But there was 9-year-old Marcus Whitmore, standing like a man between his mother and a four-inch knife blade.
In a blurry instant, young Whitmore was stabbed, the knife piercing deep into the skin just above his right shoulder blade.
"He saved my life," said his mother, Debra Whitmore. "If it hadn't have been for him, I would have died."
The Arkansas senior linebacker returns to South Carolina today when the Razorbacks play the Gamecocks.
Less than two hours northwest of South Carolina's Columbia campus is Whitmore's hometown of Laurens, the place where he was pushed into maturity at an early age.
He returns a better man, crediting his 10-week-old son Marcus Whitmore Jr., as the inspiration in his change in attitude.
"I want to be a great role model for him," Whitmore said. "I honestly can't remember my dad, when I was younger, being around that much other than when I was about seven or eight years old.
"Most kids remember stuff like that and I just don't want to be absent in my son's life.
"I want my son to have what I didn't have ... his father."
Hot Summer Night
A colorful tattoo now covers the scar tissue and even now, 14 years later, Whitmore's voice trembles when he talks about the summer night he was stabbed.
Of course, he doesn't open up about it too often.
"It was crazy," said Whitmore, letting out of deep breath as he let down his guard.
It all started over an argument about a bicycle and escalated when Whitmore "started talking back" to a lady from his neighborhood who was trying to discipline him for a misunderstanding about something she thought he said.
In the small neighborhood of approximately 10 "shotgun" houses, folks often would take kids to their parents' house when they had been ornery.
On the way to Whitmore's house, the women got physical with him, pulling on his shirt and pushing him around, and after the scuffle, his nose was left bleeding.
When his mom saw the blood, she went down the street to talk to the woman, who by that time had rounded up a posse of family members.
"I got really angry, so I went down there to confront them," Debra Whitmore said. "But when I did that, their whole family surrounded me."
A squabble broke out and another woman came around the corner and confronted Whitmore's mother with a knife. That's when young Whitmore stepped in and took the knife that was intended for his mother.
"I got in front of her about the same time she pulled out a knife and stabbed me," Whitmore said. "I didn't even know I was stabbed until my cousin, Robert Rice, picked me up and carried me to the hospital."
When he arrived, Whitmore wasn't tended to in a timely manner.
"I was just bleeding and bleeding," Whitmore said. "And they were making me wait in the lobby because we had one of those crazy hospitals where they had to check all the insurance verification before they would even look at you."
Around the corner came his uncle, Jessie Rice, who was working the nightshift as a nursing assistant.
"I was just walking into the emergency room from bringing a patient back, and I heard my cousin walk in and Marcus' mother yelling, 'My boy's been stabbed! My boy's been stabbed!'" Rice said. "I turned around and it was my cousin holding my nephew and I was so shocked.
"My heart just dropped."
Once recovered, Whitmore's father tried to get more involved with his life, but Whitmore wasn't having it.
"He's a good person and he's got good intentions, but it was like he was trying to raise a man," Whitmore said. "I felt like I was already man and it was like trying to teach an old dog new tricks by that time."
So he went back to live with his mother.
But without his father, Whitmore -- like a lot of kids -- grew out of control. And when he started "running away from whoopings," his uncle stepped in.
However, life with "Uncle Jessie" was nothing like the Dukes of Hazzard.
"I only had to spank him twice in about five years," Rice said. "When he was with me, he was a good kid because he didn't have any other choice. They were scared of Uncle Jessie.
"So he matured a whole lot."
From the day he was born, Whitmore was hard-headed. He was born breech and that came after 16 hours of labor. The vehicle his mother was in broke down about 30 miles from a hospital in Greenwood, S.C.
In kindergarten, his mother once tried to keep him home sick, only to learn later that he'd snuck on the bus to go to school. He was found, in class, in his pajamas.
"He loved school," Debra Whitmore said.
Whitmore never got into serious trouble, but his temper was well-known around Laurens, especially in competitive settings like football fields.
