He was an eighth-round draft pick from a small school in South Carolina who, as a rookie, hoped to make the team as a backup quarterback and watch from the sidelines. A few months later, David Whitehurst was the Packers’ starting quarterback and he would spend seven years with the club.
At Furman, a private college of less than 3,000 students, Whitehurst operated out of the veer offense, an option-based attack that put a premium on his ability to run and pitch. The Packers selected him 206th overall in 1977 and he was slated to sit behind promising young passer Lynn Dickey. On the last play of a 24-6 defeat to the Los Angeles Rams in week nine, Dickey suffered a broken leg.
Whitehurst’s first start came on Monday Night Football the following week, against the 6-4 Redskins at RFK Stadium. He completed 12 of 24 passes while being sacked six times by the veteran defense in a 10-9 defeat. His journey as a starter had begun, however, and he would open the next 33 games.
“I never expected to be a starter, at least not that early in my career, and I really had a lot to learn,” said Whitehurst in an interview this week. “I had to learn how to pass, and I didn’t have a good understanding of the game. It took Lynn 18 months to recover from the broken leg. When he did come back late in 1979, they sat me back down for Lynn, and deservedly so. He was a great player.”
A custom homebuilder in Atlanta for the last two decades, Whitehurst speaks humbly of his playing days. He was thrown into the fire as a QB, learning while literally on the run – Whitehurst was sacked 99 times in his career – and shares his experience with an immense fondness for his time in Green Bay. He also takes the grounded approach that “what you do in life after 30 means more than your success as a player.”
In 1978, the NFL expanded its season to 16 games and Whitehurst opened every contest in his second year. The Packers were the league’s surprise team over the first half of the season, pushing their record to 7-2. At that point, Whitehurst had thrown eight TDs and only seven interceptions, and Green Bay had a running back in Terdell Middleton that could pound out yardage and a fleet wide receiver in rookie James Lofton.
The Packers would win only one more contest, however, while also tying Minnesota, 10-10. Over the final seven games, Green Bay played Philadelphia, Dallas, Denver and Los Angeles, all playoff teams, as were the Vikings. The Packers crept home at 8-7-1.
“We just couldn’t finish the deal,” Whitehurst said. “Things were going well, and then we were just trying to win one more game. We couldn’t manage to do it. Middleton was running the ball really well and we caught some people by surprise early in the season.
“I was young and happy with the way we were playing early. I certainly wished I could throw better, but you just keep getting ready for the next game. I think as time went on other teams started thinking, ‘Let’s make the quarterback beat us.’”
That season, Whitehurst did lead the Packers to their first winning record since 1972, and another QB wouldn’t match that feat until Don Majkowski piloted Green Bay to a 10-6 mark in 1989.
Whitehurst started the first 13 games of 1979 and threw for over 2,200 yards before Dickey finally returned to health and opened the final three contests. Whitehurst started three games in 1981, leading the team to a 2-1 record in those contests and throwing for 792 yards and seven TDs in spot duty, and would remain in Green Bay as a reserve until 1983.
“Right about when I was getting a handle on things, it was time for Lynn to start playing again,” he said. “It was a great experience in Green Bay. I had never had that experience before, with all of the community support. I played football at a small school, so I felt very fortunate to play for the Packers.”
His son, Charlie, was born in Green Bay and is now a quarterback for the Seahawks. He was drafted by San Diego in the third round in 2006 after throwing 49 TDs at Clemson, and was traded to Seattle in 2010. Whitehurst backed up QB Matt Hasselbeck in 2010 and started two games, leading the Seahawks to a 16-6 victory over St. Louis in the finale that propelled Seattle into the playoffs.
Ricky Zeller is a contributing writer for packers.com. He has covered the NFL for several publications.
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