Cody Whitehair’s pizza party had to go well. It was a treat from the Bears’ center. He wanted to provide for his team.
But Lou Malnati’s doesn’t take reservations. So Whitehair beat the rush off the ball to Lou’s Lincolnwood location, and he waited. And waited.
Then he waited some more.
“We were worried about getting all the kids there and being able to sit down in a good amount of time,” Whitehair’s brother-in-law, Alex Silverthorne, said.
What, you were expecting the Bears? This was Whitehair’s party for the Northwest Rams’ 14-and-under baseball team — a celebration of a season together before they all went their separate ways.
“He didn’t say anything about it, but he showed up an hour and a half before everybody and put in our name,” said Silverthorne, a Rams assistant coach. “He waited there so when everybody else got there, we wouldn’t have to wait. It’s little things like that.”
Whitehair, one of the best young offensive linemen in the NFL, spent his offseason running the dugout for a team full of teenagers — and loved every second of it.
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Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains gets a text message from Whitehair after every practice, wanting to know how well he did and what he can do better.
“I see Cody as an elite center in this league,” Loggains said. “Whether he makes the Pro Bowl or not, it’s not what we can control. [But] I know from watching the other 31 teams in this league that Cody Whitehair is as good as any center in the NFL — not just from a playing standpoint, but from a leadership standpoint. It’s just his character.”
Whitehair, 25, is typically soft-spoken, but he’s being heard more ahead of his second season — taking charge.
“No one loves his teammates and the Bears as much as Cody,” Loggains said.
The Rams experienced the same. What started as an invitation to a Sunday practice from Silverthorne — brother of Whitehair’s wife, Hannah — blossomed into a months-long love affair. Whitehair soon was spending his free time as an assistant coach for the Rams, a team of 13 players from the Far Northwest Side, Evanston and Lincolnwood. The Rams are part of the Lake Shore Feeder Baseball League and also participate in tournaments. From January to March, they practiced once or twice a week. From April to July, there were multiple practices every week, plus two or three night games.
Whitehair was limited by his own training schedule, but Matt Rice, the Rams’ manager, said Whitehair was there more than 70 percent of the time.
“It unfolded pretty organically,” Rice said. “Cody would come once in a while and just help out. All of a sudden, he just kept showing up.”
Other than random questions about former Bears quarterback Jay Cutler and a running joke about getting running back Jordan Howard’s phone number, the novelty of who Whitehair was wore off quickly for the players. He soon became Coach Cody or Coach Whitehair, or simply Cody.
“We really got to know him,” said Jake DeFranza, a freshman at Notre Dame High School in Niles who played second base and pitched for the Rams.
Whitehair often was the first on the field for the Rams’ practices in Skokie.
“He would be raking the field and putting the bases in,” said Rice, who played baseball at North Park University with Silverthorne. “I’d be like, ‘Dude, you don’t have to do that stuff.’ He’d be like, ‘Nah, I like doing it.’ ”
During games, Whitehair, who had played baseball as a high school freshman and sophomore in Kansas, was the Rams’ bench coach and occasionally coached first base. He also warmed up pitchers between innings. At practice, he manned first base.
“He’s kind of hard to miss the throw,” DeFranza said. “He can move. And he’s very good at picking, scooping the ball.”
Said Silverthorne: “He was just a vacuum.”
And the team’s supplier.
“When he was there,” DeFranza said, “we never ran out of gum or sunflower seeds. Ever.”
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Whitehair is better off coaching baseball than spending his free time on the golf course. Just ask center Hroniss Grasu, one of Whitehair’s best friends on the Bears. In one round with Grasu and guard Josh Sitton, Whitehair drove the ball three times off the tee into the water.
“If I were him, I would have been really, really [angry],” Grasu said.
But Whitehair wanted to keep going. He asked Grasu for another ball, and Grasu obliged, giddily handing Whitehair a trick exploding ball.
“Cody swung at it, and POOF! — white powder all over his face and in the air,” Grasu said. “But he didn’t even get mad. If that was me, I would have gotten so mad. I would have flung my club. But Cody was just cool about it. He laughed it off. That’s just how Cody is. It’s another reason why we’re so close.”
And it explains why he connected with the Rams. He’s motivated but keeps the mood light — a man of few words, but personable.
“He made us all laugh,” DeFranza said. “Even when we were all down and when we were losing, he would always make sure we were having fun and tell us that we’re not going to be doing this forever. He was always about overcoming adversity.”
Whitehair also shared football-like messages on the baseball diamond, relaying lessons he’d learned from John Fox and longtime Kansas State coach Bill Snyder.
His most important lesson?
“Don’t worry about the wins and the losses,” Whitehair said. “At the end of the day, just enjoy what you’re doing and have fun with your teammates.
“They’re young. They’re still trying to figure it out. You don’t want to be hard on them because then you take the love of the game out of it. That’s not what we’re there for. Obviously, we would like to win rather than lose. But it’s about teaching the kids lessons.”
The only thing that irked Whitehair was seeing litter in the dugout.
“He did not ever want to see trash left in the dugout,” Silverthorne said. “If you win? So what. You lose? So what. You always leave a place better than you found it. He was big on that.”
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The Rams have one regret: They were never able to convince Whitehair to step to the plate.
“We always wanted to just pitch to him to see how far he could hit,” DeFranza said. “He’s a big guy. He always said no.”
But as is often said in Chicago, there’s always next year. Changes are coming to the Rams, but coaching is now in Whitehair’s blood. He wants to keep doing it.
“The relationship we’ve made, it’s pretty important,” he said.
His own Bears coaches and teammates get it.
“It was just the reward of seeing the kids,” Grasu said. “And they probably loved seeing him out there.”
Follow me on Twitter @adamjahns.