This story appears in the Oct. 17, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
HIS LIFE IS SO WEIRD right now. Take tonight, late on a Tuesday at an IHOP in Norman, Dominique Whaley is sitting next to freshman Brandon Williams -- the Sooners' top and nation's No. 5 running back recruit and, to hear some in town tell it, the second coming of Adrian Peterson -- but all eyes are on the guy who wasn't recruited by any team or ranked by any service.
Whaley walked on to Oklahoma 22 months ago and still doesn't have a scholarship. The junior helped pay his way by working at Subway. Yet he is the featured running back for one of the top teams in the country. He's the guy who scored four touchdowns in the season opener against Tulsa, beat down Florida State's defense two weeks later and picked up 150 total yards against Missouri. "The weirdest thing is how many people have asked me for autographs," Whaley says between forkfuls of food. "Friends who I tell, 'I know you. Why are you asking me?'"
His strange saga begins in Miami, where he was born in 1990. He didn't stay there long: His mother is a sergeant first class and his stepfather is a master sergeant, so Whaley's childhood was a blur of bases. He began playing running back as an eighth-grader in Texas on a whim. "They said all the receivers go here, the running backs go there," Whaley says. "I saw like a billion receivers, and I said, 'Forget that. I'm going with the running backs.'"
Two years later, after his parents had transferred to U.S. Army Garrison Ansbach in southern Germany, he showed the first hints of his football potential. As a sophomore on the base's high school team, Whaley ran a 4.45 40-yard dash and bench-pressed 275 pounds. "I told his mom that he could be a college athlete," says the base's coach, Marcus George.
Before his junior year in 2006, Whaley and his family moved to Lawton, Okla., a windswept and widespread city of low-slung homes on golden hills a few miles from Fort Sill. He enrolled at MacArthur High School, but the football team already had a running back -- Javon Harris, a prep All-America and future safety for the Sooners -- so coach Ernie Manning put Whaley at slot receiver in the team's "pop" offensive sets. Whaley would go in motion, receive the handoff and zip around the edge toward the sidelines. "He turned it on and was just a blur," says Ernie's son Brett, then the offensive coordinator.
That winter, Whaley received an envelope from Kansas State, inviting him to a summer football camp. Unaware of how to play the recruiting game, Whaley discarded it, assuming his parents wouldn't drive him six hours for a camp. Instead, he spent his summer working 12-hour shifts at a Goodyear tire factory. The Mannings tried to get teams interested in Whaley his senior year, but as a slot receiver in an offense that rarely threw, he didn't draw much interest. Looking back, Whaley regrets his naivete about the recruiting process. "To hear the stories of how most players were recruited and the experiences they went through, yeah, I do kick myself," he says.
With zero Division I offers, Whaley accepted an academic scholarship to Langston University, a small, historically black college in Oklahoma that plays in the NAIA. His tenure on the football team was brief. Whaley says he wasn't thrilled with the way the coaches used him, mostly on runs between the tackles. He finished 2008 with 258 yards. An administrative error altered his GPA, pushing it below the threshold his scholarship required. The school didn't recognize the mistake until after his financial support was rescinded.
In May 2009, Whaley left Langston. Around that time, his mother and stepfather deployed to Iraq, so Whaley went to live with his grandmother in Killeen, Texas. He was a 19-year-old looking after his four younger siblings and mulling his future. "It was difficult," says his mother. "He was upset about leaving school."
Over the summer, Whaley wrote down the names of five colleges: Texas, Texas Tech, Sam Houston State, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma. These were the places he wanted to continue his education but not necessarily where he wanted to play football.
His girlfriend lived in Lawton, about 80 miles southwest of Norman, so OU seemed to make the most sense. He enrolled in the school's accounting program in January 2010. Within a few days of arriving on campus, he called the Sooners' director of football operations, Merv Johnson, to ask about walking on, just to see what would happen. Johnson threw Whaley into the team's winter workout mix, and the back impressed the coaching staff and players during spring scrimmages with some 70- and 80-yard runs. "For a while, I didn't even know his name," center Ben Habern says. "Slowly you start seeing him make some plays and you're like, 'Who is this guy?'"
As a transfer, Whaley sat out the 2010 season and trained with other redshirts. He changed his diet ("lots of V8 juice," he says) and gained 20 pounds of muscle -- he's now 5'10", 210 pounds -- without losing any speed or athleticism. This winter, OU trainers timed him running a 4.39 40. He also leaped 11.1 feet in the broad jump and 40.5 inches in the vertical, breaking Peterson's team records in both categories. "That got [coaches'] attention pretty quick," Johnson says with a laugh.
In spring ball, Whaley tore apart the D again for big gains and led all rushers with 65 yards. Over the summer, running backs coach Cale Gundy told boosters about a walk-on who might get some playing time. "Nobody really took me seriously," Gundy says.
Why should they? A walk-on taking snaps away from four- and five-star backs? The improbability never deterred Whaley, who kept improving practice after muggy August practice. The week before the Sooners' season opener against Tulsa on Sept. 3, coach Bob Stoops named him a co-starter with sophomore Brennan Clay.
That Saturday, Whaley rushed for 131 yards and four TDs, the most by any walk-on in OU history. Fans created a page for him on Facebook. He gained 3,400 Twitter followers in a week. He's played consistently since then, and though Stoops and Gundy say OU will stick with a two-back system for now, Whaley may force them to reconsider. "We were watching film and saying, 'Dominique looks like he's getting faster and better,'" Gundy says, referring to a coaches meeting in September.
Even so, Whaley has been through too much to start buying his own hype. At IHOP, Whaley is asked about his goals. "I've written it down," he says. "In the next couple days, I'm going to apply for a couple of jobs."
Williams offers him a plate of popcorn shrimp he wasn't eating. "Thanks," Whaley says with a grin. "You're still paying for it."