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For Packers' Joe Whitt, overcoming dyslexia leads to growth as a coach

GREEN BAY, Wis. – “I don’t want this to be a sob story,” Joe Whitt is saying. There is a seriousness in his voice, an unmistakable do-not-even-think-of-defying-me tone that surely his Green Bay Packers cornerbacks have heard many times inside their Lambeau Field meeting room. “I don’t want this to sound like a pity thing.”

And so, the retelling of Whitt’s lifelong battle with dyslexia and becoming one of the league’s top young defensive assistant coaches will not be a tearjerker. It will not be about how he repeated kindergarten and how a fatalistic fifth-grade teacher told him he would never learn to spell. It will not be about the panic he felt throughout junior high any time his class would have to read aloud and how he’d frantically count out how many students were ahead of him to determine which paragraph would be his – and then, how by sheer force of will he’d memorize his part and pretend he was reading it. And it will not be about how today, he opts to help his children -- Joseph, Ava and Zoe -- with their math assignments because they're better off getting help with their reading homework from his wife, Ericka.

Rather, it is the story of a 22-year-old first-year high-school English teacher, Amy Sullins, who had the conviction to stand up to a headstrong, brilliant ninth-grader -- and future class president -- and make him do something he’d vowed he would never do. It's the story of his father, Joe Whitt Sr., who’d battled the same issues and had overcome it with the motto “Failure is not an option,” which still guides him today. It's the story of a future Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive back, Charles Woodson, who wasn’t a fan of having a position coach younger than him but now sees the 38-year-old Whitt as an NFL head-coach-in-waiting. It's the story of a ragtag collection of undrafted free agents, ex-baseball players, ex-basketball players and little-known late-round picks who have blossomed under his brand of tough-love tutelage.

And, it is the story of Joseph, now in fifth grade -- the same age his father was for that cruel "You’ll never …" prediction -- and how his father is waging a war not only on his behalf but also in support of all children afflicted by this language-based learning disability that, according to the International Dyslexia Association, could affect the reading, writing and spelling abilities of 15 to 20 percent of the U.S. population to varying degrees.

“What’s important to me is these kids. They need to understand that just because you learn a different way, that doesn’t mean you’re not still smart,” Whitt says. “They’re being told they’re dumb; they’re terrified to read in class; their confidence is low; and if they don’t break through, they’re going to go the other way. And it’s potential, it’s talent that’s lost forever. We’re losing too many talented kids because of a misbelief that they’re not capable of what they truly can be.”

And what if sharing his story relegates him to being just a position coach the rest of his football life? What if he never gets a head-coaching job because ultra image-conscious NFL teams don’t want a guy who reads at an eighth-grade level and spells at a sixth-grade level to be the face of their franchise, even one who scored a 139 on an IQ test in college?

“The football part is the football part,” Whitt says. “I’m not embarrassed about being dyslexic. I’ll tell anybody. I’m at that point now. And I don’t want kids to be embarrassed about it. Because most dyslexic people are brilliant. But they just have to do it a different way. I want kids to know, just because I learn a different way does not mean I’m not smart. It’s just not learning the way everyone else learns.

“And if I never become a head coach because of it, I will be fine. I will be fine. Because I’m going to try to help as many kids as I can. And if somebody does give me a chance to be a head coach one day, we’re going to win a lot of games.”

‘I believed in him’

She was Amy Cinci then, 22 years old and fresh out of college, her student-teaching experience having been mostly with 12th-grade honors students. It was 1993, and she was teaching a sixth-period world literature course to freshmen at Auburn High School in Auburn, Alabama. Among those freshmen was Joe Whitt Jr., son of a prominent Auburn University assistant football coach -- with a Tigers team in the midst of a perfect season.

“I did recognize right away that Joe did not like to read aloud or write,” Amy Sullins says. “But Joe was not the only struggling reader in the class.”

Concerned not that Whitt was illiterate so much as "aliterate" -- that he was able to read but was uninterested in doing so, a common issue among high-schoolers -- and unaware of his dyslexia diagnosis, Sullins didn’t coddle him. And she certainly wasn’t going to let him get away with his new policy about reading aloud. To that point, Whitt had used his count-the-paragraphs technique, but that was hardly foolproof.

“I pretty much told myself, ‘I’m not going to read in class. I’m not putting myself through this embarrassment anymore,’” Whitt says. “So I would just tell my teachers, ‘Don’t call on me to read in class. I’m not going to do it. I’m going to do all my work; I’m going to make good grades, but I’m not going to do that. No.’”

While other teachers acquiesced, the idealistic rookie English teacher didn’t. Her students would experience literature through various media, from listening to audiotapes (“This was 1993!” she exclaims) to acting out Shakespearean scenes, to -- sorry, Joe -- reading aloud in class.

