we saw in that game out of Jacob Tamme will be flashes of what is to come from the redshirt sophomore-to-be in Offensive Coordinator Joker Phillips’ scheme. But what Tamme showed also reminded me of the last great tight end on the UK football squad. And interestingly enough, he was just in NFL news a few days ago.
James Whalen is a guy that will forever go down in the lore of Kentucky football, because of the many stories surrounding his stay at UK. From the videotape that found its’ way into Hal Mumme’s hands, opening a door for him to make the team, to the horrific shoulder injury he suffered at the 1999 Music City Bowl against Syracuse, early in the game. You’ll get few arguments from Kentucky football fans that the injury that took Whalen out of that game, also took Kentucky out of that game, in the last bowl appearance by a UK team. That play in the first quarter, on which Whalen ended his college career, was where the wind left the Wildcats’ sails. The Cats ended up losing that contest 20-13.
Whalen has been with the Dallas Cowboys for most of his NFL career, after coming into the league in 2000. Now, he finds himself on the roster of a Super bowl team, after signing a contract with this years’ runner-up, the Philadelphia Eagles. When I spoke to Whalen, he started by mentioning what it was like with the Cowboys. “I spent my first four years in here [in Dallas]. We’ve kind of, other than last year, really struggled. When you’re not successful in this business, it makes for an awful long year,” he lamented. The Eagles present a new start situation for Whalen. “I’m just excited about the opportunity. It should be, hopefully, a good fit and I’m looking forward to getting there, getting into the off season program next month, learning the offense, and just making sure when training camp comes, I’m ready to go,” he said.
The thing that has really prevented Whalen from taking off in the league is nagging injuries. On his health now, Whalen said, “Oh, I’m fine. Nothing major, everything was just minor stuff. That’s the frustrating thing about it. It was a battle every day.” Did injuries play a part on not staying with the Cowboys? Whalen downplays the notion. “I wish things could have been different down in Dallas. But you don’t know why things happen, you just got to go out there and keep fighting.”
Whalen makes it a point to keep up with what his former school is doing, and not only in football, either. “I watch every weekend. I watch football and basketball. It’s always good to see the Cats do well.” I was more interested in how he views the football program now and played word association with him. Whalen said, “As far as the football program goes, the first thing that pops in my mind, is the word potential. I see a situation where they’re playing in the best conference in the world. They’ve got, in my opinion, some of the best fans in the world. [They have] the best facilities in the country. I don’t see why it hasn’t come together yet.”
As for making the Eagles roster, things look good for Whalen right now, as he is essentially the only tight end on the roster right now. But he knows that will change, and soon. “It’s obvious they’re going to bring some guys in, whether it’s through the draft, free agency, or undrafted free agents. I look forward to that. I’ve been in it long enough. When I was at Kentucky my senior year, there were two first team all-americans that came in, and I ended up playing. It’s a chance for competition. You just go out there and compete every day. You got to relish the moment.”