Playing running back during a spring practice before his senior year, the players were in shorts and shoulder pads and Whitmore had taken a handoff into the secondary.
"He comes up on a guy that's his cousin and he slows down a little," said Laurens High assistant head coach, Bill Boroff, who called Whitmore the "hardest working kid" he's coached in 15 years. "But the cousin comes up and cheap shots him. It wasn't a bad one, but his cousin popped him and laughed about it.
"So about 8-10 plays later, we run the same play again, only this time, he didn't stop running. And the next thing you know, the kid was getting his two front teeth pulled out from his upper lip ... They had went all the way through the lip."
Another incident occurred when Whitmore was a freshman. He was trying to break up a fight in which a guy was attacking one of his cousins with a chain. When the mayhem subsided, Whitmore and the rest involved in the scuffle were charged with lynching. Charges were later dropped.
Family values proved to be important to Whitmore when he was being recruited as a junior college all-American linebacker out of Independence (Kan.) Community College.
"I visited Florida, but their players got into a fight when I was there," Whitmore said. "We had to be escorted out of the stadium by police, and I wasn't trying to get into any trouble, so I never gave them a second thought.
"At Arkansas, it was a family, and that's what I was looking for."
A New Man
The Arkansas family has grown with the birth of his son during preseason practices. Marcus Whitmore Jr. was born Aug. 21, weighing in at nine pounds, five ounces.
Whitmore said his priorities changed dramatically when his son, who he calls "Fastball" because of how quickly he's growing up, came into his life.
"He's my angel," Whitmore said.
Yolanda Yanez, an Arkansas student from Broken Bow, Okla., is Whitmore's girlfriend and the mother of his son.
"When the baby came, he had a different smile on his face, a smile like I'd never seen before," Yanez said. "It was amazing to see him with his son for the first time. His whole look and everything was new to me."
It was new to everybody.
"When you become a father, there is a change," said Hogs linebacker coach Chris Vaughn. "It kind of puts life into perspective. There are things that are bigger than football, and now that he has a family, he can enjoy life a little bit more."
His close friend and next door neighbor, Arkansas noseguard Titus Peebles, has seen a difference in Whitmore as well.
"If you're not real close to him, he pretty much wouldn't talk to you before the baby came," Peebles said. "He used to always be mean to folks. People would talk to him and he really wouldn't talk to them, like he was in his own little world and has got a lot on his mind.
"His temper, it's not even there anymore. So he's changed dramatically and is a lot more friendlier to everybody now."
The difference shines through when he's around his son. They watch a lot of football together on the weekends as well as "Matlock" and "In The Heat Of The Night" during the week.
"He's wonderful with Marcus Jr.," Yanez said. "He's the perfect dad in my eyes because we both grew up without a dad pretty much, and one thing he has always said to me is that he wants to give his son everything that he did not have as a child.
"He wants to be there for his son and he stands by his word. He does exactly what he says."
The next step for Whitmore will be finishing his degree in sociology, which he's on target to do this summer.
"I don't care if it takes me seven years to finish it, I'm going to finish it," Whitmore said. "Then I'm going to have to get a job, even if it's at McDonald's, because I'm going to have to find a way to support my family."
Along the way, he plans to raise his son to be a man.
"I'm going to spoil him," Whitmore said, "but I'm going to discipline him at the same time: Teach him the importance of hard work and discipline.
"And I know he's going to be real good kid who'll become a great man."
That attitude has a lot of folks smiling.
"I've seen him mature a lot," said Arkansas linebackers coach Chris Vaughn. "And that's ultimately what we want out of all of our players; not necessarily to be an NFL player or be all-conference, we want them to be an all-world man. That's what we want them to do.
"If you judge the all-man team, Marcus Whitmore would be on that team."
Of course, his mom is the happiest.
"He's come a long way," Debra Whitmore said. "He's got a lot of kids around here that look to him when he comes home. He's their role model.
"I'm just so proud of him.
"He's the man now."
Making A Man
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