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JESSE WHITTENTON RODE IN MY CAR
5/24/2012 6:14:10 PM
“Oh, no!” I thought as I read the headline on the Green Bay Press-Gazette web page Wednesday evening. “Not another one!” The article announced the passing of retired Packers cornerback Jesse Whittenton, earlier in the week at the age of 78.
I suppose I should be getting used to losing my heroes from the Packers’ Glory Years. Most are in their seventies and eighties, after all. They subjected their bodies to all sorts of punishment, and they trained on steaks in an era when cholesterol was rarely mentioned. But this hurts. Never mind that it reminds me of my own mortality. To me and my friends, Jesse was special.
- This image of Jesse Whittenton came from the website of claremontshows.com.
The obituaries say he was “fun-loving.” I found that out firsthand. In the summer of 1964, I was not quite 17, and my friend Pam and I went out to watch practice almost every day. Lambeau Field (still called City Stadium in ‘64) sits on top of a rise. A vast parking lot slopes down to Oneida Street, and the practice area—a big complex today, but a single field then—is across the street. For all these years it has been a tradition for kids to bring their bikes. They’ll either loan them to the Packers or climb onto the bikes with them, to traverse the long slope between the locker room and the field. Pam and I lived too far away to ride our bikes to the stadium, but now we had our newly-minted driver’s licenses! Before and after practice, we’d load up a car with three or four players and proudly promenade across the lot.
One day I had Jesse in the front seat and he decided to play a joke on me. He reached over and pulled my car keys out of the ignition. While we were moving. You could do that on a ’61 Oldsmobile. Still a novice driver, I panicked. I slammed on the brakes, convinced the car would self-destruct. My Olds rocked with the players’ laughter.
I saw Jesse out at Fuzzy Thurston’s bar on a Packer alumni weekend a few years ago, and I told him that story. He didn’t remember the incident—I hadn’t expected him to—but he chuckled and said it was something he would have done.
Jesse was a handsome fellow. When I wrote the words “dashing Texan” in the prologue to Incomplete Passes, it was Jesse I visualized. And as a Texan, he broadened our horizons in that little northern town. He opened a Tex-Mex restaurant and bar on Broadway on Green Bay’s West Side. The first Mexican food I ate, except for frozen dinners, was served to me at Whittenton’s King’s X.
A member of the Packers’ Hall of Fame, Jesse is perhaps best known for a play in a 1961 game against the New York Giants. I was there in Milwaukee County Stadium with my parents. It was a close game. The Giants had the lead and they were driving again. Suddenly the action on the field surged the other way. “What happened? What happened?” I cried. The PA announcer told us. Whittenton had stolen the ball from Giants running back Alex Webster, just taken it out of his hands. The turnover set up a score, and the Packers won the game 20-17 on their way to the NFL championship.
I’ve always believed that Packer fans in Green Bay have a unique relationship with their team, simply because the town is so small. Back in my day and Jesse’s, there were only 50- or 60,000 souls. My friends and I could catch star halfback Paul Hornung shopping at Prange’s, the town’s major department store. If my family went out to dinner after a game, there might be players, coaches, or sportswriters at the next table. Even today, people get on Twitter to report a Clay Matthews sighting at Panera Bread near the stadium.
That closeness is a privilege. But the downside is that when we lose one of the Packer family, our lives are diminished more than the average fan’s.
Jesse Whittenton rode in my car. Jesse Whittenton was part of my life. Thanks for all the great memories, Jess. I’m going to miss you.
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