Fozzy Whittaker watched from afar as Hurricane Harvey destroyed his hometown.
Originally from Pearland, Texas, about a half hour south of downtown Houston, Whittaker knows the places he’s seen in all the viral images. He’s walked those roads, shopped in those shops, spoken to the people living the nightmare he can only observe from a distance.
“Some of my classmates I went to high school with, I’ve seen the whole first floor of their two-story house flooded. One of my good friends, his car was flooded,” Whittaker said Tuesday. “I saw a picture of one of the ramps going onto (Interstate) 45 that was completely submerged going into downtown, and I’ve driven that road plenty of times.
“That image is just really burned into my mind – it’s devastating to see.”
As a running back for the Carolina Panthers, Whittaker can’t just pick up and go back home. He can’t be on the ground to help his family and friends rebuild their homes and their lives.
But that doesn’t mean he can’t still make a difference – or rather, continue making a difference.
First Katrina, now Harvey
Darian Lazard had lived through a catastrophic storm before.
As a boy growing up in New Orleans, Lazard saw first-hand the effects of Hurricane Katrina, which forced about 1.5 million people to evacuate their Louisiana homes. That included Lazard’s family.
“I remember what it was like to lose everything in a storm,” Lazard, 25, said. “I knew how that was. I remember being that 14-year-old kid just wanting to get back to football, something to get your mind off everything that was going on in the outside world.”
His family moved to Houston, just in time for Lazard to begin playing high school football. But when he moved to the area, it wasn’t the new quarterback and wide receiver people were raving about. It was Whittaker.
The two became fast friends, and Lazard observed Whittaker’s rise through the recruiting ranks. Eventually Whittaker moved on to the University of Texas, where he was a 2011 first-team All-Big 12 selection at kick returner. Whittaker then moved onto the NFL, bouncing from team to team before settling in with Carolina.
“Fozzy always told me to keep my head up and that everything was going to work out for me,” Lazard said. “He was always kind of like a big brother, a mentor.”
With that advice, Lazard developed into a fine player in his own right. He starred at Dawson High, a few miles from Whittaker’s Pearland, as a quarterback and wide receiver. He went on to play at Houston, and after school, stayed in Houston to teach at North Forest High. He also became the football team’s quarterbacks coach.
He and Whittaker stayed in touch over the years.
And then two weeks ago, Lazard called his “big brother.”
He needed a favor.
2 feet under
When it became obvious that Harvey would hit Houston head on, Lazard evacuated to Dallas. His players, at least the ones who were able, left too.
When they came back, the damage was overwhelming.
“Our kids didn’t have much anyways ... but after the storm came, we had about 2 feet of water in our locker room,” Lazard said. “Guys’ cleats, gloves and just everything they had was destroyed.”
Two weeks before the team’s first game, none of Lazard’s players had any equipment. That’s when he called Whittaker and asked if there was any way he could do anything.
“Kind of how I expected, he was willing to help with no hesitation,” Lazard said. “He told me what I needed to get done, I got it done, and then he took care of everything else from there.”
Within a week, Whittaker had arranged and paid for about 60 pairs of cleats for the North Forest varsity team. And he didn’t skimp, Lazard said. Linemen got the position cleats they needed, as did the mid guys and the skill position players.
Lazard said the shoes cost more than $4,000 altogether.
But Whittaker still wasn’t done giving back to his hometown.
Sushi, burgers, and fundraisers
Decked in an authentic sushi hat, Whittaker waltzed out of the kitchen and through tables at The Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar in Southpark on Tuesday. He was smiling, trying to convince the kitchen to let him serve customers.
It was part of another fundraiser Whittaker planned for hurricane victims, the first in a series he hopes will continue. While a portion of the proceeds from Tuesday night go toward Whittaker’s foundation, Fozzy’s Future Heroes, he also plans to make appearances at several Mellow Mushroom restaurants in the coming weeks.
On top of that, any donations to his foundation go to a Houston shelter called Sarah’s House, which helps buy clothing, diapers, and other basic items for families who lost everything in the storm. To date, Whittaker’s foundation has raised over $28,000.
When might Whittaker get a chance to go back and see the destruction – and the goodwill – in person?
His best chance is after the Panthers host the Eagles on Thursday, Oct. 12. He plans to fly to Texas that weekend, watch his Texas Longhorns host Oklahoma in the annual Red River Rivalry, and then drive to Houston.
“We understand its going to be a rebuilding process,” Whittaker said. “I’m just doing what I can to help.”
When he gets to Texas, he’ll find Lazard and the North Forest varsity team waiting for him. They’ve got something planned for Whittaker – maybe a signed ball, a custom jersey or some other surprise – to show their appreciation.
Perhaps the best way to do that would be to win their first game, Friday night against La Marque.
But even if they don’t, thanks to Whittaker, they’ll at least have been able to play.