ORONO, Maine — Kayon Whitaker had just bought some popcorn and water at the cinema and was about to watch the movie “Logan” with his University of Maine football teammates and coaching staff in August.
It was a bonding activity for the Black Bears.
The players were each given numbers for what they were told was going to be a raffle. When the winning number was called out, Whitaker had it.
And when he opened the envelope to see what he had won, it turned out to be a life-changing moment.
“It told me I had received a full scholarship,” said Whitaker. “They had it all planned out. My heart dropped. I was breathless. I wanted to give coach (head coach Joe Harasymiak) a hug and tell him I loved him.
“I really appreciated it. It meant so much to my family and to me,” said Whitaker, a redshirt sophomore defensive end. “Even today, it’s still breathtaking.”
In his first season as a starter, Whitaker has been involved in 22 tackles and leads the team in tackles for a loss with 5.5. He is tied for third in solo tackles (13) and in sacks (2.5).
“He deserved his scholarship. He’s earning it right now,” said UMaine defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Corey Hetherman.
Whitaker is not only thankful for the scholarship, he is also appreciative of the opportunity he has received at UMaine.
It has enabled him to escape the violent streets of Washington, D.C.
“It’s rare for people from D.C. to make it out,” said Whitaker, who grew up in the city with the nation’s 10th-highest murder rate (16.57 per 100,000 people) according to the Uniform Crime Report compiled by the FBI.
“I’ve seen it all. You get used to it. I’ve had friends killed,” said Whitaker.
Whitaker was blessed with a strong family that kept him rooted and safe. That included older brother Damare, a linebacker at Morgan State University in Baltimore.
“My brother and my parents (Katrina Young and David Whitaker) made sure I was focused. They made sure I was on the right path,” said Whitaker. “I had to be home by a certain time.”
That sense of home and family was what sold him on UMaine and has supplied him with an enjoyable experience to date.
He is in his third year at UMaine after redshirting his freshman season.
“The coaching staff and my teammates are the best part of school for me,” said Whitaker. “They make it like home for you. And there is a loving community up here. The people are so friendly.”
He also praised the academic staff, saying they, “listen to you and will always help you.”
Coming from the inner city to rural Orono is a shock, particularly adapting to Maine winters.
“I wasn’t used to the cold but I got used to it quickly,” said Whitaker. “It’s a lot different up here but I like it a lot.”
He began playing football when he was 7 and “because I had a late birthday, I was much bigger (than kids his own age) so I had to play with older kids. That prepared me for now.”
At 240 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame, Whitaker is considered small for a defensive lineman. He has had to compensate with quickness and strength developed through his work ethic and time spent in the weight room.
He loves the challenge of playing defensive end.
“The best thing about it is getting after the quarterback. And it’s man versus man. Whoever has the best will, will win. It’s all about holding your ground and being strong,” said Whitaker.
He also spends a lot of time watching film of his opponents.
“He has always had the talent. He has done a great job in the offseason. He works extremely hard and has gained the right amount of weight,” said Harasymiak. “He has played real well.”
Whitaker, who appeared in four games last season, said he benefitted from being on the scout team earlier his his career and going up against UMaine’s starting offensive line on a daily basis.
He has been satisfied with his play this season but said his “main focus is winning with the team, not about individual statistics. They don’t matter if you’re not winning.”
Whitaker and the Black Bears (1-3 overall, 0-3 in the Colonial Athletic Association) entertain Rhode Island (1-4, 0-2 CAA) in Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. Homecoming game in Orono.
He hopes UMaine can begin a turnaround this weekend that will carry through the rest of the season.
“I’m going to go out and play as hard as I can and try to execute on every play. I want to be a better leader for the team. We have a great team but we haven’t finished games. That’s been our biggest problem,” said Whitaker.