D.L. Wilhite: A Global Gopher

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Story by Justine Buerkle

Before he came to the University of Minnesota, defensive end D.L. Wilhite had never flown on an airplane.

Now a redshirt senior, the Lexington, Ky., native has traveled the world.

Wilhite has made far-away Minneapolis his home for the past five years. He has settled into his role on the football field, but has never let himself get too comfortable in his surroundings. Wilhite constantly challenges himself on and off the field. He is a true student-athlete and a man of the world.

The first step in Wilhite's journey as a Golden Gopher proved to be a difficult but rewarding one. Being away from his family, he still experiences homesickness, but he knows that is all a part of independence.

"I'm really thankful that I made the decision to come to the University of Minnesota," Wilhite said. "Being so far away from home, it gave me the opportunity to grow a lot as a man."

Even though branching out to a different region of the United States was a big step, Wilhite was not done yet. He still wanted to see more. Since he knew he would be at the University of Minnesota for five years, he decided to tack on a global studies major in addition to his history major.

"Global studies just felt like it really fit and would give me the opportunity to do a lot of cool things," he said.

He was right about that. This past January, Wilhite studied abroad in Qatar. He stopped at airports in Amsterdam and Saudi Arabia on the way there.

"To say that I've been to all these countries and have been able to do all these things is surreal a little bit," he said. "Where I'm from, a lot of people don't get the opportunity to do that kind of thing."

In Qatar, Wilhite got to see the inner workings of Al Jazeera, a major Arabic news network. He enjoyed trying local foods and taking in the scenery of the desert and coastal areas. He also tested out the Arabic he had learned in class at Minnesota.

"I didn't know too much at that time," he said. "I knew my numbers. We got to go to a souk and barter and talk the prices down. It was definitely fun."

Wilhite has continued to travel within the United States, too. In addition to football road trips, one of the major trips he took happened over spring break in 2011. He went with Students Today Leaders Forever on a service-oriented bus tour to Washington, D.C., with stops along the way to volunteer.

"That's probably one of my best experiences since I've been in college," Wilhite said. "I think it's better even than my study abroad trip, because it gave me a chance to do a lot of good, help a lot of people, and at the same time, make a lot of new friends and understand myself a little bit more from doing something like that."

Early in his college career, Wilhite became involved in volunteering around the Twin Cities. Since then he has continued to find new opportunities on his own. Assistant director of student-athlete affairs Anissa Lightner, who directs the department's Maroon and Gold Impacting the Community (MAGIC) program, said that people often surprise her with stories about things she had not even known Wilhite was planning to do.

"I'm really proud of him for taking the resources and experiences he gained early on and using those to seek out his own opportunities on an even broader scale than the MAGIC program," Lightner said. "He has been able to do things on a national and international scale. He's a great ambassador for our program."

With all the work he does during the school year, it might seem natural to take a break during the summer to just get ready for the upcoming football season. But that is not Wilhite's style. This past summer, he had an internship with the Minnesota Historical Society. In summer 2011, Wilhite completed a research project through the Ronald E. McNair Scholars program. He studied the Egyptian revolution and the effects of transnational institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. He gained valuable research skills and knowledge about graduate school in the process.

"It took an entire summer to complete, so it's a pretty big deal," Wilhite said of the project. "It's a lot of work. It was basically like a full-time job."

When he presented his research that August at Coffman Memorial Union on campus, the academic and athletic sides of his life intersected. Head coach Jerry Kill and director of operations Dan O'Brien were among those who came to the program that day.

"The worlds seem so distant between student and athlete," Wilhite said. "For them to come and take a look at what it takes to be a student, and all the hard work I put in, I think it was good for them to get a better understanding of me and what it means to be a student for me. And it meant a lot to me to see them there."

Defensive line coach Jeff Phelps said that Wilhite can set an example for younger Gophers by showing them that it is both possible and important to be well-rounded. He also sees crossover between Wilhite's academic and athletic skill sets.

"If you've got a guy that doesn't do things right off the field or doesn't do things right in the classroom, you're going to find that they're not doing things right on the field as well," Phelps said. "He's consistent in that and does a great job academically. He doesn't have to take a million reps to understand what we're asking him to do. He can go out there and just perform at his best."

In his fifth year in the Minnesota football program, and his second season with the same coaching staff, Wilhite has had time to gain a comfort level in the Gophers' system. He said that staying healthy has also been critical in allowing him to practice and play freely. As his career has progressed, he has gained more playing time and continued to improve.

In fact, through five games in 2012, Wilhite found himself right near the top of the Big Ten sacks list with 4.5 sacks. In just four games, Wilhite surpassed last year's team-leading total of 4.0 sacks by the late Gary Tinsley. Entering the season, the Gopher defense declared its intention to improve that part of its game, and Wilhite and his teammates have delivered.

"Everything we do, we're thinking about sacks constantly," he said. "Everything. At meetings, on the field, in our drills, we think about sacks. Through that focus, when you get to the game, your mind is already focusing on sacks. No matter what, everything is sack-driven."

The defensive linemen challenge each other to be the one to get to the quarterback. This competition among teammates makes it fun and increases production. The entire defense contributes to causing a sack, but Wilhite in particular has stood out so far in that role this season.

"I think it's a goal that he's set for himself, as far as something that he wanted to leave as his legacy here at the U," Phelps said. "The way we play our defensive ends, we really need them to provide that type of pressure on the quarterback. We want to win first down. We want to stop the run. But it doesn't really do us any good if we can't get to the quarterback on third downs and get off the field. I'm excited that he's embraced that role."

At the same time as he is trying to close out his final football season with a bang, Wilhite is also finishing up his double major and trying to plan his future. Performing well in the roles of student, athlete, and involved community member is a difficult feat to accomplish, and Wilhite admits that balancing it all is hard sometimes.

"Sometimes I have to check myself and remind myself what my priorities are in life," he said. "Really, I'd say the key is time management at the end of the day."

While Wilhite is well organized in his current activities, he has not yet decided what he will do when his Gopher football career ends. He might study abroad again. He might go on another STLF tour. He might go into grad school. He might eventually become a professor, but not before gaining more hands-on experience first.

One thing is certain though. Whatever Wilhite's future holds, it will not be boring.

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