PHILADELPHIA — J.J. Arcega-Whiteside is already a trailblazer before catching his first touchdown pass.
Arcega-Whiteside became the first player born in Spain drafted in the NFL when the Philadelphia Eagles selected him with the 57th overall pick in the second round in April.
"It’s awesome," Arcega-Whiteside said. "It’s a huge honour obviously to be the first and hopefully not the last, and to help any way that I can to keep pushing people to learn about the sport, enjoy the sport, play the sport."
The talented wide receiver has strong athletic genes. His mother, Valerie Whiteside, set many school records as a basketball player at Appalachian State. His father, Joaquin Arcega, played several years in Europe. They met while playing professionally in Spain and later moved to Portugal to play when their son was 3 years old. Two of Joaquin’s brothers also played pro basketball and represented Spain in the 1984 Olympics.
His parents didn’t pressure him to play basketball, however.
"They told me right from the beginning that if I didn’t want to play sports, that’s more than OK with them," he said. "As long as I’m doing something that I love, I’m going to make them proud regardless. It just took a big weight off my shoulders."
Arcega-Whiteside’s family moved to South Carolina when he was 7. He was already a standout in soccer and began to excel in track and basketball in the United States. Once he started playing football, he dominated that sport, too.
"It’s tough for any kid moving when they’re young because you have to make new friends," Arcega-Whiteside said. "Not only that, but you have to learn a new culture, and not really learning a new language but be able to use a different language on a daily basis with different people. So it was tough at first, but it ended up being the best decision we’ve ever made."
Arcega-Whiteside speaks three languages: Spanish, English and Portuguese. Though he’s been in America for 15 years, he still has a strong connection with his family in Spain.
"I talk to them almost every other day," he said. "I connect with them a lot. They’re professional athletes as well. They give me a lot of advice."
Arcega-Whiteside said he chose football over basketball early on in high school after catching a winning touchdown pass.
"I was like, there’s no feeling in basketball that’s going to compare to this," he said.
He ended up going to Stanford after meeting former U.S. Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice on a visit to the school. Arcega-Whiteside interned for Rice last summer.
"There’s no other place in the country where you can do that and still win nine, 10, 11 games every year," he said.
The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Arcega-Whiteside led Stanford with 63 catches for 1,059 yards and 14 touchdowns as a junior. He was a surprise selection by the Eagles because they were stacked at wide receiver after bringing DeSean Jackson back to Philadelphia to join Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor.
"They’ve been very helpful," said Arcega-Whiteside, who is known for his jump-ball skills like Jeffery. "Now that I have my first game out of the way, I feel more comfortable."
Offensive co-ordinator Mike Groh has been impressed with the young receiver in training camp. He had two catches for 23 yards in Philadelphia’s preseason opener last week.
"I think that he’s been able to come in and learn and pick up what we do," Groh said. "From that standpoint, very few errors. Now that he has that foundation, he can build from a technical standpoint each and every day talking about how to really become a true NFL receiver."
Arcega-Whiteside isn’t the only Spaniard in the NFL. Pittsburgh Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva’s parents are from Spain, but he was born on a Naval Air Station in Mississippi. Villanueva also lived in Spain and Belgium as a kid. He went to Army and was originally signed by the Eagles as an undrafted free agent in 2014.