Shortly after signing with the Rams in 2017, Andrew Whitworth played golf with one of the greatest athletes of all time.
“He told me ... ‘Just make sure you make people tear that jersey off of you and you don’t walk away until you’re ready because you’ll miss it,’” Whitworth said.
Whitworth still wears No. 77. No one is attempting to strip it from his towering frame.
On Sunday, his 40th birthday, the 6-foot-7, 330-pound Whitworth will travel with the Rams to Arizona for a Monday night date with history.
When Whitworth lines up against the Arizona Cardinals, he will become only the fifth NFL offensive lineman to play at age 40, the first to start a game at left tackle.
“Sometimes you take for granted that he’s 40 years old,” coach Sean McVay said. “If you didn’t know with the bald head and stuff like that, I mean he moves around like he’s young.”
Whitworth, who will join Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady as the NFL’s only players who are at least 40, never envisioned when he played his first game for the Cincinnati Bengals in 2006 that he would still be wrangling with defensive linemen 15 years later.
“The first couple times you get in there, you’re just hoping you get a chance to survive in the NFL,” he said, adding, “To be here and to think of all the things I’ve been through — it’s pretty wild.”
In 2018, Rams players and coaches toured what was still a stadium construction site. As they got off the bus and stepped onto what would become the playing surface, Whitworth joked with then-Rams quarterback Jared Goff that he was looking forward to watching him play from a comfortable seat in a luxury suite.
Three years later, Goff is playing for the Detroit Lions and Whitworth is protecting Matthew Stafford’s blindside.
“It’s pretty unbelievable,” Stafford said of Whitworth’s longevity, adding, “I’m just glad that I get to be here for some time with him and get to experience what it’s like playing with him.”
Hall of Famer Jackie Slater played 20 seasons for the Rams, mainly as a right tackle from 1976 to 1995. Slater, who retired at 41, has enormous respect for Whitworth because he has maintained his conditioning as well as his competitive spirit by coming back from a 2020 knee injury.
“A lot of people just assume that if you’re the captain of the team or you’ve been around for a while that everybody falls in love with you, that they don’t want to move you off your spot,” Slater said. “But the truth of the matter is if Andrew Whitworth is not doing his job, he’s not there — he’s not going to have that job.”
Experience and technical expertise help when competing against faster, younger players “who haven’t even figured out that it hurts to play this game,” Slater said, chuckling.
“That gives you a chance to neutralize and at times — when those guys aren’t thinking a whole lot — dominate some of those young guys,” Slater said.
Teammates, some more than 15 years younger, gravitate toward Whitworth, a four-time Pro Bowl selection.
“He’s been great, a huge mentor,” said offensive lineman Joe Noteboom, who ostensibly was drafted in 2018 to succeed Whitworth. “He’s willing to help all the guys, not just the linemen.”
Third-year year pro David Edwards starts alongside Whitworth at left guard.
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“It’s tough to put into words,” Edwards said of Whitworth’s influence, which included opening his garage to teammates as an offseason weight room. “He will do anything for you, not just on the field. Even to make a dinner reservation.”
Opponents also regard Whitworth with a sense of wonder.
In a game against the Washington Football Team last season, Whitworth noticed two young defensive linemen pointing at him.
“Finally,” Whitworth said, “They just had the guts to scream, ‘Hey, how old are you?’ I was like, ‘I’m 39.’
“They were like, ‘No way,’ so they started telling everybody on the defense, and the [Rams offensive linemen] got a huge chuckle out of that.”
Last Sunday, a Jacksonville Jaguars player approached Whitworth during a timeout.
“He was like, ‘Hey, man, be honest, how old are you?’” Whitworth said. “And I was like, ‘I’m 39 years old.’ He was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me — you’re not. … Give me some secrets.’”
Whitworth played in college at Louisiana State and he has amassed innumerable tricks of the trade since the Bengals selected him in the second round of the 2006 draft.
In 2013, after undergoing knee surgery, Whitworth thought his career might be over. He said he experienced “a darkness” because he was not recovering as well as he’d hoped.
“I thought, ‘You know, I may never play again,’” he said.
Then midway through the season, he had a breakthrough. He felt more like himself — and eyed playing to age 40.
“It became something that was just kind of an outlandish goal that I’d never thought I’d never even get close to,” he said.
In 2017, when the Rams offered him a new opportunity with a new coach in then-31-year-old Sean McVay, Whitworth signed a three-year contract.
“I thought I’d only play a year or two of that contract,” he said.
Now he is nearing the end of his fifth season.
“You can’t really tell he’s 40 when you look at him,” Rams linebacker Von Miller said. “He has got the gray hair and stuff, but other than that … he’s still moving the same, he’s still running the same.”
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Whitworth has demonstrated maturity on and off the field throughout his career. He has been at the forefront of numerous charitable efforts through the Rams and with his family, which includes wife Melissa and their four children. He is the Rams’ nominee for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year award, presented annually by the NFL to a player for civic and charitable leadership in his community.
“The impact I get to have on the community and the leadership role I have on my football team, to help young men grow and learn who it is they want to be and how they want to affect their community, and the men they want to be for their family,” he said, “to me that’s one of those roles I take very seriously.”
On Monday, Whitworth will try to help the Rams defeat the NFC-West leading Cardinals in a game that could set up the Rams for a playoff push and Super Bowl run.
Whitworth is finishing the second year of a three-year contract that included $12.5 million in guarantees. After the season, he will meet with McVay and Rams general manager Les Snead to discuss his future.
“I feel great, body-wise, and I don’t see any reason to stop unless it just doesn’t work out for both sides,” he said. “And so we’ll see, when the time comes for that.”
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