Super Mario Part Two
For former Mizzou running back Mario Whitney, it was the off the field adjustments that he struggled to make.
It didn't take former prep phenom Mario Whitney long to realize the differences between high school and division one football.
"Just the demand. You have no time to yourself. It's a 40-hour a week job. You have no time to yourself and I wasn't ready for that at 18-19 years old," he said.
Missouri running back coach Brian Jones explained what is required of MU football players.
"We ask our players to jump through lots of hoops. In terms of football-wise, academically, socially and so on. We ask them to toe the line there and it took him a while to adjust to all those situations," Jones said.
Mario worked through summer camp and contributed 52 total yards in the Tigers season opening wins against Illinois and Ball State. But a separated shoulder in the game against Bowling Green derailed his freshman season, and soon afterwards, he considered leaving Columbia.
"He would say, 'Mom, it's not like I thought it would be.' Then he got the feeling that, 'They don't really care about me,'" said Carla Whitney, Mario's mother.
"Physically I had all the tools, but emotionally and mentally I wasn't ready for it. I was still a high school kid," said Mario.
His final decision was to leave Mizzou, with his career stats at five carries for seven yards.
"I just kind of figured that life would keep giving me these breaks here and there, here and there, here and there and it just didn't happen," Mario said.
Mario returned home to Jackson for a year before attending Scottsdale Community College in Arizona. He left before ever officially enrolling at Scottsdale to play football at Garden City Community college in Kansas. After rushing for more than 100 yards in his first game, he tore an ankle ligament and broke two ribs.
Mario returned to Columbia to live with a couple of former high school teammates. He took a job dealing blackjack at the Isle of Capri Casino in Boonville, but football was never far from his mind.
"It definitely crossed my mind whenever I had to deal to some of the coaches at the casino. That defintely crossed my mind. I sat there and talked to them. But I always think that I could have played," Mario said.
Carla noted sadness in her son when he wasn't playing football.
"I could tell he was depressed and I was like, 'Mario, you're young, it's not over,'" she said.
It wasn't over. Mario got another chance at football with a scholarship from William Penn University, A small NAIA school in Oskaloosa, Iowa.
"I told my son, nobody gets three full rides to school. I said, 'You are blessed. I'm telling you that's just the favor of God.' So I said, 'You have to take advantage of this third chance,'"Carla said.
And he has taken advantage, rushing for nearly 100 yards per game and eleven touchdowns in just eight games. He also earned second team All-Midwest Conference honors.
"He doesn't take his athletic ability for granted and that means a lot to us because we've had players before that have had a lot of athletic ability that ended up not doing anything because they didn't work very hard. But that's not the case with Mario and it's going to continue to make him a great player," William Penn Coach Todd Hafner said.
While Mario's football career has taken him all across the country, he's finally found his place in Oskaloosa. And it's a homecoming of sorts, playing his home games at Oskaloosa high school, the home of the Indians.
"This isn't a punishment, this place is not a punishment. It's definitely not D-1, but those people in the stands, I'll see them in town and they'll treat me like their best friend," Mario said.
"He's more determined now than he ever has been. Maybe because he's older and he knows all the mistakes he made before, but that makes him better. Because now he's not just someone out there just playing, he's out there with a goal in mind that I want to get where I want to go," Carla said.
He wants to play in the NFL, a dream he is confident will be fulfilled. He still has unfinished business at William Penn.
"I would like to win the NAIA player of the year. That's my goal, next year as a senior to win the NAIA player of the year," Mario said.
Not quite the Heisman, but still quite an accomplishment for Super Mario. He still has one year of eligibility left and is on pace to graduate next year with a degree in physical fitness.