Hinsdale Central at Wheaton Warrenville South football Friday night.
Bev Horne | Staff Photographer
John Whitelaw of Hinsdale Central drops back for a pass during the Hinsdale Central at Glenbard West Football game Saturday.
Paul Michna | Staff Photographer
Hinsdale Central quarterback John Whitelaw is brought down by Wheaton Warrenville South defense during football Friday night.
Bev Horne | Staff Photographer
The most important snap of John Whitelaw's life might have been the one he never took.
Hinsdale Central's senior quarterback - the crux of everything the Red Devils did offensively this season - suffered a Week 9 concussion caused by a helmet-to-helmet collision on a running play.
Whitelaw immediately knew something was wrong.
"When it happened I looked at the scoreboard and everything was blurry," he said. "I've watched it a couple of times on tape and you can hear the hit. After the game I just felt dizzy and not really right."
Despite the concussion symptoms Whitelaw expected to play against Sandburg the next weekend in the first round of the Class 8A playoffs. By Wednesday, however, the headaches persisted. Whitelaw stayed home from school and went to see a doctor.
A stern warning made it clear. Whitelaw, for the first time in his life, would have to sit out a football game.
The big-picture courage not to play - in the face of a burning desire to take the field - showed a maturity level beyond his years.
"I kept hoping it would all go away, but it never really did that week," he said. "The doctor was clear that there's no way I should be playing. Even the slightest hit could have done some serious damage."
Without Whitelaw the Red Devils lost 35-10 to Sandburg. It marked their biggest loss in more than three seasons.
If Whitelaw's staggering statistics and game-changing heroics weren't enough to prove his immense value, his absence surely did.
A record-breaking performer who accounted for the bulk of Hinsdale Central's success over a three-year varsity career, Whitelaw is the Daily Herald All-Area 2009 football captain. He's the third Red Devils quarterback to earn the honor, joining Brad Bower (2002) and Brett Morse (2005).
"He's just so competitive, probably the best I've ever seen," said Hinsdale Central receiver Alex Kirk. "I think missing that Sandburg game showed how big of an impact he can make."
As the Sandburg result painfully showed, no player in DuPage County this season was more valuable to his team than Whitelaw.
He guided Hinsdale Central to the Class 8A title game in 2008, breaking the program's season records for passing yardage (2,249) and total offense (3,565 yards). The target on Whitelaw's back couldn't have been any bigger on his 6-foot-2, 185-pound frame entering this senior season, but the crafty left-hander withstood every bit of pressure despite losing to Wheaton Warrenville South and Glenbard West, this year's Class 7A finalists, by a total of 11 points.
Whitelaw's leadership powered the Red Devils on a six-game winning streak to close the regular season. If not for the concussion, Whitelaw likely would have shattered his own season records.
The DuPage County leader in total yardage by a wide margin, Whitelaw completed 101 of 167 passes for 1,840 yards and 18 touchdowns and carried the ball 138 times for 1,299 yards and 17 touchdowns.
In addition to being named the Most Valuable Player in the West Suburban Silver, Whitelaw also earned all-state honors from the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association.
He'll graduate as Hinsdale Central's career leader in touchdown passes (51), passing yards (5,373) and total offense (8,952 yards).
"He's got to be the most dangerous player in the state," said Glenbard West coach Chad Hetlet. "You have to change your whole game plan defensively to account for him."
In a shotgun spread formation the offense rested on Whitelaw's shoulders. His 3,139 total yards accounted for 72 percent of Hinsdale Central's entire output this year.
"When you look at his stats, he's been a player who's consistently produced incredible numbers," said WW South coach Ron Muhitch. "He brings tremendous talent to that position. He's a great athlete and a great leader."
Whitelaw grew up playing ball in the Hinsdale Falcons youth program with many of his current teammates. Early in his career, however, Kirk was the quarterback and Whitelaw the receiver. When injury struck Kirk, Whitelaw took over behind center.
The rest is history.
"I had always dreamed about being a quarterback," Whitelaw said. "Now I can't imagine playing anywhere else."
Whitelaw stood out as a freshman at Hinsdale Central, so much so that coach Mike DiMatteo promoted him to varsity as a sophomore.
