Hats off to Augusta's football 'Whiz'

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As we stood amid the rolling green hills of Latrobe, Pa., in the summer of 2001, we had enough locals on hand to plant our own flag.

"All we need is a few golf carts, and we would have ourselves a club," quipped the new tight ends coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The campus of St. Vincent College was never in play during the Civil War, but as Steelers training camp was gearing up that summer, it appeared the brigade from Augusta was ready for an occupation.

Defensive phenom Kendrell Bell (Laney and University of Georgia alum) was there, as was tight end Ryan Sprague (Lakeside and Florida State University star), and the aforementioned new assistant coach who still had a Steeler Super Bowl ring and an amazing professional trek to Arizona ahead of him: Ken Whisenhunt.

Never before had an NFL team hosted so many CSRA products on one roster at one time. It was history in the making, and rather fortuitous for a media guy from Augusta who has made the Pittsburgh Steelers his own personal obsession since 1972.

I certainly had followed Bell through the years, and Sprague was a favorite because of a lifelong friendship with his mom, Candi, but this connection to Coach Whiz was almost spooky.

As a 1980 graduate of Richmond Academy, he not only represented the one high school that graduated more of my family than any other, but because of his heroics at Georgia Tech, my late grandfather Jud Bentley used to tease me with the threat of replacing me in the family by adopting Ken.

In the last Tech game Papa Jud was able to attend, Whiz was all over the field for his beloved Yellow Jackets, and he spent the entire drive home bragging on the hometown kid. His final years as a Tech fan were made a lot more special by No. 9.

A great career in the NFL followed, complete with a stint on my second-favorite team, the Atlanta Falcons.

Whisenhunt's journeys as an assistant coach finally took him to Pittsburgh in 2001, where he was an instant hit not only with the players, but with his fellow coaches.

"Very hardworking young man ... He makes the rest of us look lazy," Coach Bill Cowher told me in an interview. "You are going to be seeing this guy for a long time -- maybe even longer than me," he prophetically joked.

Kendrell Bell won Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2001, and spent four years as a Steeler.

Ryan Sprague, despite a touchdown in an exciting preseason game against the Falcons in Atlanta, didn't make the final roster that year. He has become a successful family man, living in Florida.

And as the entire free world now knows, Arizona Cardinals Head Coach Ken Whisenhunt is about to call the game of his life against my beloved Steelers in Super Bowl XVIII.

Despite the media speculation in the past few weeks, I am here to tell you that there is no animosity between Coach Whiz and the Steelers.

I am not speculating about that. I got it straight from the mouths of men named Dan Rooney, the Steelers' owner, and Whisenhunt. And I believe them.

When the Cardinals came calling a few years ago, Whiz decided to take the "bird in the hand" rather than wait to see what the Steeler ownership would do with their own coaching hire a few weeks later.

"Heartbreak" doesn't describe what I felt at the time, but as I have learned over the years, and as Coach would no doubt agree, he did the right thing at the right time.

Had he stayed in Pittsburgh, there is no doubt he would be compared to his former boss Cowher at every turn. Had he succeeded, it would have been with Cowher's team, and had he failed, well, we won't go there.

What Coach Whiz has done in the Arizona desert is nothing short of a football miracle, and it is all his. His team loves him, his ownership is in awe, and finally, one of the saddest franchises in professional sports has a reason to be proud. An amazing effort, and a team one game away from a Lombardi Trophy.

Whiz designed it. Whiz executed it. Whiz owns it. Musketeer. Yellow Jacket. Falcon. Steeler. Cardinal.

Augustan.

Austin Rhodes

Martinez

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shivas
2
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shivas 02/01/09 - 09:30 am
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Good letter Austin. I was

Good letter Austin. I was ARC class of 81, and played baseball with Whiz. Class act all the way, and he deserves all of his success.

myobgdi
6
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myobgdi 02/01/09 - 10:20 am
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Long winded as usual, Rhodes!

Long winded as usual, Rhodes!

pofwe
5
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pofwe 02/01/09 - 03:33 pm
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Go! Arizona Cardinals!

Go! Arizona Cardinals!

Jim-bob
1
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Jim-bob 02/01/09 - 04:15 pm
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whiz - something you take in

whiz - something you take in the bushes.

kepowe
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kepowe 02/01/09 - 07:42 pm
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Great article! I wish "Whiz"

Great article! I wish "Whiz" and his Cardinals the best in the Super Bowl! You have made us proud!! I have fond memories of our HS days.
Kelly (Bridgers) Powell
ARC Class of '81

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