- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 25, 2002

Anyone who has gone away to college knows that feeling of freedom: I'm away from home, I can stay out as late as I want and do whatever I want and my parents won't know the difference.

It is probably as exciting a sensation for the student as it is worrisome for a parent.

Marcus Whalen reveled in that newfound freedom when he left Waldorf, Md., for the picturesque mountainous campus of Brigham Young University two years ago. A star tailback at Thomas Stone High School, he was headed to pigskin-crazed Provo, Utah, and gridiron greatness.

He showed promise in the 2000 season as a freshman reserve, but with a bright future at BYU ahead of him, something happened to Marcus Whalen: He found that with freedom comes responsibility. And he had difficulty handling it.

He got into trouble he was arrested twice in a span of three months, and both times the charges involved alcohol. The trouble started in February2001 when Whalen and a freshman teammate were arrested for stealing beer and sandwiches from a 7-Eleven. Whalen pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charges and his sentence two months later produced community service and probation. The teammate, Brent Pollock, was kicked off the team while Whalen was suspended.

Not long after he was sentenced in April2001, he was pulled over on a traffic stop and charged with underage drinking and possessing an open container of alcohol. Those charges were eventually dropped, but the run-ins with the law were enough for Whalen to withdraw from school.

The arrests would cause concern at any football program, but at religious-minded and morally conscious BYU, where students must abide by an Honor Code, it's much more serious. Not only was Whalen violating civil law with his underage drinking but the laws and Honor Code of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, of which Whalen is a member and the church that sponsors BYU. Consuming alcohol as well as coffee or using tobacco is a violation of the Honor Code.

"It was a maturity thing," Whalen said. "The bunch of guys I was hanging out with were making the wrong choices. I was caught up in the moment. You think you're invincible."

That feeling of invincibility quickly vanished when Whalen had to enroll at Utah Valley State College in the fall of 2001 and pay his own way to stay eligible by working in a warehouse inspecting drill bits. Meanwhile, he had to get back in the good graces of the church, which meant putting in 20 hours of community service at a local mental hospital, going through a series of interviews with school and church leaders and writing papers after reading religious books.

He even was required to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, not because he had an alcohol problem but so he could see what could happen to him if he continued in his ways.

"BYU is more strict than any other college," his mother, Christina Whalen, said. "He had to pay the price for that. If he wanted to act like a man, he had to pay the price like a man."

Marcus did pay the price he adhered to all the requirements the university set forth for readmission. If only momentarily, his mother said, he considered giving up football. He also battled the perception in and around mostly white Provo that a black LDS football player couldn't handle living by the strict rules. Battling public perception and the desire to right his wrongs served as motivation to play football again.

"He was never a cocky kid, but he did become humble in a sense," Christina Whalen said. "Football to him he would breathe and eat football. To be taken from him, he knew this wasn't a joke."

He got through that time by leaning on his family and his future wife.

His mother Christina, who was born in Salt Lake City, intended on moving back to Utah at some point during Marcus' time at BYU. But when he got into trouble, he asked her to come as soon as she could. Marcus' request seemed an admission that he needed support and wasn't quite ready to be on his own, and his mother responded and moved to Orem, just outside of Provo, with three of Marcus' younger siblings. Christina is divorced from Marcus' father, William, who still lives in Maryland.

Last August, Whalen married Faith Urianza, who attends Utah Valley State. The support of his mother and his wife helped keep Marcus going amid personal adversity.

"My mom helped a whole lot, as did my [wife]," Whalen said. "They were there through all of it, pushing me to get back."

Whalen has come back in a big way. He was admitted back into BYU last December and was prepared to practice with the team during spring ball, but he suffered a groin injury no doubt showing the effects of inactivity.

Another groin injury knocked Whalen out early in BYU's last game, a loss at Georgia Tech. Through the first three games, Whalen ranked sixth in Division I-A in rushing yards per game for the Cougars (2-2), who snuck into the Top 25 before losing their last two. Fortunately for Whalen, who still averages 107.2 rushing yards despite only getting 13 against Georgia Tech, his injury is not serious and, with the Cougars idle Saturday, he could return Oct.4 against Utah State.

"He's an outstanding back he plays and runs very hard," said BYU coach Gary Crowton. "He told me he wanted to come back and wanted to play. He said, 'I'll be ready. Count on me.' And I did."

Whalen is a rising star now, but only after he survived two whirlwind years in Provo. Surely, if given the choice, Whalen would not want to put himself through what he did. But he had a chance to reflect on his misdeeds and stoke his desire to return to the field as a Cougar.

"I got a real big perspective on life," Whalen said. "I never had any doubts I would come back. [Not playing] makes you appreciate things that much more."

And this fall, Marcus and Faith will have something else to appreciate: a baby boy. Faith is pregnant with a due date of Nov.19 of course, that's a Tuesday during an important week of the season for the Cougars, as they prepare for the Utah Utes, their biggest rival.

Still, given the way his family helped him through his difficult time, you know Marcus Whalen wouldn't miss a thing.

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