BRIAN BAER / Special to The Bee

Cosumnes Oaks running back Kaelin Willhite (21) wears the same jersey number as his father, former Cordova great Kevin Willhite. Kaelin has rushed for 671 yards and nine touchdowns this season.

Hometown Report: Kaelin Willhite carries on family tradition

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 2C
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 - 8:06 pm

Kevin Willhite can't watch "Next Generation 21" without fidgeting in his seat, exhibiting all manner of body English.

He'll sway to mimic a play unfolding on the field, arms flailing.

If his son breaks free and hits the open field, Willhite jumps, grabs onto a fistful of shirt of a spectator next to him as if to yelp, "Hold me back or I'll run with him!"

Willhite is rooting for Cosumnes Oaks High School senior tailback Kaelin Willhite, who had the game of his life Friday. He ran for 211 yards and four touchdowns in a 51-21 victory over Liberty Ranch. Kaelin's most electrifying effort was a 95-yard scoring sprint that brought back images of another No. 21.

Kaelin wears 21 to honor his father, best friend and biggest fan, saying enthusiastically, "It's a big number in our family, and my dad's still a big name. He's loving this as much as I am."

Kevin Willhite remains the most celebrated high school athlete in the region's history. He was the nation's top football recruit coming out of Cordova in 1981, and he was named the National Player of the Year by five publications and was a state championship sprinter.

Kevin's celebrity allowed him to meet President Ronald Reagan at an awards banquet 30 years ago and to grin each Friday night this fall when someone eyes him at a game and asks, "Are you the Kevin Willhite?

But for all Willhite achieved in shoulder pads, including some mixed seasons at Oregon and a taste of the NFL, he is especially tickled by what's happening now. The Willhite name lives on. And for all of Willhite's exploits, he never tore off a 95-yard run.

"Kaelin's got the longest run in the Willhite family – how cool is that?" said Kevin, a member of the Sac-Joaquin Section's first Hall of Fame class in 2010. "I'm so proud of what he's doing. I try not to be the overbearing parent, but he knows I care. He hears my whistle to know I'm there at games. My nerves come out when I watch him play. It's hard. I start to talk and joke because that's how I express nervousness, and I'm moving all over the place when he runs."

Kaelin has his dad's playing height at 6-foot-2, though at 175 he is 30 pounds lighter. He's not as fast as his father was – really, who is? – but runs with equal tenacity.

Kaelin isn't on anyone's national recruiting radar, which doesn't pain father or son a bit. For starters, Kaelin is still learning his craft. He did not play football his first two years in high school.

"I had played since I was 8, and I needed a break; it wasn't fun anymore," Kaelin said. "But I found out after a while that I didn't like watching as much as I liked playing. I needed to get back into it, and I'm so glad I did."

Kaelin has rushed for 671 yards and nine touchdowns for the playoff-bound Wolfpack (7-2). He has been courted by local community colleges, including American River, where his uncle, Gerald Willhite, played running back. Gerald was small in high school and didn't play at Cordova before a growth surge. After ARC, he went to San Jose State, became a first-round pick by the Denver Broncos in 1982 and had a productive seven-year NFL career.

"Kaelin's a late bloomer like my brother," Kevin said. "Gerald saw him play and said the same thing. Kaelin's fallen in love with the sport."

Kevin Willhite said he is touched that his son wanted to wear No. 21. It's not easy being the son of a prep legend and playing the same position. But it's different for Kaelin, who doesn't have to face the same recruiting blitz his father did before choosing Oregon.

"I had five to 10 college coaches from the best teams in the country coming by school and practice every day," said Kevin, a supervisor at International Paper in West Sacramento. "I got 20 to 30 letters a day from colleges. The phone was always ringing. I couldn't sleep. All that pressure took away the fun of high school.

"For Kaelin now, he can be a high school kid. He just gets to play and enjoy it."

Kaelin agreed.

"I'm just glad to be helping my team," he said. "I'm having a lot of fun. His pride in me just makes me want to be the best I can be."

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