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Whitney Mercilus Achieved His NFL Dreams Through Hard Work and Drive

Jessica Marie@ItsMsJisnerCorrespondent IIMay 28, 2012

HOUSTON - MAY 21:  Linebacker Whitney Mercilus #59 of the Houston Texans during the first day of OTA's at the Methodist Training Center at Reliant Park on May 21, 2012 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Bob Levey/Getty Images

Whitney Mercilus has come a long way since a weightlifting accident last year that robbed him of the tip of his left index finger. Come fall, he’ll be rushing the quarterback as a rookie member of the Houston Texans.

But there’s more to Mercilus’ story than overcoming an injury and becoming a first-round draft pick.

Prior to his injury, Mercilus was a run-of-the-mill Big Ten defensive end. After redshirting a year, he played in 11 games as a freshman, then started two as a sophomore. He had a couple of tackles in Illinois' Texas Bowl win over Baylor, but otherwise, he never seemed to stand out.

During the last week of spring football in 2011, he was hanging out in the weight room when a teammate, squatting 405 pounds, went down too low and needed help. Mercilus rushed over to assist and, instead of reaching for the bar, he went for the weight plates. You can imagine what happened when the bar came down faster than he expected.

On the floor, along with the bar, was the tip of Mercilus' finger.

The finger was just sitting there, just chilling there,” Mercilus told NFL.com's Jeff Darlington. “I was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, I'm actually looking at the inside of my body right now. I'm looking at my bone.’ Which actually really is pure white, by the way.”

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Once doctors were unable to reattach the tip of his finger, discouragement could have set in. After two years of mediocrity and frustration, Mercilus was now facing an even greater disadvantage, and while he waited the requisite month before resuming weightlifting and training, he could have mulled over alternate options.

But for Mercilus, there never was another option. Instead of letting the injury break his career, it made his career.

There's nothing like losing part of your finger to remind you that your football career can disappear in the blink of an eye. Buoyed by relief that his injury didn’t have to be career ending unless he let it be, Mercilus attacked preparation for his junior season with a renewed vigor.

His sharper focus and determination paid off, fast. In what would be his final season at Illinois, Mercilus led the nation with 16 sacks and 22.5 tackles for a loss. His NCAA-leading nine forced fumbles tied a Big Ten record and broke a school record. It definitely piqued the Texans’ interest.

"He's a smart player, he's athletic, he's tough," Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said told the Associated Press after they selected him. "You want those high-motor guys, but you want them to have that kind of ability."

Mercilus is a different player now, and not just because he has one fewer fingertip. Like his parents, Haitian immigrants who have each worked at least two jobs since coming to the United States, Mercilus has an unparalleled ethic to get things done.

Losing his finger could have been a career-ender—a signal that perhaps he was meant to forge a different path. For Mercilus, however, losing his fingertip didn't rob him of his career. It helped him get his career back to a point where the Texans could take him with the 26th overall pick.

Presented by MetLife. I Can Do This. 

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