No one could have blamed Steve Whiting for giving up, going into hiding, turning his back on the world that had struck him a cruel and unfair blow at such a young age.
When he was 11, Whiting's father, Wayne, died of cancer. He and his half-brother moved to Virginia with their mother Kristene and then two years later when Steve was 13, the three were in a car accident. Whiting still has scars on his elbow from the crash. His brother, Christopher — who is one year older and now lives in Owings Mills with his father — was left almost unscathed.
"It looked like a cat scratched his arm," Steve Whiting remembers.
But their mother lost her life as a result of the accident, and Whiting had both of his parents taken away in a span of about three years.
"I miss them all of the time," said Whiting, who now lives with his aunt, Mayb Sersland, in Columbia. "There's really nothing to compare it to. I don't know if you ever really recover, but you've just got to live life knowing that something can happen any day and you've just got to move on. I just like to live life positive and happy."
It helps that Whiting's aunt has become like a mother, and his cousin, 15-year-old Tylyn, like a little sister.
"My cousin's grandparents have become my grandparents," he said. "They're all good people."
And another thing that keeps Whiting, the Columbia Flier/Howard County Times defensive Player of the Year, happy and active is the game of football.
"Having been around him as much as I have you wouldn't know (what he'd been through) unless someone told you the story," Atholton coach Kyle Schmitt said. "Because he has such a great, positive outlook … he brings a lot of energy and this year he became more of a leader too."
Whiting first started playing football at the age of seven and it wasn't long before he outgrew the instructional level.
"My mom didn't want me playing flag football, she wanted me to have more contact," he said. "She thought flag football was boring. I was a big kid even when I was little and she wanted me and my brother on the same team."
In the eighth grade, after moving to Maryland, he began playing with the Howard County Bruins unlimited weight football team that finished as state runners-up.
"That's when I really got into it. When you're winning it's a lot more fun," he said.
And when he got to Atholton, the winning — and the fun — continued.
Whiting started on varsity as a sophomore and led the team with 86 tackles. That year, the same that Schmitt arrived, the Raiders finished 10-2 overall, just one year removed from a three-win campaign.
Atholton stumbled out of the gates in 2010, losing two of its first four games, but went on to win six in a row after that, including the school's first win over River Hill, which ended a 49-game league winning streak for the Hawks.
The Raiders made the playoffs for the second straight year but lost to eventual state champion Wilde Lake in the opening round. Whiting had 72 tackles and earned second team all-county honors that year.
"The best compliment that I can give Steve is that I would have to stand behind the line in scout team drills and ask him to slow down, or I'd have to take him out. You just couldn't run plays with him in there because he's so fast and he wreaks so much havoc," Schmitt said of his defensive tackle. "He's a great football player, he's tough as nails. For the last three years he's been our best defensive player."
This year, with plenty of returning talent and a senior class hungry to take the next step, Atholton seemed ready to go all the way. After sustaining a loss in week one as punishment for an accidental offseason practice violation, the Raiders played some of the best football the county has ever seen.
In 2011, Atholton outscored opponents, 438-76. The defense, led by the 240-pound Whiting and his career-high 11 sacks, earned six shutouts, including one over arch rival River Hill. In that game, Whiting had two sacks and broke up three passes.
"I loved that defense. I had the best job: going after the quarterback," said Whiting, who was also a keystone on the Atholton offensive line that cleared the way for almost 3,000 rushing yards and more than 40 touchdowns. "It also always felt good to put someone on their back and see our running back score."
But for the third straight year, Atholton's dream season met an early end. In the 3A East regional championship, Atholton lost to eventual state champion River Hill, 21-12, after uncharacteristically turning the ball over three times and failing to convert on five third downs.
The defense was also culpable, allowing 16 River Hill first downs and 235 rushing yards.
"How it turned out is how it turned out," Whiting said. "But it always eats at you when you thought you should be there (in the state championship game) … we probably could have gone all the way."
On the night of the state championship game, Whiting and teammate Zach Plotkin cooked dinner for their parents and coach Schmitt. Inevitably, the television channel turned to River Hill's 41-13 dismantling of Thomas Johnson.
"We're there eating steaks and mashed potatoes and someone turned the game on," Whiting said. "I'm glad I wasn't watching it by myself because I probably would have been crabby. We didn't know who we wanted to win, but (River Hill) deserved to be there."
While the missed opportunity still stings for Whiting and his teammates, there was plenty to be happy about this season, including Atholton's first outright county championship.
"This whole season was amazing. If I could do it again and still have to lose to River Hill, I'd do it again because it was suich a great season," said Whiting, who finished his career with 213 tackles and 15 sacks. "I think we could be remembered as that team that got everyone going (at Atholton), letting players know that you have to work hard all through the offseason and not just starting in August."
