Max Wilhite

Max Wilhite, a redshirt freshman at New Mexico State, won the Aggies’ starting center job at the beginning of fall camp, and made his first college start on August 30.

Max Wilhite was an 8-year-old fullback, a rather odd position for a youngster to be drawn to in his first season of tackle football, but one that was perfectly tailored to him.

Because he was 8 years old, the third-grader was already nearing the 6-foot plateau. He was laughably taller than his tiny teammates, nearly impossible for opposing defenses to tackle. So, Jess Wilhite, Max’s father and the head coach of his son’s team, plugged the boy into the fullback position.

It was a match made in heaven, the football gods smiling down on the boy who was born to block.

“But then, I kind of got too big, I guess you could say,” he chuckled.

In the years that followed, which saw Max making rapid progress to his father’s 6-foot-3 stature before turning 10, the Wilhite family made an executive decision: If Max were to continue playing football, and if he aimed at competing at a higher level, a move to the offensive line was imminent.

He was almost too big at this point to continue blocking in the backfield. Guys his size were best utilized by protecting the quarterback. And keep in mind, these were long before the days where he dominated at Desert Edge, long before he was starting games at center for Division I New Mexico State University.

These were the youth football days, where it became blatantly obvious that he was blessed with the size and strength that could get him somewhere in this game.

“We kind of all realized that if I was going to have a chance to play in high school and the level after that,” he said, “it would have to be at an O-line position. I’ve always been a team-first guy and that’s kind of what you have to be as an O-lineman.”

He sprouted even more during his middle school years. He had officially eclipsed that 6-foot mark in sixth grade. As he grew, so did his appreciation for life in the trenches on the offensive line.

“It was five (lineman) and we all had this same mindset where we were team-first guys.

“You get drawn to that. They’re like your family. I think that’s what keeps me going and draws interest from me, is the fact that these other four guys are like my family members.”

In the summer of 2014, he first arrived on the Desert Edge campus, readying for his first summer camp of high school football. It was hard to miss big Max Wilhite, who stood head and shoulders taller than his teammates.

Jose Lucero, then an offensive line coach at Edge, remembers the day Max first strolled onto the Scorpions’ football field.

“I just remember him, he came in as a freshman and was a physically big kid,” Lucero said. “I remember thinking, ‘There’s no way we’re going to have a young kid like this come in and play for us right away.’”

Max was booming out of his shoulder pads. By now he had stretched to well over 6 feet. His stature mirrored more of a National Football League lineman, not the 14-year-old boy he really was.

He was every offensive line coach’s dream. But still, Lucero scoffed, there’s no way he cracks our varsity roster this year.

That was until the team lined up for one-on-one pass-protection drills between the offensive and defensive linemen. Max stepped up and masterfully blocked one of the Scorpions’ older pass rushers, denying him access to the quarterback like a bouncer at a nightclub.

It was so structurally sound, Lucero recalled, so effortless. How Max, who hadn’t even enrolled in classes yet, had managed to so gracefully shun an older defensive end was beyond Lucero, but who cares, he was sold.

“It was kind of that moment that it just clicked, you could see him play with good hips, he was a good athlete, strong kid, physical kid,” Lucero said. “I just remember that kind of sticking out to me.”

It wasn’t long after that Max was named a starter. It was the first time a freshman had started for Lucero in his coaching tenure.

At Edge, Max was incredible, borderline unfair to opposing defensive ends. He was a centerpiece of the offense during his four-year career, which included state playoff appearances and a state title in 2015.

One autumn night during Max’s sophomore year, Jess was approached by a coach from New Mexico State University. Word spread like wildfire of the college prospect that Desert Edge had on display every Friday night, and schools were intrigued.

New Mexico State was the first in the sweepstakes for Max to offer a scholarship, and the Wilhites were elated. They traveled for an official visit to Las Cruces months later, and were thrilled with what the Aggies were offering. He committed to them at the conclusion of his junior year.

His first fall at NMSU wasn’t as poetically scripted as the first decade of his football career. He sat down with the coaching staff before the season began, who informed him of their plans to redshirt him for his freshman season. The Aggies had a senior center that year, and by redshirting Max, it gave him a chance to learn about the college game and look ahead to next season, where the center position was up for grabs.

“Max has been played on both sides of every football game since he was in first grade,” Jess said. “And last year was the first year he was told he had to sit on the sideline. You can only imagine what that’s like for a kid who’s always been ‘the dude.’ It was a very humbling experience.”

Max trusted the NMSU coaching staff. He knew he had a chance to win the starting job the following fall, and that message resonated with him over the next calendar year.

Months ago, just days before the Aggies broke for fall camp, Max was summoned into head coach Doug Martin’s office. He had no clue what it was for. It left a pit in his stomach, a feeling only reserved for visits to the principal’s office.

Instead, Martin wanted to share with Max that he had found his starting center, him being the 6-foot-4, 300-pound redshirt freshman from Goodyear.

“He said he knew I was young and I was a redshirt freshman, but if I could handle it he was going to start me, and if not, he understood I was still young. I was straight up with him and I said, ‘OK, yes, sir. I’m going to give it my all and give you everything I got every day.’”

Max made his first college start on August 30, in a 58-7 thumping at the hands of nationally ranked Washington State. Despite the trouncing, Max, at last, was a starter. He did so in front of his mother and sister, who traveled to Pullman, Washington, to watch. His highly anticipated debut was widely felt across Goodyear.

Jess watched in his living room with his other two sons. Lucero eagerly watched from his bedroom, streaming the Aggies on the Pac-12 Network. Dozens of past Edge teammates reached out to Max, who noted they watched the game, and, how well he played.

“Before the game, people were texting me, ‘Are you doing OK?’” Jess said. “We were all nervous. It was a day that had been leading up to for a long time.

“Here’s my son playing on national TV on a Saturday,” he said. Even though this was a day that had been in the making for many, many years now, it had finally arrived. And it was sweeter and more emotional than the Wilhite family anticipated.

“You’re feeling a thousand types of emotions,” Max said. “I was excited. I had gone through the full fall camp, went through that grind and remained healthy, which was a big thing for me.

“I’m just happy to be playing. It’s a lot better to be on the field than to be on the sidelines watching. I was excited to experience that moment.”