Do you love football?
Ahkello Witherspoon says it’s a fair question. It’s certainly been a popular one among the NFL teams evaluating the cornerback and former Christian Brothers High School student in advance of the draft, which starts Thursday. And it stems from the fact that Witherspoon is good – very good – at a lot of things, and not just sports.
He’s majoring at the University of Colorado in ecology and evolutionary biology and plans to go to medical school when his NFL career is over. He’s a drummer and talented vocalist whose musical gifts were passed down by his late grandfather, Jimmy Witherspoon, a well-known blues and jazz singer whose rendition of “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” reached No. 1 on the R&B charts in 1949.
Ahkello Witherspoon also was an excellent soccer midfielder as a younger man and is so intriguing as an outfielder and left-handed batter that major-league teams remain interested. Guss Armstead, who trains elite basketball players in the Sacramento area and whose son, Arik, plays for the 49ers, said Witherspoon could have played Division I basketball.
Which is to say, Witherspoon is a bit of a Renaissance man, something that tends to give NFL teams jitters because they want their prospects laser-focused on their sport. They also wonder whether someone with such a silky singing voice and who can explain how genes mutate and evolve has the requisite grit and toughness to thrive in the league.
Don’t worry, Witherspoon says. He’s now entirely committed to football, which was a late entry on his list of pursuits simply because he wasn’t big enough to play it until he was a senior in high school. As a freshman, he didn’t even weigh 100 pounds.
“Sometimes that is a concern with people who have a lot on their plate,” he said. “So I’ve gotten, ‘Do you love it?’ and that’s very simple, easy for me to fend off because it’s an honest response: ‘Of course I love the game.’ ”
He said he hammers home that response when NFL coaches have him break down game film, and he can tell them what all 22 players are doing on a given snap.
“Then they say, ‘OK, he has a commitment to the game. He clearly loves it,’ ” Witherspoon said. “And that’s it.”
Armstead calls Witherspoon “a super, super late bloomer.” Said Witherspoon’s father, Lucky: “He was tiny. I mean, like 98 pounds as a freshman in high school, 4-foot-11, 5-feet tall.”
When his growth spurt finally came, it was more of an eruption. Witherspoon was 5-11 going into his senior year at Christian Brothers – the only year he lettered in football – and 6-2 coming out of it.
When he visited the 49ers earlier this month he measured 6-3, 200 pounds. He says he figures he’ll eventually play at 210 pounds, which is what makes him so alluring for NFL defensive coaches.
Seattle’s Richard Sherman, the league’s prototypical player when it comes to big, physical cornerbacks, has similar length but is only 195 pounds. Witherspoon is bigger and faster, having run his 40-yard dash at 4.45 seconds. It’s no coincidence that teams that plan to play a lot of press coverage this season – the 49ers, Seahawks, Saints and Eagles – brought him in for pre-draft visits at their headquarters. Most draft observers think he will be a second-day pick.
Witherspoon may have gotten a delayed start at football, but he notes the sport always has been in his blood.
Lucky Witherspoon was a running back at the University of Nevada and was good enough to be invited to a tryout with the Cowboys. Jimmy Witherspoon, meanwhile, wasn’t only an accomplished singer.
“My dad was an excellent athlete as well,” Lucky said. “He was a football player. His brother was a baseball player chasing Negro League dreams.”
Lucky Witherspoon said he considers his son’s late bloom a blessing because he never was bigger or stronger than his peers – it was quite the opposite – and that never had the luxury of leaning on superior athleticism. That is, he never got lazy. And he had to be a master technician in order to keep up with the bigger boys.
Ahkello also had the opportunity to play other sports, including one, soccer, at which his sister Alexis, five years his senior, excelled.
“He wanted to be like his sister. He idolizes her,” Lucky said. “Quite frankly, when he asked to play soccer, I wasn’t very happy about getting up early and taking the time that it needs. Because it takes a lot of time.”
On weekends, Lucky would put Ahkello on the back of his Harley Davidson or Ducati and the two would weave their way through traffic to tournaments in Folsom, Davis or Central California.
Ahkello got so good that Lucky was sure that if his son became a professional athlete, it would be in soccer.
As it turns out, the sport set him up nicely for a different career, endowing him with two things critical to playing cornerback: stamina and footwork.
Witherspoon has the size and length to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage and the speed to keep pace with them downfield. But his finest work at Colorado last season came in tight quarters – plays near the goal line –which Witherspoon credits to his soccer background.
On one, he intercepted a pass in the end zone against Oregon in the waning seconds of a 41-38 win for Colorado, the signature play in the school’s bounce-back season.
On another goal-line sequence, he was assigned to cover speedy Washington receiver John Ross, who last month set an NFL combine record with a 4.22-second 40-yard dash and who likely will be drafted in the first round.
Ross ran an inside route to the center of the end zone, which was usually an easy score for the Huskies in 2016. This time, however, he couldn’t shake Witherspoon, who knocked the ball away with his inside hand.
“That footwork that you need to play soccer is second to none,” Witherspoon said. “As a smaller individual when I was younger, my footwork and my technique were keys to me to be successful. As a bigger person now, I still have that same pride in being technical. I feel that extends from the soccer.”
Witherspoon admits he’s still green when it comes to playing cornerback. But playing opposite Chidobe Awuzie, a first-team AP All-Pac-12 selection who also spent time with the 49ers this month, meant a lot of balls were thrown in his direction this past season. Witherspoon broke up 22 passes, the most in the nation.
He may be late to the sport, but Witherspoon feels his broad background has created a foundation for success. And he’s accelerating at just the right time.
“His dreams are different than others,” Lucky Witherspoon said. “Most people who want to play football – that’s their dream. Ahkello has many, many dreams and many, many visions. And in each one of them he wants to be great. He’s not going to be a good football player. He’s going to be a great football player.”