Whiting is looking to play college football at the Division II level and he would like to study business or sports management to prepare for a life in sports after football.
Another top priority is that he wants to stay close to home and family.
"I've moved 14 times in my life, so I just want to stay in one spot," he said.
Named to the first team all-county defense:
Lance Elmore, Long Reach. Standing taller than six-feet and weighing more than 300 pounds, Elmore had the agility and quickness of a player 80 pounds lighter, giving opposing linemen fits. Despite often attracting the attention of two or three blockers, Elmore finished the season with 60 tackles (35 solo) and six sacks from his nose tackle position.
Jason Johnson, River Hill. Johnson started the season at nose before eventually moving to end, where he was just as effective. He made 97 tackles (50 solo, 13 for a loss), four sacks and forced two fumbles. With Johnson as a keystone, the River Hill defense allowed only 32 points in four playoff games en route to the 3A state championship. The six-foot, 255-pounder also won 30 matches last year as a heavyweight for the Hawks wrestling team.
Noah Johnson, Howard. As the Lions' best two-way lineman, Johnson had 57 tackles with a sack, a forced fumble and an interception. A stabilizing force up front, he led Howard to a 7-3 regular season and its third playoff berth since 2007.
John Warfield, Glenelg. Warfield, a 5-10, 210-pound powerhouse, transferred from Good Counsel for his senior season and brought a new level of toughness to Glenelg's line. He led the team with seven sacks and three forced fumbles to go with 77 tackles (38 solo), helping the team allow almost 40 points less during the regular season compared to a year ago.
Riley Davis, River Hill. Davis not only led the Hawks in tackles for a second straight season, with 135 after recording 125 a year ago, but the 6-foot-1, 225 pound middle linebacker made all of the defensive calls and adjustments on the field. He also had five tackles for loss, two sacks, a fumble recovery and an interception, and caught two passes as a tight end.
Rasheed Lashley, Hammond. Hammond's defensive captain and on-field playcaller, Lashley is now a two-time first team all-county selection. He made 64 solo tackles this season (101 total, 7 for loss), including nine in a landmark win over River Hill. He also forced two fumbles, recovering one for a touchdown.
Glenn Lucas, Glenelg. Lucas, a defensive Player of the Year candidate, was the county's top tackler with 136 (11 per game) through the playoffs. He didn't take a down off on offense either, serving as fullback and lead blocker in the run game. He also had two forced fumbles, an interception and a sack, rushed for 71 yards and two TDs and caught five passes for 46 yards and a score.
Shamir Parham, Howard. Last year, Parham was a productive runner in the Lions offense, but this year his efforts were devoted solely to the Lions defense, and the team benefited from his fresh legs. Parham led Howard's tough up-the-gut defense with 106 tackles, and he also had a sack, a forced fumble and an interception.
Kendrick Frazier, Reservoir. Frazier might have been the best all-around athlete on the Gators, and his versatility allowed him to contribute in just about every facet of the game. He made opponents pay the few times they did throw to his side of the field, intercepting two passes, and on offense he rushed for almost 300 yards and two touchdowns while catching 17 passes for 346 yards (20.4 per catch) and seven more scores.
Gavin Hendrick, Hammond. The Golden Bears' top defensive back played man coverage all year and allowed only one touchdown to be scored against him. The captain of Hammond's backfield also made 44 tackles (25 solo), picked off a pass and stripped three balls away from opponents, forcing three fumbles.
Randall Lawson, River Hill. Even with opponents trying to avoid throwing anywhere near him, Lawson still managed to get his hands on the ball all season. He picked off his league-best ninth interception of the season in the state championship game. He also had a nose for the end zone, returning two pickoffs and a fumble recovery for touchdowns. He made 60 tackles, was one of the Hawks' best kick and punt returners, and had 323 yards and three touchdowns combined rushing and receiving.
Eugene Swen, Long Reach. Already considered one of the best players to ever come through Long Reach as only a sophomore, the hard hitting, dynamic Swen has a bright future ahead of him. As a freshman he earned second team all-county honors as a punter, but this year he took his game to another level. Swen picked off six passes, returning them for a combined 95 yards, broke up nine more passes and returned 10 punts for 255 yards and two touchdowns.
Austin Tennessee, Atholton. The Raiders allowed only ten touchdowns all season, and thanks in large part to Tennessee roaming the passing lanes, only two of those scores came through the air. The lockdown cornerback intercepted two passes and broke up three others, though opponents didn't often dare to give him a chance to get his hands on the ball.
Chris Peterson, Centennial. A second team all-county selection a year ago as a tight end, Peterson punted eight times for 285 yards (35.6 yard average), often saving his team from poor field position after a stalled drive. He also caught six passes for 97 yards and recorded 23 tackles and six sacks from his defensive end position.