THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — Andrew Whitworth can not help but make an impression.
At 6-foot-7 and 330 pounds, the former LSU and now Los Angeles Rams left tackle is a mountain of a man, made even more formidable by his closely cropped scalp and the bushy beard that at 37 is beginning to take on that salt and pepper look befitting a 13-year NFL veteran.
“The most enormous person you’ve ever seen in real life,” said Andrew’s wife, Melissa, with a knowing chuckle.
Beneath that locomotive-sized exterior, though, beats the heart of a deeply compassionate man. A man who as a four-time Pro Bowler and three-time first-team All-Pro has made his contributions on the field, but one who has made an even bigger mark off of it.
When a new player joins the Rams, they sit down to meet with Molly Higgins, the team’s vice president of community affairs and engagement. Higgins talks to them about their off-the-field passions and interests and hands them a list of 50-60 local causes and charities they can choose to assist.
When Whitworth met with Higgins two years ago — he joined the Rams after playing his first 11 NFL seasons in Cincinnati — she was taken aback to find that he checked every box.
“His answer was something to the effect of, ‘Well, sure, let me know how I can help,’ ” Higgins said. “It speaks to who Andrew is. He understands his platform and wants to be a change-maker.”
Through some dreadful catastrophes, Whitworth has used his platform to help bring change and hope to this well-heeled mountainside community west of Los Angeles. His play and his compassion have made him the Rams’ nominee for this season’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, to be revealed at the NFL Honors program on Feb. 2 in Atlanta, the night before Super Bowl 53.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had a stronger nominee,” Higgins said. “He’s everything you want in a professional, on and off the field. We feel very fortunate to have him as a Ram.”
‘Three weeks of hell’
The news broke just before midnight on Nov. 7 of a mass shooting mass shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, a country and western hangout frequented by students from nearby Pepperdine and California Lutheran universities. The Rams training facility is at Cal Lutheran, the alma mater of LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, about five miles away.
The tragedy claimed 12 lives, including a Ventura County Sherriff’s deputy, plus the gunman. Unfortunately for Thousand Oaks, the tragedies were only beginning.
Long before anyone could come to grips with the shooting, the following afternoon, wildfires started in a canyon nearby. Labeled the Hill Fire, by early on Nov. 9, the Whitworths found themselves on a freeway fleeing east toward Los Angeles.
“We had friends who were evacuated who came to our house,” Melissa Whitworth said, “but at 2 a.m. we got the alert that we had to get out immediately. We left with our (four) children, the dogs, my wedding rings and what we had on and started driving toward the city. We didn’t know where we would wind up. It was really, really scary.”
Fortunately the home the Whitworths are renting never burned, although it did suffer smoke damage.
“We were evacuated for three weeks,” said Melissa, the 2003 Miss Louisiana and a former anchor and reporter at a North Louisiana TV station. “It was three weeks of absolute hell. It was awful. Sometimes I think I have some form of PTSD. I can’t see a breaking news bulletin without getting afraid that this means our house is going to burn down or 13 more people have been shot.”
The fire burned more than 4,500 acres and forced more than 17,000 people to evacuate, including many Rams players, coaches and front office personnel. The team moved practices to Colorado Springs, Colorado, to prepare at altitude for a scheduled game in Mexico City against the Kansas City Chiefs, but it temporarily became the team’s new home. Adding to the chaos, the Rams-Chiefs game was hastily moved to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum because of poor field conditions in Mexico City.
The NFC and AFC championship games.
‘It all started with Andrew’
The game on Nov. 19 would be a cathartic event for the region. But Andrew wanted to do something more. Something personal.
“It was a crazy couple of weeks,” Whitworth said. “Once that happened, you’re like, ‘How can I get involved and make a difference?’ ... try to do something to show the community you care about them.”
Andrew had figured out what he wanted to do even as the wildfires were marching toward the Whitworth’s home.
“I texted him and said, ‘Can you get home? The fire is between the (practice) facility and our house,” Melissa recalled. “He wrote back, ‘I think so. Hey, do you care if I donate my game check to the shooting victims?’ ”
The check, worth about $60,000, was from the Rams' Nov. 11 game against Seattle. The following week, Whitworth and other Rams players met on the field after the Chiefs game with family members of Borderline shooting victims. A team captain both seasons in Los Angeles, Whitworth and other Rams players like quarterback Jared Goff, running back Todd Gurley and defensive end Michael Brockers of LSU also auctioned off their game jerseys to benefit the Conejo Valley Victims’ Assistance Fund set up after the shooting and Southern California wildfire relief.
