Forgive me for writing this in the first person. It’s not a traditional column, but it’s certainly opinionated. I’ve struggled writing this feature far more than most, and actually getting it out has been even more of a struggle.
Perhaps, it’s because it’s about a writer, and I’m worried my words will be judged more than usual. Perhaps, it’s because there are so many interesting things about this guy it’s been difficult to nail down a specific angle. Perhaps, it’s because I admire the guy I’m writing about so much I know anything I write about him will not do him the justice he’s due.
Perhaps, like a lot of writers, I’m simply a procrastinator.
Whatever the reason, here goes nothing that — hopefully — will turn into something somewhat worthy of the subject. This isn’t his actual feature story, but rather a way to feature the story behind the story in an effort to offer a glimpse into the subject’s awesome character.
My mind raced as I fidgeted with my smartphone’s navigational app while trying to find Nathan Whitaker’s house. What will I ask the guy who has asked questions of living legends like Tim Tebow and Tony Dungy to co-author their books? Five of his books have made the New York Times bestsellers list, including two that reached No. 1.
I had interviewed head football coaches like Houston Nutt, Phillip Fulmer, Guz Malzahn and Bobby Petrino as well as a handful of professional athletes, but this easily was the most nervous I had ever have been for an exclusive interview. I was honored for the opportunity, because Nathan is a guy I had admired and respected immensely from afar.
I was hoping I could find his house without being late. I was hoping I wouldn’t stutter. I was hoping to at least ask a decent question or two. I was hoping I wouldn’t kick over a coffee table on my way into his home.
Moreover, I had an even bigger concern. From his Twitter account to his website (nathanwhitaker.com), Whitaker is open about his faith.
Too often in my life I’ve met people who put on a Christian front publicly who were not Christian-like behind closed doors.
“Please God, don’t let this guy be a hypocrite,” I thought to myself in the days leading up to the interview and as I searched for his home that’s located next to a Gainesville golf course.
Interestingly, it was the same concern he had heading into his first interview with Tebow.
“He’s very genuine and you hope that,” Whitaker said. “Here I’m writing this book about Tim and I’m thinking, ‘Please don’t be a fraud.’
“And then I was pleasantly surprised.”
As was I. Nathan Whitaker is the genuine article.
Proof came during our hour-plus interview and even more in the months that followed.
Here’s the thing: His feature story — once it finally was written — was supposed to run in Gator Country magazine this past spring. The timing would have been ideal coming in the wake of Tebow’s dramatic turnaround of the Denver Broncos, which made non-Tebow believers into believers while making “Tebow-Time” and “Tebowing” household terms.
However, each issue that came around ended up having some last-minute story come up which had to get in, whether it was an unexpected championship run by the Florida Gators or something similar.
Something had to be cut to make room. Instead of chopping another reporters’ copy, I often will cut one of my own. Because Whitaker’s feature was not what some deemed as time-sensitive or timely, we put it on hold — more than once.
I ran into Nathan and his father, Scott Whitaker, who used to coach UF baseball, at a Florida baseball game. Nathan loves sports and he loves the Gators. He played baseball and football at Duke, the latter under Steve Spurrier. He’s also an attorney who left a law firm to worked with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Jacksonville Jaguars. Nathan and his father still serve as agents who “assist with the personal and professional matter of their lives,” according to his website.
When I saw him, I apologized for having not yet published his feature. He remained respectful with an attitude of “just being honored” to be considered story-worthy in the first place.
Then summer rolled around and the timing for a feature about a guy who wrote books about football folks seemed way off.
The plan became to include his feature in our annual football preview. That would make perfect sense as Tebow had been traded to the New York Jets and had headlined Sportscenter most nights.
Even though we had communicated a couple of times, I hadn’t promised Nathan it would run in that issue, which turned out to be wise in hindsight. Another round of last-minute cuts due to an unexpected space crunch meant only the most-timely stories on current Florida football players would be published that month. His wasn’t the only feature cut.
Two more issues came and went. After the plan to include it in the football preview fell through, I had decided after to wait until Tebow took over at quarterback for the sure-to-be-struggling Jets, which would make the story even more timely than ever.
However, that still hasn’t happened thanks to the stubbornness of Jets coach Rex Ryan, who inexplicably continues to play quarterback Mark Sanchez as the team’s postseason hopes slip further away each week. This week, Tebow actually is out with a rib injury, but we all know he would play through any pain if he actually was going to play significant snaps.
So, when I saw Nathan with his wife and father on the deck of the USS Bataan before Florida’s basketball game against Georgetown, I felt ashamed and embarrassed to even say, “Hi.” After all, months had passed since our interview and there was nothing to show for it.
Would he even talk to me? Would he chastise me for wasting so much of his precious time? If roles were reversed, how would I react?
Of course, he was and is a class act. He appeared unfazed and even posed for a picture for me with his family. Just to note, the picture will run in the December issue. He was cordial. He was overly nice, as always. He even asked about my family and accepted my umpteenth apology the same way he had in the past.
Because I don’t remember exactly what he said that night on the ship, here is one of his replies to me on a direct message on Twitter to help illustrate how kind and forgiving Nathan has been:
“I’m still flattered you EVER think I would have a place (in the magazine),” Whitaker said.
What a guy. The way he has reacted makes me feel even more terrible for not making a place for his story. It truly is a remarkable account of how Tebow’s book came about with insight into Tim’s personality and the process behind writing it.
Again, this is not his actual feature. He’s worthy of way more than these ramblings and his story will be told in the pages of our magazine sometime soon — I promise.
Fortunately, it’s one of those evergreen features which can be published any time and still have relevance. It’s timeless, which always is better than being timely.
Forgive me for not sharing it sooner.