Local grads Jordan Whitehead, Robert Foster, Dane Jackson could all play first NFL postseason …

Andrew Chiappazzi

| Beaver County Times

The last time Jordan Whitehead and Robert Foster lined up on opposite sides of the ball, they were wearing Central Valley uniforms during practice at Sarge Alberts Stadium.

Outside of those occasional practice moments for the Warriors, Whitehead and Foster spent far more time lighting up Central Valley’s opponents as two of the most dynamic athletes to come out of Beaver County in the last decade. They went their separate ways in college, with Foster’s Alabama Crimson Tide and Whitehead’s Pitt Panthers never meeting on the field.

Saturday night, that could change on the biggest stage of their football careers.

The two friends and former teammates could end up matched up against each other when Whitehead’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on Foster and the Washington Football Team in an NFC Wild Card playoff game.

Whitehead has become a fixture in Tampa’s secondary since midway through his rookie year in 2018. This year, he started all 16 games at safety, where he registered 74 tackles, picked off two passes, and recorded the first two sacks of his career. The Bucs enter the playoffs winners of four straight.

“I think coming off the bye week, I started feeling it then,” Whitehead told the media prior to the regular season finale against Atlanta. “That’s when I knew the guys’ bodies would be rested and eager to get back out there. It’s showing when we’re playing, it shows in practice, the enthusiasm we have out there and the communication.”

Whether he and Foster will line up against each other remains to be seen. After two years with the Buffalo Bills, including a breakout rookie season where he caught 27 passes for 541 yards and became the first undrafted free agent to have three 100-yard receiving games as a rookie, the third-year receiver has bounced around this season. He was cut by the Bills at the end of training camp and signed onto the Green Bay Packers’ practice squad. Washington signed him to its active roster off the Packers’ practice squad in October.

“He’s fast. He can run. He can get vertical very quickly,” Washington coach Ron Rivera said after Foster joined the team. “He can be a good offset to Terry (McLaurin) on the other side. He has special teams value, and that was one thing that was impressive to us, as well.”

Foster has a pair of receptions for 37 yards this season and has played some on special teams. He played in three consecutive games in December before being inactive for the regular season finale. There was no word as of Thursday whether he’d be active for Saturday’s game.

While a lot of eyes in Beaver County will be on the NBC broadcast Saturday night, Foster and Whitehead’s potential reunion isn’t the only local attraction to the NFL playoffs. A few hours earlier, Cornell alum Dane Jackson very well could be in uniform as the Buffalo Bills take on the Indianapolis Colts in an AFC Wild Card game.

A seventh round pick of the Bills in the 2020 NFL Draft, Jackson – who played a year at Cornell and three years at Quaker Valley as part of a co-op program – has spent the entire season on Buffalo’s practice squad. New NFL rules enabled the Bills to call up Jackson for action in five games, most recently in the season finale against Miami.

He made his mark from the very start, registering an interception in his NFL debut.

“I felt good, it felt kind of surreal out there,” Jackson told reporters at the time. “I went out there with a lot of confidence thanks to the older guys.”

All told, Jackson had 15 tackles, defended five passes, and recovered a fumble in his five games. Cornell coach Ed Dawson, who coached Jackson with the Raiders and as an assistant during the co-op with Quaker Valley, is one of many in the area to become a casual Bills fan.

“I make a point, every time he gets called up, to be able to watch,” Dawson said. “It’s just so exciting to see a kid’s dream come to fruition, and to realize it’s only the beginning for him.”

It was evident to Dawson even during Jackson’s freshman year at Cornell that Jackson had a special quality.

“You could see it, that this kid is going to be special,” Dawson said. “His work ethic is second-to-none and it always has been. Whatever he wanted to do, he figured out what it took and he went above and beyond to do it.”

As an Aliquippa graduate, Dawson said he learned having former players around a program adds a little extra to the allure of pulling on that uniform. It’s meant a lot to him, and others with Cornell, that Jackson has returned to work out at Cornell and be around the team in the past.

“It’s what makes a program special, when you see those guys make a point to come back,” Dawson said.

Like Jackson, Foster and Whitehead have made it a point to keep Central Valley in their hearts. The two teamed up for a youth football camp at the school in 2019 and had planned to run it again in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic intervened.

“At the end of the day, I just want people to be proud and make them smile,” Foster said during that 2019 camp. “That’s the biggest blessing that any man can receive, having other people smile and realizing that you benefited somebody just by making that person smile.”

“We couldn’t have done it without being at Central Valley,” Whitehead added in 2019. “Coach Mark (Lyons) and all the great help we had here at Central Valley, we’re blessed for that.”

The Buffalo-Indianapolis game will be broadcast on KDKA (CBS) at 1:05 p.m. on Saturday, while the Washington-Tampa Bay game will be broadcast on WPXI (NBC) at 8:15 Saturday evening.

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