Higgins said Whitworth was the catalyst.
“It all started with Andrew,” she said. “He got up in front of the team and said, ‘Our community has suffered a tremendous loss, and I need each of you to do something. Be active. You’ll never regret doing something to help your neighbors and those in need.’ Having a team leader like Andrew deliver that message, you can’t overstate what that means. That rallied some of the rest of the players to make donations and visit firefighters and victims of the shooting and the fire. It was an opportunity to rally the whole community together.”
Vanessa Bechtel, president and CEO of the Ventura County Community Foundation that administers the Conejo Valley fund, said Whitworth’s donation and many others allowed her organization to quickly distribute $70,000 in prepaid credit cards to those who survived the shooting who had to leave their wallets, keys and bags at what was cordoned off as a crime scene. In the following weeks, the fund distributed $20,000 to victims’ families to help offset funeral and travel costs.
“Andrew really helped keep the attention on what happened at the Borderline,” Bechtel said. “Unfortunately when you have fires break out within those first 24 hours with so much devastation going on and so much need, what happened at The Borderline quickly left the media’s attention. Because of that, it was really important when Andrew and the Rams came forward and refocused attention on what people could do to help people really suffering and make a difference for them. It was really powerful and something I will never forget.”
The Saints have ruled out Keith Kirkwood for Sunday's NFC title game against the Los Angeles Rams.
The aftermath of the Borderline shooting and the Hill Fire wasn’t the first example of Whitworth’s generosity.
The Whitworths have a foundation in north Louisiana — Andrew is from West Monroe, Melissa from Ruston — that has given close to $1 million in scholarship aid to high school seniors in Ouachita and Lincoln parishes. Their foundation also gives two grants a year to families seeking to adopt. The year before the twin Thousand Oaks tragedies, on his 36th birthday, Andrew and Melissa passed out more than 600 bikes and helmets to underprivileged kids attending a south Los Angeles school.
“One of the teachers came to us and said, ‘Some of these kids said something good finally happened to them,’ ” Melissa Whitworth recalled. “Nothing good ever happens to these kids. You can do some real good in the NFL, with this platform. We take it very seriously.”
Chasing the big one
Defensive tackle Kyle Williams retired this season from the Buffalo Bills. That makes Whitworth and punter Donnie Jones, now with the Los Angeles Chargers, the last starters from LSU’s 2003 BCS national championship team still playing in the NFL.
“If you had asked me the first summer at LSU running 110s with (LSU strength and conditioning coach Tommy) Moffitt, how many times I wanted to quit, that 18 years later I’d be playing in the NFL playoffs, I don’t think I’d have ever imagined that,” Whitworth said. “It’s been an awesome ride and an amazing experience.”
His long career is missing only one thing.
While Whitworth will be in Atlanta regardless for the NFL Honors event as the Rams’ man of the year nominee, he hopes he isn’t alone.
After 11 playoff-winless seasons in Cincinnati — and a playoff loss to the Falcons after the 2017 season — Whitworth finally got his first postseason win Jan. 12, when the Rams beat Dallas 30-22. Now he heads home to Louisiana for Sunday’s NFC championship game against the Saints in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, all that stands between Whitworth and that long-elusive trip to the Super Bowl.
“I think any player would be lying if they said it doesn’t have to happen,” Whitworth said, “that they wouldn’t do anything to win that big game. But at the same time I’m also someone who keeps things in perspective. My career has been amazing, to be in the playoffs eight times and win five division championships and all the relationships and opportunities I’ve had over my career.
“The Super Bowl would be more of a personal accomplishment, whereas a lot of those other things would be lifelong accomplishments. I’ll never forget the effect I’ve been able to have in different communities or different things I’ve been part of.”
Whitworth has won championships at every other level, mostly in the Superdome. He won three state titles there with West Monroe and in January 2004 won the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma for the BCS national championship after a win in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game in Atlanta. He even won his first two NFL games against the Saints in the Superdome.
His first loss in the Superdome? That was on Nov. 4 in the Rams regular-season trip to New Orleans by that 45-35 score.
“A long part of my athletic life has been played in that stadium,” Whitworth said. “What a cool place to go play.”
Whitworth knows he is closer to the end of his career than the beginning. When his playing days are done, he hopes to stay involved in the game in some capacity.
“I love being around football and watching tape and evaluating, helping people be the best version of themselves every day,” he said. “I hope to have that opportunity.”
You could certainly say he has already started doing that.
To donate to the Conejo Valley Victims' Assistance Fund, visit www.vccf.org.