Friday, October 30, 2020

Whitten Lived His Dreams Through Sports Journalism

By Davis Conolly
IMC student

The dream of many a sportswriter often includes interviewing childhood sports heroes and also having a positive impact on as many lives as possible. Don Whitten, the former sports editor and editor of the Oxford Eagle lived that dreams several times over during his career.

Whitten, a Pontotoc native, decided early in life that he wanted to write about sports for a living. In high school, he began writing for the weekly newspaper in Pontotoc. After high school, he went on to study journalism at the University of Mississippi.

“Covering sports back then was so much bigger than it is now,” said Whitten, who began his professional career at the Eagle in 1977. “I didn’t realize that you couldn’t make any money.”

Despite the lack of adequate compensation in sports writing at the time, Whitten’s passion for the profession kept him going. However, the other perks of the job did not disappoint.

From covering Michael Jordan’s baseball stint with the Birmingham Barons to walking 36 holes with Jack Nicklaus, to everything around and in between, Whitten has enjoyed the sportswriter journey every step of the way.

During Whitten’s sixth year as sports editor for the Oxford Eagle and prior to the 1983 football season, Billy “Dog” Brewer was named the head coach of the Ole Miss football program. Brewer was an Ole Miss alum and a former football player for the Rebels.

Brewer’s inaugural season started poorly, but the team began to gain traction during the final stretch, winning five games in a row and beating the Mississippi State Bulldogs to earn a spot in the 1983 Independence Bowl.

While talking to Brewer after a late-season upset victory over the Tennessee Volunteers in Knoxville, Whitten said, “You ought to write a book if y’all end up beating [Mississippi] State and going to a bowl game,” to which Brewer responded, “I can’t write a book, but you should.” It was a prophetic statement on the part of the football coach.

Whitten began to compile his notes from the season in chronological order and sent a copy to Brewer, per his request. After some fine-tuning and help from the coach, the book was printed by local publishing company, Yoknapatawpha Press, and released to the public.

In describing the book he wrote about Brewer’s first season back, Whitten said, “It was not much more than a rehashing of the season … but people say that everyone has a book in them and I guess that was mine.”

The book went on to sell most of the printed copies. Whitten said he is very proud of the accomplishment.

“I was able to even make a little bit of money from it, but now I have a book on my bookshelf where I can say ‘Yeah, I did that.’”

Whitten decided to use some of his free time during earlier years of his sports writing career to coach little league baseball for the Oxford Park Commission. Although he did not have a child of his own playing, Whitten and his late wife, Janet, volunteered much of their time for many years to the kids of Oxford and even coached the All-Star team for several years.

During Whitten’s time as a coach, Oxford famed novelist John Grisham and his son, Ty, began participating. After helping Grisham on some of his research for one of his books that involved a local newspaper, Grisham acknowledged Whitten in the “special thanks” section of his novel. Whitten and Grisham formed a friendship that has lasted over 30 years.

Whitten’s desire to coach little league baseball stems from his own childhood experiences of playing ball. Like Whitten, his coach also did not have kids and traveled with the team all across the state during the summer. Whitten recalled thinking, “When I get older, I want to be able to do that too.”

During Whitten’s years of coaching, he was able to help many children while also having a positive influence on numerous lives.

Whitten has been able to meet many people, make strong connections and help countless kids learn valuable life skills. He has also managed to meet many of his childhood sports heroes, establish himself as a valued member of the Oxford community, and achieve the milestone of being a published author. He and his wife, Laura, now enjoy retirement together as she finished up her teaching career with Oxford schools this year.

Local sports journalism, such as covering Oxford and Lafayette County Schools, is important to the community and the readers, and Whitten realized that was the case from his early days covering sports in Pontotoc.

None of these things would be possible without his early decision to pursue a career in sports journalism. It was a path and a dream he was able to fulfill.