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Super Bowl LVI's Rams-Bengals matchup a love story of Andrew Whitworth's acclaimed career

LOS ANGELES -- Andrew Whitworth faced his biggest game of the season less than two weeks ago, but a distraction kept challenging his focus inside SoFi Stadium. The Los Angeles Rams' left tackle understood the test that awaited him on that Sunday afternoon: The team's hated rival, the San Francisco 49ers, a squad that had beaten the Rams six straight times, was in town for the NFC Championship Game. As much as Whitworth wanted that win, he couldn't stop glancing at any available television screen he could find, just to stay abreast of what was happening in the AFC Championship Game nearly 1,600 miles away in Kansas City. That's where the only other franchise Whitworth had loved was trying to make some magic of its own.

Whitworth didn't shout at the screen or thrust his fists into the air when the Cincinnati Bengals were rallying from an 18-point, first-half deficit to beat the Chiefs that day. Showing that much emotion prior to such a critical contest would belie the type of classiness he's been known for throughout his 16-year career. However, Whitworth felt a strong sense of pride while watching the Bengals celebrate their first trip to the Super Bowl since the 1988 NFL season. He knew what that victory meant to that city, that region and its fans.

That Bengals' win meant even more when the Rams beat the 49ers and gave Whitworth a chance to play for a championship in Super Bowl LVI against the franchise that gave him his start in the NFL.

"I've obviously heard from a ton of people over there," Whitworth said this week. "It's really cool and really special, having a relationship with a lot of the staff over there and some players. The city is a special place to us. I told (Bengals head coach) Zac Taylor this when we spoke (after the conference championship games) that both places have my heart and people I believe in. It's really special to play in this game and to play against a [team] that means so much to me."

Super Bowl LVI will be like every other game of this magnitude, as the bulk of the hype will center on the stars. The past week has been filled with relentless chatter about talented quarterbacks building legacies, gifted receivers chasing championships and disruptive defenders eager to create chaos on Sunday. That's all fine with Whitworth, who has long since become accustomed to the spotlight falling on the flashier skill players. He's merely satisfied with the reality that he has a second chance at a Super Bowl win and he's sharing the stage with the Bengals.

Whitworth spent the first 11 years of his career with Cincinnati, the team that selected him in the second round of the 2006 NFL Draft. He developed strong friendships that still last to this day, and he's especially close to Taylor, who was a Rams assistant coach when Whitworth came to Los Angeles as a free agent in 2017. At 40 years old, Whitworth is also now the oldest active player in the NFL, thanks to Tom Brady's recent retirement. All that experience has taught Whitworth one vital lesson: It's best to enjoy every minute of this ride, especially because there's no way of knowing how much longer it will last.

It's a message he's trying to impart to his teammates, many of whom are nearly two decades younger than him and weren't playing for the Rams when they lost to New England in Super Bowl LIII.

"When you get the opportunity to go to the Super Bowl, it's something special," Whitworth said. "When you don't win, you always wonder if you'll get another shot. So just to have another shot, to earn that right, means a lot to us. There's a lot of guys you can look across this locker room and want to play for. That's what makes this team so special. There's people all over this place that deserve this opportunity. That's what drives this football team."

The amazing part of Whitworth's story is that, like Brady, he hasn't declined significantly with age. This season, Pro Football Focus has given him a pass-blocking grade of 89.6, which is the highest he's achieved since coming to the Rams and ranks first among offensive tackles. The 6-foot-7, 330-pound Whitworth allowed just five quarterback sacks and 17 total pressures in a season when he once again served as the lynchpin for Los Angeles' offensive line. As much as the Rams have excited fans with an explosive offense -- one that features quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receivers Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham -- it's the play of that O-line that has helped this team revive itself after a three-game losing streak in November. The Rams became more physical, more intent on running the football with Whitworth and his fellow linemates keying that turnaround.

"He's a player that I've watched even through his college days," Bengals defensive line coach Marion Hobby said. "He's a great technician. He's a big man. You take a big guy like that who is fundamentally sound, he's a true pro. When you watch him play, even in his years at Cincinnati, he's always performed at a high level. He has the combination of it all -- size, athleticism, well-coached. He's fun to watch, especially when somebody else is playing against him."

Added Taylor: "I've always had tremendous respect for Whit. We're the same age. He's actually six months older than me. (Correction: It's 17 months.) You see the professionalism and leadership he provided in L.A. He always had so much respect and appreciation for the Bengals, the staff and the whole organization. I'm glad to have a relationship with Whit. He's always done things the right way and set a high standard for those that he's around."

There is no shortage of people eager to praise Whitworth for what he's meant to the NFL. His devotion to community service made him the Rams' nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award. (UPDATE: Whitworth was named the 2021 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year at Thursday's NFL Honors.) His desire to connect with other parts of the Rams organization -- he talked openly about venturing into other departments at team headquarters to chat with employees about their jobs -- is rare for any player, let alone one so established. It's as if Whitworth is on a mission to touch as many lives as he can before his playing days end. It's that approach that makes being on the field mean even more to him as the seasons pass.

Whitworth still loves competing against younger players: "It's neat for me to go on the football field and know that, for most weeks, I'll be facing some 22-, 26- or 28-year-old defensive end who feels like nothing can faze him. When they get hit, they feel fine, and I'm just trying to put my body together enough to make it through a game and still getting my job done."

It's equally gratifying for Whitworth to meet those same players after a game and hear them praise the career he's had.