“I wanted them to be engaged in class and interested in what they were learning. Because of his dyslexia, Joe struggled with the fluency of reading, silently and out loud,” Sullins says. “I didn’t know at that time that he was dyslexic, as he did not have an individualized education plan, and he did not share that with me. Over the first semester, I noticed he was a very active listener and enjoyed participating in discussion and cooperative learning. By the second semester, I was varying my instructional strategies more for different types of learners.”

And that included Whitt, who met Sullins halfway -- and found it to be life-altering.

“Once she realized I wasn’t trying to be insubordinate, and once I realized that she was really trying to help me and she’s a really, really good teacher, she helped me read better,” Whitt says. “She helped me comprehend and take my school to the next level.”

Sullins wouldn’t teach Whitt again until his senior year, in her debate class. By then, Whitt was the student body president and oozed confidence, and Sullins saw the metamorphosis.

“Debate was a class in which his excellent listening skills and his strong public speaking could really shine,” says Sullins, now an associate professor of education at Tennessee Wesleyan University in Athens. Each Mother’s Day, she receives an appreciative text message from Whitt, even though she’s just seven years his senior. “I was so, so proud of him.”

‘Failure is not an option’

Joe Whitt Sr. remembers being in his office, and being busy. He was not to be interrupted. The longtime Auburn assistant coach -- he’d been on four head coaches’ staffs, helping the Tigers to five SEC titles and 17 bowl berths -- had work to do, and when the phone rang at his desk, he was annoyed that the call had been put through. He knew it couldn’t be his son, a walk-on wide receiver who was off at the annual SEC spring meetings, delivering a presentation to conference head coaches and athletic directors as a member of the student-athlete advisory committee.

“I said, ‘Hello!’ Real loud, like, ‘Get off the phone.’ He said, ‘Coach Whitt, I know you’re busy …’ And I said, ‘Who is this?’ He could tell I was irritated,” Joe Sr. says, raising and lowering his voice to re-enact the call. “And he says, ‘It’s Myles Brand, the head of the NCAA. I just wanted to let you know what a great job your son has done and what a great young man he is.’”

Brand had come away so impressed by Joe Jr.’s speech that he had to call his father immediately. If only Brand had known what had gone into the presentation, the panic the younger Whitt had endured beforehand.

“The day before, the SEC people gave us this big thing we had to read,” Joe Jr. says. “And I’m sweating. ‘I can’t sit here and read this to them.’”

And so he improvised. He sat in his hotel room all night and memorized every word, just as he had for the commencement address at his high-school graduation. He knew his father had battled the same reading demons -- Joe Sr. credits his grandmother, who had no formal training in teaching, for helping him overcome his dyslexia -- and he also knew what his dad would say to him if the speech bombed. After all, Joe Sr. had grown up a Packers fan, worshipping at the football altar of St. Vince (Lombardi) and Ray Nitschke, believing mental and physical toughness would always carry the day.

“I always told my guys, ‘Failure is not an option,’” Joe Sr. says. “I told them, ‘Look, there’s only two kind of people in the world: Winners and quitters. Winners never quit, and quitters never win.’”

So Joe Jr. found a way to win the presentation. Afterward, he remembers then-Georgia athletic director Vince Dooley approaching him, amazed that he’d delivered the entire speech without notes.

“It just made sense to me to do it that way,” Joe Jr. says. “I might not be able to read that great, but I have a really, really good memory. So I try to play off of that. You just have to have the poise and confidence about yourself to play to your strengths.”

‘It didn’t take long for me to be sold’

The way defensive backs Charles Woodson and Al Harris saw it, Lionel Washington was the perfect coach for them. He’d spent 15 seasons playing cornerback in the NFL, and he had a quiet, collaborative demeanor that meshed with the two veteran cover corners.

After the 2008 season, though, Packers coach Mike McCarthy had decided to start over on defense, and Washington was among the assistant coaches let go. A few weeks later, new defensive coordinator Dom Capers decided to promote the 30-year-old defensive quality control coach who’d played wide receiver in college and was younger than both of the team’s starters at his position:

Joe Whitt.

“You’ve got a young guy coming in who didn’t play the position and he’s younger than you. It was like a double-whammy,” says the now 40-year-old Woodson, an analyst for ESPN’s Monday Night Football. “It was going to be very, very, very important for Joe to know what he was talking about, believe in what he was talking about and stick to it. Because, had he come in there timid and scared, he never would have made it -- especially in a room with me and Al. He believed in what he was selling.”

Since then, the Packers have shown their faith in Whitt’s teaching ability by giving him a diverse cast of cornerback characters. Sam Shields, a 2010 undrafted free agent who spent his first three college seasons at Miami playing wide receiver and developed into the team’s No. 1 corner. LaDarius Gunter is a 2015 undrafted free agent who McCarthy said this week has graded out as the team’s best cornerback this season with Shields on injured reserve with a concussion. Demetri Goodson is a 2014 sixth-round pick who played basketball at Gonzaga before trying his hand at football at Baylor for his final two years of college.

