RENTON — Ahkello Witherspoon is the grandson of the great blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon, whose signature song, a true blues classic, is “Ain’t Nobody’s Business.”
Ahkello’s business, for better or worse, is quite public: He is vying to be the Seahawks’ starting left cornerback, a vital defensive position. Witherspoon instantly became the favorite to replace Shaquill Griffin when Seattle signed him away from the 49ers as a free agent in March. But the competition, particularly from Damarious Randall and Pierre Desir, will be fierce.
Which is just fine with the 26-year-old Witherspoon, whose career has been marked by inconsistency — soaring moments of brilliance tempered by injuries.
“That’s all I know. I love it,” Witherspoon said of the competition.
In May, when he met the Seattle media for the first time, Witherspoon declared: “I think when I was healthy, I was the best corner in the league. And I’m not going to settle for anything else.”
Two months later, the health part is on track. After enduring knee injuries in 2017 and ’18, and a hamstring injury and concussion last year, Witherspoon is ecstatic about how much better he feels early in Seahawks camp.
“Night and day. Just incredible,” he said.
That was reflected in an eye-opening performance Saturday when Witherspoon, who signed a $4 million guaranteed contract, made three splashy plays near the goal line. The most glaring came when he broke up a Russell Wilson pass intended for DK Metcalf.
It was Witherspoon’s coverage of Metcalf, whom he limited to two receptions for 11 yards on six targets in Seattle’s regular-season finale against the 49ers, that caught Seattle’s eye. That, and the fact that the 6-foot-3, 194-pound Witherspoon checks all the Pete Carroll boxes for a prototype cornerback in his system.
“He’s got the makeup — speed, size, length — the kind of stuff that we like in our guys,” Carroll said in May.
The 49ers, meanwhile, made it very clear after the 2020 season that Witherspoon was no longer in their plans by re-signing cornerbacks Jason Verrett and Emmanuel Moseley presumably to be their starters.
But that confidence that Witherspoon exuded in May about his belief that he was the best? It hasn’t waned. He explained that such conviction is necessary to thrive in the NFL.
“There’s no reason to have anything else,” he said. “You compete at the highest level against the best athletes in the world. Anything less, you’re selling yourself short, and you’re limiting how far you can push your ability.”
Witherspoon believes steady playing time — something he rarely received with San Francisco — will help him attain those lofty goals. One thing is certain: Witherspoon instantly became one of the most fascinating players in the organization when he signed his one-year deal.
Back to his music background. Ahkello was just 2 when Jimmy Witherspoon died in 1997, but he inherited his grandfather’s musical sensibilities. Ahkello sings, writes music and plays the drums. It’s an aspect of his life he savors.
“I mean, it’s been awesome, just having that other side of your brain, that creative nature,” he said. “Playing sports my whole life, it was fruitful to be able to share music, as well as understand the caveats and the nuances of it. Being able to learn and just appreciate soul, and appreciate feel, and what that brings to your life has been incredible.”
Growing up, Witherspoon was well-rounded in other ways. Instead of focusing his energy obsessively on football, he also played baseball and basketball all the way through high school, and soccer until his freshman year. In addition, Witherspoon trained for track but didn’t compete.
You want versatility? Last year, when the 49ers were trying to identify emergency kickers after COVID-19 limited their ability to bring in candidates, Witherspoon became their third backup. Witherspoon said he hit a 52-yard field-goal attempt in practice. Carroll this week strongly advocated that youngsters play a wide variety of sports rather than specialize, and Witherspoon vouched for the benefits of being a multisport athlete.
“I think it’s everything,” he said. “Just my foot quickness, my hips, my ability to digest and play and differentiate between zones and visions. It’s all different sports all coming into one.”
Witherspoon majored in ecology and evolutionary biology at Colorado, and took advantage of the COVID-19 shutdown to complete his degree last year. His long-standing career goal remains unchanged: To attend medical school and become a doctor after this whole football thing is finished.
“Whenever it’s time to hang it up, that’s definitely something I’m going to pursue,” he said.
When someone pointed out that medical school can be a real grind, Witherspoon smiled and said, “I’m addicted to the grind, I think.”