One such moment happened in Week 7 of this season, following the Rams' 28-19 win over Detroit. Whitworth ambled around the field afterward, shaking hands and bro-hugging opponents when Lions linebacker Derrick Barnes strolled by and embraced him fondly. Barnes was just a kid living in Covington, Kentucky, when Whitworth would come over and mentor him at the local Boys and Girls Club. All those years later, the two men were standing on the same NFL field, with both well aware of how much Whitworth helped Barnes get there.

"For him to have made it to the NFL and come and find me after a game and thank me for all those years I mentored him there meant a lot," Whitworth said. "(I've had) some surreal, unbelievable moments. It's why I have so much gratitude to have existed this long in the NFL."

The Rams have a similar appreciation for Whitworth. Both he and wide receiver Robert Woods were the first two free-agent acquisitions the team made after the franchise hired Sean McVay as its head coach in 2017. Whitworth was 35 at the time and entering the twilight of his career, but he was still struck by the passion in McVay's voice when the coach called to congratulate him on the signing. Whitworth still keeps the voicemail McVay left that day, just to tweak McVay about how cheesy he sounded when promoting all the great things they'd accomplish with the Rams.

McVay -- who is four years younger than Whitworth -- is quite candid about how much he's leaned on Whitworth for support and perspective. Whitworth also fondly remembers how he, McVay and Woods sat together and took questions during their first introductory press conference. Whitworth had no idea about how quickly the Rams would ascend. He only believed McVay could lead him to some heights he unfortunately never reached in Cincinnati.

Whitworth enjoyed great success with the Bengals during one of the best stretches in the franchise's history. He went to three Pro Bowls, earned first-team All-Pro honors once and played on three AFC North championship teams under head coach Marvin Lewis. Whitworth also never made it past Wild Card Weekend in any of his six postseason appearances with the team. When he left for the Rams, the hope was that he'd get at least one more shot at reaching the Super Bowl.

That opportunity came during the 2018 season and ended with that 13-3 loss to New England in Super Bowl LIII. Whitworth was clearly disappointed by that defeat, but he tried to stay positive even in the toughest moment of his career. Wearing a billowing blue sweatshirt and trying to keep the sweat from beading on his bald scalp in the postgame press conference, he implored reporters to not feel sorry for him.

"You're not going to get me to pout," Whitworth said that night. "Who you are, how you carry yourself, whether you pout is all that people are going to remember about you. For me, what means the most is that guys see my head held high, loving them and being there for them any way I can moving forward."

The Rams returned to the playoffs in 2020 -- losing to Green Bay in the Divisional Round -- but that year is now more noteworthy for Whitworth because of what happened off the field. He missed the last seven games of the regular season with a torn medial collateral ligament and posterior cruciate ligament (though he did return in time to play in the postseason). That injury and Whitworth's subsequent rehabilitation also coincided with a knee injury sustained by Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament and MCL in his left knee a week after Whitworth's own knee injury. Burrow underwent surgery in Los Angeles and stayed there as he started his own rehab.

It turned out that the Rams chief physician, Dr. Neal ElAttrache, performed the operation on Burrow. ElAttrache was so impressed with the first-year quarterback -- who, like Whitworth won a national championship at LSU -- that he suggested the two men meet.

"I had him over on a Sunday," Whitworth said. "You had the old man on crutches and the young man on crutches. We just sat around and had a good meal and spent the whole day together watching football games. It was really fun."

Added Burrow: "I lived about 40 minutes from where he was living -- and we were both hurt at the same time. So I would go over to his house and watch the games on Sunday. I spent my birthday at his house and I also spent his birthday at his house. So that was kind of a cool thing that he did for me, reaching out to me and making the rehab process a little easier."

Whitworth maintains regular contact with Taylor -- the two men either text or talk over phone as often as once a month -- and Whitworth sensed the Bengals head coach had struck gold with the young quarterback after those visits. Whitworth said he "always admired (Burrow) from afar" and "wanted to thank him for winning that national championship (at LSU in 2019)." After spending so much time with Burrow that winter, Whitworth said, "It gave me an inside vision of what he's like. Zac Taylor asked me about him afterwards, and I told him, 'You've got a special one there.' "

Whitworth has been just as glowing in his praise of the Bengals this season. He said the coolest word he could use to describe the AFC champions is "grit," that "it didn't just take off for them when they immediately got on the field. But they've grinded and found a way to scratch and claw and get to where they are." Along with Burrow and the emergence of All-Pro rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, Whitworth knows a huge factor in Cincinnati's success is the underrated play of its defense. In fact, Whitworth will be involved in one of the major matchups in Sunday's contest, as he'll square off against Bengals Pro Bowl defensive end Trey Hendrickson.

The Rams will go into this game favored to win their first championship since 1999, when they were based in St. Louis. This team was built to win a championship, as the blockbuster moves to land Stafford, Beckham and defensive end Von Miller ratcheted up the pressure on this team all year long. When the Rams won the NFC Championship Game, Whitworth acknowledged that it was especially gratifying because "there was an expectation put on us all season. This is what was put on us. We made our opportunity to be here and now we have to go take it."

So now Whitworth has an opportunity that once seemed unimaginable. The only question that will remain after this Super Bowl, at least as far as he's concerned, is whether the final game he ever plays will involve the only NFL teams he's ever loved.

"That's always something that I'll decide after the season," Whitworth said when asked about the possibility of retirement. "You have to step away for a second. But what a cool ending it could be. Two places that I poured my heart and soul into, that mean the world to me. I couldn't be happier for Cincinnati to be where they're at and happier for us. If this is the end, what a heck of a way to end it."

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter.

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