Even when general manager Ted Thompson has invested high picks on the position, they’ve been players with unusual pedigrees. Damarious Randall, the team’s 2015 first-round pick, was a Kansas City Royals draft pick and shortstop prospect before returning to football, playing safety at Arizona State for two years. And 2015 second-round pick Quinten Rollins played four years of basketball at Miami (Ohio) before using his fifth year of eligibility to play football.

A draft-and-develop operation like the Packers' doesn’t add such unfinished products without faith in its coaches' teaching ability, which Whitt hones by job-shadowing various mentors -- from elementary and high-school teachers to college professors -- each offseason, searching for new approaches that might work with his players.

Among Whitt's coaching tenets: Always tell them the truth. That includes telling them about his dyslexia; he tells players up front to expect spelling mistakes and transposed words. And yet, most say they wouldn’t know if Whitt didn’t tell them.

“We have tremendous faith in Joe just in the way he coaches the position and how his players respond and improve,” McCarthy says. “He’s done an excellent job with all of our players here and the ability to connect with veteran players and young players. We have a philosophy about bringing young guys in and trusting our whole staff.

"I think Joe, just his ability to teach and demand is excellent. It’s excellent. You see it each year. The ability to not only develop the guys who are playing, but guys who may have moved on and gone onto bigger and better things. He’s an outstanding football coach. He truly gets into the art and technique and fundamentals of a position. That’s what you want from everybody. That’s what every coach wants to be.”

This year has been especially challenging, with Shields, Randall and Rollins all missing time with injuries. At one point, the Packers were forced to play their fourth- (Gunter), fifth- (Goodson) and sixth-string (undrafted rookie Josh Hawkins) cornerbacks, and it was Whitt’s job to make do with what he had. He is tough on his guys -- “I’m not an easy coach to deal with,” he says, “but I’m trying to get the best out of all of them” -- and the approach works. To Woodson, that speaks to Whitt’s future as a defensive coordinator and head coach, which, in Woodson’s mind, is a question of when, not if.

“I talk to Joe all the time and I always tell him, ‘You should’ve been somebody’s coordinator at least by now.’ That’s how I feel about Joe,” Woodson says. “I know they’ve kept him there and kept him from moving on, but in my opinion, he deserves that shot to go run somebody’s defense. And then, at head coaching. As a player, you just want someone to shoot you straight. That’s Joe. That’s why I have so much respect for him and why we’ve become and remain good friends.”

‘You grow from struggle’

When it comes to his son Joseph, Joe Jr. is torn. He knows dyslexia is better understood today than ever before, with more programs available to help Joseph have greater, more rapid success. He also knows Joseph is fortunate to have a father and grandfather (“Papa Joe,” as the grandkids call Joe Sr.) who continue to battle dyslexia themselves. Their own experiences allowed them to identify Joseph’s issues earlier and get him into programs to mitigate the effects.

“There’s more tools today than ever before. So I don’t worry about my son or my grandson,” Joe Sr. says. “I worry about those folks that don’t have the resources to get their children what they need. My son wasn’t the only one, and Joseph’s not the only one. But Joseph will have every tool available today to make him a success, as did Joe. What about all these kids that don’t have the tools, that don’t have the people around them, who have the same issues and could be just as successful if they just had a little bit of nurturing and caring along the way? I worry about them more than I worry about my son and grandson.”

At the same time, Joe Jr. knows Joseph will have classmates who will ridicule him, who will call him “dumb” and “stupid.” On lighter workdays, he’ll slip away from Lambeau Field and head to Joseph’s school to have lunch with him and his classmates, out of his natural instinct to protect. Still, he also knows that the barbs motivated him to fight the way he has, and that Joseph might in some way benefit from how he responds to the bullying.

“I know how bad it feels to get picked on. And I don’t want him to have to feel that. So I’m very protective,” Joe Jr. says. “But at the same time, I always tell myself, ‘You have to let him grow. He has to feel it. And he has to grow from it.’ Because you grow from struggle.”

And so, the three of them -- Joe Sr., Joe Jr. and Joseph -- continue to struggle, and continue to grow as a result. Joe Jr. has spoken at various conferences in recent years, including at Yale University’s Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, sharing his story in hopes of helping Joseph and kids like him. What once embarrassed him now drives him.

“I think I’ve accomplished enough to where, I’m not ashamed of it. For so many years, you are ashamed of it,” Joe Jr. says. “My son right now says, ‘I don’t want to be dyslexic.’ And I didn’t want to be dyslexic when I was 10 years old, either. I just keep telling him, ‘You’re special. Good things are going to come from it.’ And they are. He’s going to be fine.”

Editor’s note: Jason Wilde covers the Green Bay Packers for ESPN Wisconsin.