Victoria Whitfield could feel the anticipation building inside as the ball Louisiana Tech quarterback Ryan Higgins lofted toward the sideline dropped steadily last week.
All three televisions in Whitfield’s Sherman home were tuned to North Texas’ game against the Bulldogs with the volume turned up. The sound that reverberated through her house gave Whitfield a sense of what was about to happen in Ruston, La., as son Zac Whitfield broke on the ball, snatched it out of the air and weaved 56 yards down the field for what turned out to be a game-winning touchdown.
“It was like a warm feeling,” Victoria Whitfield said. “I was overjoyed and was screaming and hollering.”
Those moments are precious for both Victoria Whitfield and her son as she battles health issues. For the past 25 years, an enlarged artery in Whitfield’s brain has leaked fluid, blurring her vision. She also has heart problems and has battled ovarian cancer since Zac Whitfield’s senior year in high school.
Victoria and Zac Whitfield acknowledge that they have no idea of how much longer she has to live — it could be months or years.
That uncertainty makes every day and every highlight on the field precious for Victoria and Zac Whitfield, who will try to build on arguably his finest performance with UNT on Saturday when the Mean Green visits Southern Mississippi.
Whitfield came off the bench to intercept two passes in UNT’s win over Tech, just six weeks after he was pulled from the starting lineup due to his struggles in the Mean Green’s first two games.
“I’ve faced a lot of adversity, from losing my starting position to off-the-field issues with my family,” Zac Whitfield said. “The team has been there for me through it all and helped me get through it. They have been there for me every step.”
So has Victoria Whitfield, 47, who taught her son to never back down from a challenge like those he has faced this fall.
“She always used to tell me not to let anyone tell me that I couldn’t do something,” Zac Whitfield said. “She said I could do anything.”
That attitude has guided Whitfield through a career that has taken just as many twists and turns as his interception return last week.
Whitfield was a standout running back at Sherman before moving to cornerback at UNT, where he started 14 straight games before being pulled from the lineup following a loss to Ohio on Sept. 7.
That setback didn’t faze Whitfield, a sinewy 5-9, 190-pound sophomore with a gap-toothed grin who teammates and coaches say has a great sense of humor. He continued to work and saw that persistence pay off in UNT’s 28-13 win over Tech.
“Ninety-eight percent of the credit goes to Zac,” UNT head coach Dan McCarney said. “When someone gets demoted or doesn’t get the opportunity they think they should have or had in the past, it’s easy to throw up the white flag or make excuses. Zac kept on working and competing.”
Victoria Whitfield has been there the whole time to support her son.
“She has made every home game that we have had,” Zac Whitfield said. “She promised me that she would never miss one of my games.
“She is my No. 1 fan.”
A special bond
Zac Whitfield scored 23 rushing touchdowns during his senior season at Sherman. Victoria Whitfield ran along with him every time, dashing down the stands, mirroring him along the way.
Whitfield didn’t venture far from home when it came time to continue his career in college, picking UNT partly because it allowed him to stay close to home and his mother, who now must avoid strenuous activity.
“He’s always trying to make sure that I’m not doing anything I’m not supposed to,” Victoria Whitfield said. “When he comes home, he stays with me instead of going out. He lifts me up.”
Zac Whitfield says it’s important to be there for his mother during a trying time for her and his father, Jerry Whitfield.
“At times she gets really sick,” Zac Whitfield said. “She has dealt with cancer and been through a lot. I admire her. She has gotten through it all and still comes to my games.”
Those games have helped Victoria Whitfield deal with her declining health.
Victoria Whitfield has undergone eye surgery to relieve the pressure caused by the leaking artery in her brain. She has a tumor behind her left eye and cancer in her back near her spine, issues that lead to migraine headaches and nausea.
“It weighs on my mind because I never know when she is going to end up going to the emergency room or when her time will come,” Zac Whitfield said.
Whitfield leans on cornerbacks coach Ryan Walters and teammates, including Zach Orr and Brelan Chancellor, when he needs someone to talk with about his family’s problems.
Orr and Chancellor have gotten to know Victoria Whitfield, who has developed a reputation among UNT’s players for being a tremendous cook.
“We have eaten together and hung out,” Chancellor said. “She is a really nice lady who always says hello. You can tell she really cares about Zac.”
Making mom proud
McCarney credited Zac Whitfield’s breakout game last week largely to the way he has continued to work and focus on football.
“He has handled it great, like a grown man and way beyond his age because of his maturity level,” McCarney said of the way Whitfield has dealt with his mother’s health problems. “That is never easy.”
Neither was being pulled from the starting lineup.
Whitfield intercepted three passes, broke up 12 more and was named to the All-Sun Belt Conference second team last season. His performance was something of a surprise considering he moved to cornerback just before the beginning of the 2012 campaign when it became apparent he would struggle to earn playing time at running back.
Whitfield seemed like a lock to start as a sophomore. For two games he was in UNT’s lineup and struggled. Ohio’s Chase Cochran beat Whitfield deep for a 75-yard touchdown reception in the second week of the season, which was one reason UNT moved Kenny Buyers into the starting lineup in his place the following week.
Whitfield continued to work, despite seeing his playing time dwindle, and focused on what always has been his glaring weakness — catching the ball. McCarney said that Whitfield should have had several more interceptions last season, when passes he could have picked off ended up being pass breakups when he dropped the ball.
“We always tell Zac he couldn’t catch a cold,” Orr said.
McCarney said UNT’s coaches have thrown more balls to Whitfield than any other defensive back or linebacker since last season in the hope that he would start catching them.
That work paid off on Saturday.
Whitfield caught the ball that Higgins threw down the sideline, setting up his touchdown return. A short time later, he cut in front of another Higgins pass for his second interception to seal UNT’s win.
“It was awesome to see him come through,” UNT quarterback Derek Thompson said. “Zac works so hard. When he had the pick-six and the late pick, we felt like he deserved it.”
No one was more thrilled than Victoria Whitfield, who celebrated as the sound from her televisions echoed through the house.
McCarney spoke of Whitfield’s interception in his postgame interview.
“When coach McCarney said that interception was for me, it brought tears to my eyes,” Victoria Whitfield said. “Zac has always been there for me.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.