"I was watching tape and he threw a ball that shouldn't be thrown by a freshman," DiMatteo said. "I sat up in my chair and said, 'Wow. We're going to have a player.'"
With two other quarterbacks coming off injury, Whitelaw got his shot. He was so effective that DiMatteo designed the offense around him.
DiMatteo put Whitelaw in space in the shotgun to take advantage of his athleticism, elusiveness and ability to slice up defenses with the run.
By his junior year Whitelaw became a major cog in the play-calling. The two-minute drill was his. Audibles and pass protection calls also became routine.
With Whitelaw's football smarts, it's no wonder he's heading to Yale University.
"We put a lot of emphasis on the quarterback because of John," DiMatteo said.
Whitelaw's talent shined statewide in 2008 when the Red Devils beat higher-seeded Downers South, Bolingbrook, Brother Rice and Mt. Carmel en route to the Class 8A final.
Even though Maine South beat Hinsdale Central 41-21 in the title game, Whitelaw made a name for himself by throwing for 262 yards and 2 touchdowns and rushing for 139 yards and a third score.
"The way we came together as a team was incredible," Whitelaw said. "I almost felt guilty for the attention I was getting. I'm just one part of our team's success."
As Whitelaw worked to improve by adding arm strength, quickness, speed and 15 pounds of muscle, colleges took notice. But although he garnered a scholarship offer from Toledo, the Division I attention faded.
To this day DiMatteo still can't figure out why his quarterback didn't attract more interest. He's talked about it until he's blue in the face, but the longtime coach never found any answers.
"I really think colleges messed up with the recruiting process," DiMatteo said. "But, that being said, nothing's bad when you end up at an Ivy League program."
Whitelaw weighed his options and decided to pursue his academic goals by committing to Yale. He cemented the decision while sitting in awe at this season's football game against Harvard.
"When the interest started to fall through, I realized maybe Division I wasn't the most important thing," Whitelaw said. "The more I looked at it, I realized Yale was the best fit for me academically."
Whitelaw's heart told him to play in that Sandburg playoff game, but his head - the one responsible for the 5.03 GPA and 29 ACT, the one that led him to commit to the powerhouse academics of Yale, the one that allowed him to decipher defenses at the line of scrimmage and audible accordingly - told him no.
Knowing it was the right decision didn't ease his emotions after the loss. Standing in street clothes in the team huddle afterward, Whitelaw felt he let down his teammates, his friends.
"I felt so bad for the guys who will never play again," he said. "It was tough to deal with. I felt like I let them down."
Quite the opposite is true.
Whitelaw took Hinsdale Central to another level - to the program's first state title game appearance - with offensive artistry that baffled defenses for three seasons.
If there were such a thing as football justice, Whitelaw would have played in his final football game instead of spending a frustrating four quarters on the sideline.
For the sake of his future and long-term health, however, Whitelaw knows he made the right call.
After the mastery Whitelaw showed behind center, the right call only seems natural coming from him.
"There's nothing I would have liked more than to play in my final game, but at the end of the day, as important as it was, it's only a football game," he said. "As much as I love the sport, my health is much more important."
Past DuPage Co. all-area captains
1989 - Jeff Thorne, Wheaton Central
1990 - Bill Korosec, Naperville North
1991 - Tim Miller, Glenbard North
1992 - Broc Kreitz, Waubonsie Valley
1993 - Bobby Nelson, WW South
1994 - Steve Havard, Wheaton North
1995 - Tim Lavery, Naperville Central
1996 - Tim Stratton, York
1997 - R.J. Luke, Waubonsie Valley
1998 - Jon Beutjer/Jon Schweighardt, WW South
1999 - Ryan Clifford, Naperville Central
2000 - Kyle Kleckner, Downers Grove North
2001 - Phil Horvath, Naperville Central
2002 - Brad Bower, Hinsdale Central
2003 - Tom Edwards, Downers Grove North
2004 - Cody Cielenski, Downers Grove North
2005 - Brett Morse, Hinsdale Central
2006 - Dan Dierking, WW South
2007 - Jordan Tassio, Naperville North
2008 - Chris Watt, Glenbard West