When Jordan Whittington walked into AT&T Stadium earlier this month for Big 12 Media Days, it was his first trip back to Arlington since delivering one of the greatest state championship performances in Texas high school football history.
On December 21, 2018, Whittington rushed for six touchdowns, set a title-game record with 334 rushing yards, and earned offensive and defensive MVP honors in Cuero’s UIL 4A Div. II championship victory.
“I think of what I did,” Whittington said July 12. “I think of the state championship. That was a feeling like no other. But the goal is to come back and play again.”
Whittington said the last of his six scores was the one that stood out most in his memory considering it sealed the win over Texarkana Pleasant Grove and solidified Cuero’s first state title since 1987.
Now wearing Longhorn burnt orange instead of Gobbler green, Whittington wants to end another championship drought in the same place he delivered an all-time performance almost five years ago. The Big 12 Championship game is scheduled to take place December 2 at AT&T Stadium.
Not only does Whittington want to return to Jerry World to win the conference title for which he delayed the start of his professional career, but other teammates do as well.
“I was telling J-Whitt right before he walked in here, he hasn’t been here since he was in high school,” Jaylan Ford said July 12. “Our goal and everything we’ve worked for has been to be here in December.”
Texas brought five players to Big 12 Media Days. Three of them, Whittington, Ford, and Quinn Ewers, played in AT&T Stadium during their high school days. None of them have put on the pads for another contest in the home of the Dallas Cowboys as collegians, something attributable to the Longhorns not participating in the Big 12 Championship since the 2018 season.
Whittington got to Arlington as part of a championship run with his high school, something distinctly Texan that beckons entire towns into the lower bowl that sits under five Super Bowl banners and the names of some of the best to ever play and coach in the NFL.
“Growing up, everyone wants to be here,” Whittington said.
Ewers and Ford made it to AT&T Stadium in different ways. Ford said he played a few games in Arlington during his time at Frisco’s Lone Star High School. Having his friends and family watching him from the stands of an NFL stadium was something that made his high school playing experience special.
“To have something like that in college would be even better, honestly,” Ford said. “To see all those people who love Texas just as much as I do show their support and love, it would be great.”
Ewers’ trips to AT&T Stadium were for Dallas-area playoff games and a state championship appearance. In 2019, Ewers’ Southlake Carroll Dragons won a game there during a playoff run.
“Byron Murphy, DeSoto, Round two in my sophomore year,” Ewers said July 12. “You can ask him about that.”
The following year, Ewers and the Dragons reached the apex of competition for Texas high school football. While his Southlake Carroll team fell to Westlake in the 6A Div. I title game, making to AT&T Stadium for the final game of the season was a goal his team laid out at the beginning of the year.
For all three of those players who’ll suit up for the Longhorns this season, the goal is to do something similar at the college level.
“Growing up playing Texas high school football, this is where you want to end up playing the last game of the season,” Ewers said. “It’s kind of funny that in the Big 12, this is where you want to end up towards the end of the season. Not the last game, but towards the end of the season.”
Texas has played in three total games in AT&T Stadium. The first was in 2009, when Colt McCoy and the Longhorns defeated Nebraska for UT’s most recent conference title. The second occasion was a 2014 loss to UCLA in Charlie Strong‘s first season as head coach of the Longhorns. That contest infamously featured UT kicking off to start both halves.
The third was the most recent Big 12 Championship game appearance for the Longhorn football program. Texas, as a result of defeating Iowa State and Kansas in the last two games of the 2018 season, reached the conference title game for the first time since 2009. However, this appearance would not end with the Longhorns hoisting a trophy, as Kyler Murray and the Oklahoma Sooners avenged their earlier 48-45 loss in the Red River Shootout to earn their fourth of six straight Big 12 titles.
Only one scholarship player from the 2018 season, sixth-year senior Christian Jones, was on the roster for that game. Many others, Whittington being one example, joined the Texas program in order to make return visits to AT&T Stadium a regular occurrence.
“We’ve got a roster full of players who quite frankly came to the University of Texas to try to win a Big 12 Championship, and we’ve got one more opportunity to do that,” Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian said July 12. “I think our guys are focused on that.”
Last year’s 6-3 conference record was the closest the program has come to earning a top-two finish in the league since 2018. Despite defeating Kansas State on the road, the Longhorns finished one game back of the Wildcats, who defeated Kansas in the final week of the regular season to earn a place in a title game they eventually won.
And even though half a decade has passed since Texas even appeared in the game, and more than a decade has elapsed since the Horns have won a conference title, the expectations for the Longhorns this season are championship-level as they embark on their final campaign as a member of the Big 12 before moving to the Southeastern Conference.
Observers may lob their fair share of caustic remarks, with some deserved, about a team in a decade-long championship drought having championship expectations. Sarkisian and company don’t shy away from those expectations. Rather, they embrace them.
“What I do know is I chose to be the head coach of the University of Texas, and our players chose to come to the University of Texas,” Sarkisian said. “With that comes the responsibility and the expectations that come with that. We don’t shy away from that. We accept it. We have to acknowledge it. Then we push it to the side, and then we get back to the daily grind of what we need to do.”
Put simply by the Texas head coach, “if you ask any one of our players, they want to be here December 2 competing for a Big 12 Championship. That’s simple. But we have to do the necessary things day in and day out to try to make that happen.”
That goal is why Whittington returned to Texas. Part of winning a Big 12 Championship includes returning to a special place not just for him, but for any football player from the state of Texas.
It’s a feeling Whittington fondly remembers, and wants to have again on the gridiron at AT&T Stadium.
“When you get to a championship level at any level of sports, I think it definitely incentivizes you to be hungry for that type of stuff every time,” Whittington said. “I definitely want to be back here because I remember.”