Kirk Whillock remembers walking through the grocery store or heading to church with his wife, Judy, and being asked the same questions, over and over again.
“Is Trav playing? How’s he doing?”
Ever since Kirk’s son, Travis, and his fellow class of 2016 Katy Tigers left their hometown to compete at the collegiate level, the good people of Katy, Texas have never forgotten to check in.
They could have been forgiven for neglecting Travis Whillock, a redshirt sophomore who saw the field for the first time Oct. 6 against Michigan State, instead choosing to inquire about Whillock’s teammate, NU middle linebacker Paddy Fisher. But the people of Katy won’t forget any of their beloved 2015 Tigers who finished the season 16-0 and ranked No. 1 in the country.
“It’s just neat,” Kirk Whillock said.
For the younger Whillock, 1,128 miles away in Evanston, his time as a Wildcat has been “a roller coaster.” Whillock redshirted in 2016, then hurt his right hamstring during fall practice in 2017. He never got to 100 percent, and decided to shut it down towards the end of the season, never seeing a snap.
A safety who used to be a track star, Whillock had his opportunity to prove himself this past spring. Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro were gone, and safeties JR Pace and Jared McGee missed spring ball with injuries. Whillock ran with the starters all spring. He made it out unscathed, but hurt his left hamstring after spring ball had ended.
He was frustrated. The injuries to Clayton Thorson or Nate Hall were obvious — Thorson still wears a bulky brace on his injured knee. A hamstring injury is invisible; it was only evident to Whillock when it didn’t quite feel right.
“Not being able to practice and sit on the sidelines, knowing that you feel like you can help your team, it gave me the itch, it just made me want to be out there that much more,” Whillock said.
Whillock hadn’t played competitive football since December 2015; it may have been more of a craving.
The injury lingered through the fall — Whillock wasn’t seen as much as warming up until the Michigan State game. He did his best to help his teammates in other ways.
“I felt like I was letting my teammates down,” he said. “I kinda had to take another step back and say ‘You know, I’m gonna have to be coach and a leader and keep the guys up that are in right now, learn as much as I can, get as much mental reps so when I get back, I have my chance to go back and compete with the guys and get a chance to get back on the field.’”
Jeremy Larkin’s sudden retirement helped Whillock internalize those lessons. The two are close friends; Larkin and several other Wildcats visited Whillock and Fisher in Texas this past spring break.
After Larkin announced his retirement because of a cervical stenosis diagnosis, he imparted some wisdom on Whillock.
“Just be sure that when you give it your go, just be so thankful and give it everything you have because you never know,” Larkin told Whillock.
Whillock has been assigned primarily punt duty, but a special moment came against Nebraska when he finally lined up on defense alongside Paddy Fisher, his high school teammate and “brother.”
“It’s just so cool to be able to do it with somebody you genuinely care for and you love and you just want to succeed,” Whillock said. “That was a pretty special experience.”
It may have been a fleeting moment, but Whillock knows there are more to come. He said he’s taking things day-by-day, crediting Pace, McGee and Bryce Jackson for their excellent safety play as he waits for his own opportunity. It’s been nearly three years since Whillock achieved what every high school football player in Texas dreams of — winning a state title.
He’s as ready as ever.
“I know that I’m a great player,” he said.