Whitney Mercilus was always smiling as a player. In his farewell to his playing days, that smile remained.
The longtime Texans outside linebacker/defensive end retired from the NFL on Wednesday, and closed the book on a 10-year professional career. In an Instagram post, Mercilus described how he's "grateful that I can willingly walk away from this sport that has given me so much."
Of the 138 career games he played, the first 134 were with the Texans, before a 4-game stint in 2021 with the Packers.
Excellent on the field and off, he made a lasting impression on everyone he encountered. Texans Chairman and CEO Cal McNair reflected on Mercilus' time in Houston.
"There aren't many players in franchise history who have impacted our organization and community the way Whitney Mercilus has," McNair said. "I can recall a number of times over the last 10 seasons where he stepped up for us on the field with a sack or big play in a crucial moment, but it was his unique connection with the Houston community that made him one of the most popular players in franchise history. Our fan base gravitated to Whitney from day one and he always found ways to give back and serve through his foundation and culinary work. My family and the entire organization will always consider Whitney a Texan."
When the Texans had the 26th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, there were some who predicted Houston would take the NCAA's sacks and forced fumbles leader from 2011 in Mercilus. He'd capped off his time at Illinois with a unanimous All-America campaign, and the Texans indeed chose him as their first-rounder.
The morning after he was picked, Mercilus, his parents, and his younger brother flew to Houston where we met him at the baggage claim. I stuck out my hand, introduced myself, and told him "Now we're going to put this microphone on you and follow you around with a camera for the next few hours."
Still riding a wave of excitement, he beamed a big smile and said "Sounds cool."
Mercilus was cool for the next decade in Houston.
On the field, he tallied 57 sacks as a Texan, with a career-best 12 in 2015. Off the field, he was into helping others and trying out new things in life.
During his rookie season, when Houston started 11-1, Mercilus took part in an episode of "On the Nose with Shaun Cody." The former nose tackle had Mercilus hold up a hand, which featured a ring finger missing the top digit. Mercilus lost part of the finger in a weightlifting accident years earlier, but Cody joked that outside linebacker Connor Barwin had chopped it off with a knife from the Texans cafeteria as part of a rookie hazing accident.
Mercilus was a regular guest on Texans Radio shows, often coming out on Tuesday evenings to the Fuddruckers in Stafford. He was jovial, offered insight and always mingled with the long lines of fans who came for an autograph and a photo with him.
I hung around him a bit on a promotional trip to Mexico City in late May of 2016. The Texans would play a late November Monday Night Football game against the Raiders at Azteca Stadium that year, and the NFL wanted to drum up publicity for the game in advance. Mercilus made the rounds at the ESPN station there, took a tour of the city, and ran some drills at a youth football camp. It was a whirlwind couple of days, but despite the language barrier, he was grinning ear-to-ear and enjoying his time in Mexico.
OLB Whitney Mercilus had a whirlwind Friday in Mexico City. He appeared on ESPN Deportes and took a tour of the city's landmarks with Televisa.
A year later, he got into the restaurant game with Chris Shepherd, a Beard Award-winning chef and restauranteur here in town. They were teaming up for a new venture, One-Fifth, and we wound up spending an afternoon with the duo. Mercilus talked about his interest in cooking, his love of food and how excited he was for the new venture.
It was sad to see him go this past fall, but it's good to know he's leaving the game on his own terms, and upbeat about what the future holds. I've no doubt he'll be successful in a host of ventures, as he's a real renaissance man.
Whitney Mercilus retired from the NFL on Wednesday, and his time with the Texans is remembered fondly.