The Defender: Whitney Mercilus on Football & Philanthropy

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The Houston Texans’ powerhouse, Whitney Mercilus, packs as much heart into the Houston philanthropic scene as he does into every game he plays in the National Football League (NFL). A balanced blend of determination, spirit and benevolence, Whitney embodies the hardworking, Houston hustle that makes this city thrive. Combining his deeplyengrained family rootshis faith and his Haitian heritage, Whitney’s tenacity and selfless service come alive in his everyday words and actions. 

“What you see of Whitney on the first day you meet him is what it’s going to be every time. He is an easy-going person. He listens to what you have to say carefully… He likes to explore and is a very hard worker. He stays on task and loves people,” said Wilner Mercilus, Whitney’s father. 

Photo Courtesy of The Houston Texans

Texans’ jersey number 59 began his legacy of leaving it all on the field” early on as a hometown football hero at Garfield High School in Akron, Ohio. From there, he expanded upon his craft at the University of Illinois from 2008 to 2011. He studied community health and gained nationwide recognition and accolades as a young college athlete. At the beginning of 2012, Whitney announced his decision to waive his senior year at Illinois and enter the NFL Draft. 

Highly-coveted and dubbed as one of the top defensive end prospects for 2012, the Houston Texans selected Whitney as their number one pick in the first rounda pick that turned out to be a big win for the team and for the city of Houston. 

“When I got drafted, I was in Ohio to be with friends and family. When I saw my name come across the ticket, it was the coolest feeling ever. There’s a video of me getting sucked into a mosh pit of family and friends just hugging me and celebrating with me,” Whitney reminisced.  

Rookie Year 

Houston has cheered Mercilus on for eight years and counting, starting with his first four-year contract in 2012. Mercilus described his rookie year as a time for new beginnings and the development of a consistent regiment.  “As for me just getting adjusted to the level of playing, I had my moments in the league… One of the frustrating things for me then was getting consistency down and the stress of my rookie year,” said Whitney. 

Photo Courtesy of Will Sterling

All at once, Mercilus was hit with a wave of fresh starts. He packed a laundry list of “to-dos” – buying a car, finding a home, and meeting coaches’ expectations –into a short period of time during his first year on the squad. Despite all of the novelties, Mercilus was able to navigate the ropes and propel his career forward. It helped that he could maintain pieces of his community, culture and roots when his charming parents, Wilner and Yvrose Mercilus, followed him to Houston. Wilner says the big move proved to be a learning experience for the whole family. 

Both equally eager to support Whitney’s professional endeavors, his mother and father assisted with everything from house-hunting to cooking soul-filling Haitian meals. “We moved up here to help him and do what we’ve been doing since day one of his life… From day one, helping has been on our agenda not only for Whitney, but for every one of our children,” Wilner said.   

Years before their move to Houston, around 1984, Whitney’s parents migrated from Haiti to flee political strife. They settled in the United States to have their three children, Glory, Whitney and Donald.  

Photo Courtesy of Will Sterling

“They were looking for a better chance of living for my family. That’s why they came to the U.S.,” Whitney said. “They really gave me, my sister and my brother a fighting chance for a successful future.” The same value that his parents place on family and faith is evident in Whitney’s lifestyle, as is the warmth of the Haitian culture. Thanks to the foundation his parents gave him, Whitney says he is able to embrace and overcome hardships in both sports and life.

“My greatest inspirations in life are my parents and how hard they’ve worked and to have come from where they come from, come to the U.S. and built a life for me and my family. My brother and sister. Seeing that inspired me to work [hard] in order to create something great and pay them back as a representation of how their work has paid off,” Whitney said.   

Photo Courtesy of Will Sterling

New Home

The New Jersey-born football pro quickly embraced Houston for all that it had to offer (except for the heat!), from its cultural institutions to its diverse community of Houstonians. “Coming from Akron, Ohio to Houston opened my eyes to what else is in the world and all of the cool things that are out there. I was really ecstatic about the new city, the new friends, and I just love the whole experience of Houston. When people talk about Southern hospitality, that is Houston for sure and Texas in general. There’s a lot of willingness to help out,” Whitney said.

Most notably, Whitney fell in love with Houston’s extensive food options. Who wouldn’t? “The food scene is amazing here. You get a variety of things down here, which is awesome,” Whitney said.

Texans love their steak, so it’s a great place to get a big, fat steak.

 From brunches at Weights Measures to ornate sushi rolls at Kata Robata, Whitney has all of the great dining spots on lock. The only culinary piece of the pie that is missing is a hot Haitian food spot in the city, according to Whitney’s parents. Hopefully this won’t be an issue for long, as they have their sights set on creating a food truck featuring authentic Haitian cuisine.  

Eight Years and Counting 

Throughout his eight seasons playing for the Texans, Whitney has won 99 games and executed 183 tackles. He has also racked up over 40 quarterback sacks, ranking him third in franchise history behind Houston Texans teammate J.J. Watt with 92 quarterback sacks and Mario Williams with 53, according to a Toro Times article.  

Season by season, Whitney has grown in consistency and expertise, making him a respected member of the Houston Texans teamone that junior players look to for guidance and advice in their own growth.  “We’re happy to have seen him develop a good career, and as parents, it’s always nice seeing children from day one, beginning of his life, see him step to this level… It is a gift,” Wilner said.   

The Texans proved their ability to scout talent and quality when they selected Whitney; he’s a pick that breathed victory into the team and selfless service into the city of Houston. Clearly, the Texans knew what they were doing when they invited him down South. With an aptitude for athletic agility, quick wit and generosity, Whitney is the full package. 

Photo Courtesy of The Houston Texans

Off-the-Field Hustle 

Outside of living and breathing football, Whitney devotes his time to his passion for serving underprivileged children through his organization, the WithMerci Foundation  

“He loves children and working with children. That’s what led him to setup his foundation with them. His vision is to take care of gifted children. That’s just Whitney,” Wilner said. Established in 2016, the growth of WithMerci and the benefits it has provided to underprivileged children prove that Whitney exceeds expectations in all facets of his life. From early on, the Houston Texans’ first-round pick enhanced Houston’s already buzzing community of philanthropists. As the founder of WithMerci, Whitney has made it his mission to serve children with disabilities in underprivileged families, a nod to his university studies in community health.  

“This year, our focus is down syndrome. Each year we find selective partners who donate money to us, specifically related to the disability we are focusing on that year. We also have partners that are willing to help families who are seeking programs and trying to get their medical bills paid,” Whitney said. “We really want to support that demographic. We really try to support underprivileged families who aren’t able to afford treatment, medication, programs, camps, and all that.” 

Photo Courtesy of Will Sterling

Among other events, WithMerci annually hosts Cocktails 4 A Cause. All proceeds support the foundation’s back-to-school event, Returning 2 Learning. WithMerci and its community partners throw this back-to-school bash to provide free haircuts, school supplies, clothes and more to underprivileged and disabled children.   

What inspired me to get into this was… visiting a lot of different children in hospitals or interacting with children in camps organized by my teammates or organized on my own over the course of my career with the NFL. I fell in love with that demographic, and I knew if my heart was into anything, it would be that,” Whitney said. 

Through services, sporting events, education and financial support, WithMerci ensures that children with disabilities feel supported and included in all aspects of life, according to the organization’s website. Whitney rallies his circle of teammates and local connections to give back to the community through fundraising events and volunteered time. “I think children are the future and what really inspires me with the type of children I help out is that they’re always smiling,” Whitney said.

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Feature Photo Courtesy of The Houston Texans 

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