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A Mountain of Muscle Named Whitney : Canadian Import Impresses Kingsmen in the Weight Room and On the Field

Times Staff Writer

Ken Whitney, a tight end on the Cal Lutheran football team, can bench press more than 600 pounds. Now just by itself, all that would mean is that if an opposing coach dropped an Amana side-by-side refrigerator on Coach Bob Shoup before a game, Whitney would be able to lift it off.

Whitney, however, can also run. And block. And catch a football. So coupled with those things, the fact that he can bench press an average 2-year-old bull elk could make for a very interesting season for the Kingsmen. And their opponents.

Shoup has been involved with football for 40 years, has coached at Cal Lutheran for 26 years and has watched the Dallas Cowboys workout at his school’s facility each summer for the past 25 years. And when he saw Whitney lift 610 pounds off his chest in the team’s weight room, the hair on Shoup’s arms stood up.

“It was really impressive,” Shoup said. “ Really impressive. I saw him do it a couple of times. It was the most weight I’ve ever seen anyone push. Ever. Anytime. Anywhere. By anybody. Including the Cowboys. The bar was bending so much that I thought it would break. He had 45-pound plates on the bar, and each end just had an enormous stack of these giant plates on it.

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“It was really impressive.”

OK. So perhaps Shoup was impressed. But he also has been around long enough to know that muscle alone doesn’t guarantee a good football player. There are guys in every gym and health spa from Studio City to Camarillo who shave their chests, pump giant stacks of weights all day long and then spend the night taking Polaroid pictures of their arms. And if you lob a football at most of those guys, it will hit them in the face.

Whitney, however, will catch it. During Thursday’s workout, he was thrown 22 passes during drills against the Cal Lutheran defense. He caught 19. Of the three he missed, two were far over his head. He had to lunge for the other one, and it hit his fingertips and fell to the ground.

“Ken has good hands, a real feel for the ball,” Shoup said. “He knows how to catch with his hands and he knows how to bring a ball into his chest to catch it.”

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And after he catches it, he knows how to turn upfield and run with it.

“We’ve timed him in 4.75 seconds for 40 yards,” the coach said. “For his size, that is very good speed.”

His size is 6-4 1/2 and 270 pounds. His biceps are gigantic and his calves are the size of, well, calves. Real calves. The team trainer doesn’t know whether to tape Whitney’s legs or try to herd them into a holding pen.

Whitney, 21, was born in Montreal and lived most of his life in Calgary. He came to the United States in 1986 when he was offered a chance to play football at tiny Gavilan Community College in Gilroy, Calif. He played high school football for two years in Calgary and added two more years of experience at Gavilan. But his career was decidedly unspectacular.

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In the spring, when Shoup asked Richard Toll, who was a star at Gavilan, to come to Thousand Oaks for a visit, Toll brought along his friend, Whitney. Shoup didn’t know whether to shake hands with Toll’s companion or hug him.

“When we first met, he was really impressive,” Shoup said. “I got his stats from his coaches at Gavilan, but his stats weren’t anywhere near as impressive as he is. He’s a gentle giant, and maybe too gentle right now for this game. He likes to read and he’s very quiet. He’s an academic-type individual who happens to have massive physical strength.”

At Shoup’s urging, Whitney enrolled at Cal Lutheran. And on the first day of football practice last spring, he impressed his teammates.

“Yeah, I guess I lifted a lot of weight in the training room that first day,” Whitney said. “It was pretty hard, though.”

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This, of course, is comforting news. It might be just a little too frightening to think that the man bench pressed the equivalent of wrestler Andre the Giant and a four-cylinder automobile engine and didn’t even grunt when he did it.

On Thursday, Whitney was impressive in practice. And, at times, funny. During a passing drill, he clamped his right hand on the jersey tail of a teammate who was standing in front of him in line. When the ball was snapped, the receiver tried to run downfield. He might as well have been welded to the hull of the Queen Mary. Whitney laughed hard and let the man go.

A few moments later, Whitney came off the line quickly, faked to the inside and made a quick move to the outside. He got around veteran cornerback Denny Blackburn and snared a pass over his right shoulder and was gone, lumbering--but lumbering quickly--downfield.

Toward the end of practice he caught a short pass and Blackburn was all over him. Both men had their hands on the ball and then Whitney shrugged his shoulders and Blackburn, a heavily muscled 5-10 and 185 pounds, was launched, spinning through the air. He landed heavily.

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“His strength was apparent on the field right away during spring practice,” Blackburn said. “If you hit him high, if anyone hits him high, they tend to bounce off.”

But despite Whitney’s incredible size, strength and budding abilities, Shoup said he is still undecided who will be the starting tight end next Saturday against Sonoma State in the opener. Fighting Whitney for the position is 6-7, 230-pound sophomore David Diesinger.

“They’re rated about dead even right now,” Shoup said. “David played for us last year and he’s more consistent. He makes fewer mistakes than Ken. And Ken pulled a hamstring in spring practice so I couldn’t very well take a guy who was hurt and didn’t see much action in the spring and put him ahead of Diesinger on the fall depth chart.”

Shoup, however, leaves little doubt that he will find plenty of playing time for Whitney.

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“He’s suffering a bit because he’s relatively inexperienced,” Shoup said. “Some guys are way, way ahead of him in terms of experience. But he’s got such incredible size and strength, and he’s fast and he has good hands and he’s just an all-around good athlete. It’s very interesting to watch Ken improve. He’ll get a lot of action. There will be many times where I put in a two-tight end offense to get both of them involved.”

In addition to his lack of experience, another of Whitney’s drawbacks is his unaggressive nature. Throughout spring practice and again during the summer, Shoup and the other coaches have stressed the importance to Whitney of getting physical, of perhaps developing a bit of a mean streak. As long as it wasn’t with them.

“I know that is what’s holding me back,” Whitney said. “I was told the same thing in high school and at Gavilan College. Some guys are born crazy. I wasn’t. It’s not my nature. And I hold back in practice because I don’t want to hurt anybody, to put one of my own teammates out.

“But Coach has made it clear to me that I have to play aggressively if I want to play. And I think I’m getting very close to being able to really let myself go. I don’t want to do it in practice, but when the games start, then I know I can let it loose.”

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If any of Cal Lutheran’s opponents in the Western Football Conference arrive at Mount Clef Stadium this season and are unable to get off of their bus because a frothing Ken Whitney is holding it over his head, the Canadian strongman might be on his way toward becoming an American football star.


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