AUBURN — JaTarvious Whitlow just about broke his mom’s heart this summer.
It was before the start of the semester. He was getting ready to move into a new dorm room before his third year in college. Pamela Whitlow Holloway thought she would go shopping with him and help him set everything up, just like she has all his life.
Whitlow told her that he wanted to do it on his own this time.
“I was like, ‘What?’ I was so excited, then I was kind of disappointed, because I’ve been doing his room for so long,” Holloway said. “He’s a momma’s boy. Everybody knows that. And I was afraid to let him go. My husband tells me all the time about doing that: ‘Pam, you got to let him go. You got to let him go. He’s growing up.’ But it’s hard.”
So you can imagine how Holloway felt about the idea of Whitlow playing college football at Tulane, a school whose campus is located in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans, about a five miles southwest of Bourbon Street. That’s a nearly six-hour drive from the family’s home in LaFayette.
But that’s where “Boobee” was all set to go. He verbally committed on Jan. 25, 2017, exactly one week before National Signing Day. He had all the papers faxed over. All he needed to do was sign his name on them.
That is ancient history now, of course. Whitlow didn’t cross two state lines to go to Tulane, but rather just one county line to go to Auburn, which is only a 30-minute drive for mom. The redshirt sophomore is in his second season as the Tigers’ featured running back. He played a significant role in the team’s season-opening, 27-21 victory over Oregon on Saturday in Arlington, Texas, rushing 24 times for 110 yards.
But, if not for two last-minute phone calls, there’s a very real possibility that Whitlow would be wearing green and white during Saturday’s game between Auburn and Tulane at Jordan-Hare Stadium, rather than blue and orange.
“I just can’t wait to see the expression on the coach’s face,” Holloway said. “I think it’s going to be interesting.”
To be clear, Holloway has absolutely nothing against Tulane. She really liked head coach Willie Fritz and his staff, who she said were “really good people.” The campus is beautiful. The Green Wave play in the American Athletic Conference, so if Whitlow wasn’t going to go Power 5, that was probably the next closest thing.
Holloway just didn’t want her son to be six hours away from her.
“Boobee is so young, so immature, so dependent on me, I just couldn’t see myself sending him out there,” she said. “I was a nervous wreck.”
Whitlow said that led to a few confrontations between him and his mom. The night before National Signing Day, Feb. 1, she asked him to lay out the hats of his top three schools (Tulane, Troy and UAB) on the counter in the kitchen and told him that, when she woke up in the morning, she wanted there to be only one left — the school he planned to sign with. She hoped that he might have changed his mind and chosen one of the state schools, keeping him closer to home.
When Holloway walked into the kitchen that morning, though, all three hats were still there. Whitlow had actually changed his mind; he just didn’t tell his mom — he and his father, Terrence Holloway, wanted to surprise her.
One day after Whitlow verbally committed to Tulane, he received a call from Kevin Steele. Auburn’s defensive coordinator had offered Whitlow months earlier, on June 8, after an impressive performance at one of the school’s summer camps, but the three-star athlete never considered it — the Tigers wanted him as a safety, but he wanted to play offense, which is the side of the ball where he totaled 2,292 passing yards, 2,147 rushing yards and 59 touchdowns as a senior for the Bulldogs.
Steele had news, though: Auburn hired a new offensive coordinator, Chip Lindsey, to replace Rhett Lashlee on Jan. 21, and when he turned on Whitlow’s film from both LaFayette and the camp he attended on the Plains, he decided that he wanted him to be a part of the offense. Head coach Gus Malzahn called Whitlow on Tuesday, the night before signing day, to extend an official offer for him to play wide receiver for the Tigers.
“He was on my radar after camp and really all year. So, it was really just a matter of trying to figure out where he fits,” Malzahn explained the next day. “When Chip got here, we kind of looked at our whole board and what we had and what we needed to go after, so he just fit.”
Terrence Holloway, a lifelong Alabama fan, went out and bought an Auburn hat the next morning, then hid it in a Honey Buns box. Whitlow’s signing ceremony featured the same three hats he had laid out in the kitchen the night before. He picked up the Tulane one, but rather than place it on his head, he threw it on the ground. A friend handed him the Honey Buns box, and out came the Auburn hat.
Pamela Whitlow Holloway, as well as every student, teacher and reporter crammed into the LaFayette High gym, had no idea it was coming.
“That’s all I wanted, was an offensive offer,” Whitlow recalled Saturday. “I didn’t want to come for defense; I wanted an offensive offer. So when they called and they did that right there, I didn’t even tell Tulane I wasn’t coming.”
A lot has changed since then. Whitlow is obviously no longer a wide receiver — he made the switch to running back during fall camp before his redshirt year in 2017. He has a new offensive coordinator and running backs coach this year, too — Kenny Dillingham replaced Lindsey, and Cadillac Williams took the place of Tim Horton.
Whitlow is a different player now, too. The 6-foot, 210-pound running back led the Tigers with 150 carries, 787 yards and six rushing touchdowns during an SEC All-Freshman campaign last season, but he did it going off pure, raw talent, Williams said. So, during the offseason, Whitlow focused on learning how to be more patient and more trusting of the offensive linemen blocking for him. He knows he’s no longer the kid from LaFayette who has to do everything all by himself.
The work he put in was evident Saturday, when he more consistently allowed plays to develop and holes to form before he took off running — he had double-digit carries of 5 or more yards, including a long of 31 that helped set up Auburn’s second touchdown.
One thing that hasn’t changed for Whitlow, though, is that “he’s still a momma’s boy.” Pamela Whitlow Holloway isn’t shy about that. “That’s not going to change,” she said. “He’ll pick up the phone anytime night or day and call.”
The fact that her son is starring for a Power 5 program hasn’t really sunk in for her yet. Terrence Holloway tells people that about his wife all the time. He likes to re-watch Auburn games at home, and she’s still shocked and excited every time she hears the announcers say “Boobee Whitlow.”
Him being just 30 minutes down the road only makes it sweeter.
“He’s been playing football his whole life,” Pamela Whitlow Holloway said. “To see him playing SEC football, it’s just — I’m speechless.”