For York High rising junior Tyrell Whitt, the number on his jersey isn’t nearly as important as the one he writes on his cleats.
That number, 0314, stands for March 14, the day his brother, Tyrin Diggs, was born.
Whitt grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, watching his brother play football, but he never really played himself.
It took a tragedy that rocked Whitt’s family for him to end up in York and become the new starting running back for the Bearcats.
Nineteen years and two months after he was born, Diggs was shot and killed in Baltimore on May 22, 2015.
A new beginning: Looking for a fresh start after Diggs' death, Whitt’s family packed up and moved to York. Diggs' death devastated Whitt, who said he still hasn’t fully mourned the loss of his brother and sees him every time he closes his eyes.
“My brother was a father figure in my life, he was the best friend in my life, he was everything to me growing up,” Whitt said. “That’s who I looked up to. He was my role model. That loss really messed me up bad.”
While in York, Whitt decided to start playing football in eighth grade, because Diggs did. Initially, Whitt used football as an escape from the world around him and never dreamed the sport would be a major part of his life.
“I didn’t ever think it would get this big,” Whitt said. “I just did it at first as a hobby to cope with losses and take my mind off things.”
Whitt played defensive back and wide receiver when he started, because they were the only positions he knew from watching his older brothers play football.
A new position: Before last season, Whitt transitioned to running back, a position loaded with NCAA Division I talent for the Bearcats in recent seasons.
In 2017, Khalid Dorsey broke the school’s rushing record before playing at Howard University. Last season, Dayjure Stewart surpassed Dorsey’s numbers and totaled more than 3,000 yards. Stewart will play at Illinois State in the fall.
York High coach Russ Stoner said that Whitt, a rising junior with a 6-foot-1, 215-pound frame and a 4.5-second 40-yard dash time, was built to play running back. Stoner said that Whitt’s talent is on the same level as that possessed by Dorsey and Stewart, but he needs to learn more about the position.
Despite only playing organized football for three seasons and running back for one, Stoner liked what he saw from Whitt and plans to have him lead the group out of the backfield this year.
“Every time he got a chance to touch the football last year, he took full advantage of it,” Stoner said.
Always learning more: Whitt knows that he needs to learn more about the position and spends his free time watching YouTube videos of his favorite running backs — Todd Gurley, Saquon Barkley and Le’Veon Bell — and studies the way they read defenses and make defenders miss.
In addition to learning from the NFL’s best, Whitt stays in contact with Dorsey and Stewart and credits the Division I duo and Stoner with helping him learn as much as he has in a short time.
“I still got a long way to go,” Whitt said. “That’s why I have to keep working nonstop and keep trying to be the best I can because I just started playing football two years ago and everything is happening so fast.”
Although he is following a pair of record-setting running backs, Stoner said Whitt won’t be expected to recreate the seasons that Dorsey and Stewart had because the team has a number of weapons able to make plays.
Stoner plans to have junior Marcellus John get some carries as well. Senior Tobee Stokes moves to full-time quarterback from running back, but he will be asked to use his legs as much, or more, than his arm.
Whitt said Stokes is one of his best friends on the team and they help each other stay positive and focused in practice when the other one makes a mistake. The pair went to college camps this summer to be scouted by coaches and Stoner said there are a number of schools interested in the running back.
No pressure: Heading into his first season as the lead running back, Whitt isn’t feeling any extra pressure to live up to the elite statistics Dorsey and Stewart posted the past two years.
Although he's changed his number from No. 10 to No. 1 — Stewart’s former number — Whitt is focused on getting better every day, contributing to his team and honoring Diggs’ memory every time he steps on the field with his birthday written on his cleats.
“I was always told to be the best me,” Whitt said. “I’m not going to go and chase Dayjure’s record because that means I’m just trying to follow what he did. If I just be myself and be the best football player I can be, no matter the outcome, I will be happy with what I did.”
Reach Rob Rose at email@example.com.