Little did he know that his passion for the sport of football would eventually develop into a career as he spent 25 years of his life on the gridiron playing for Camdenton, Missouri State and several teams in the NFL.
Jason Whittle still fondly remembers those games of backyard football when he and his two older cousins would play with the pigskin in his grandmother’s backyard.
Little did he know that his passion for the sport of football would eventually develop into a career as he spent 25 years of his life on the gridiron playing for Camdenton, Missouri State and several teams in the NFL. That passion was recognized on Wednesday in Springfield as Whittle was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame.
“I cannot remember a time in my life that I did not want to play football,” Whittle said thinking back to those early days in his grandmother’s backyard. “I don’t know how you play football with three people, but we did it. I just loved the game, the physicalness of it and I was just unbelievably blessed throughout my career. Every place I went we had success and every place I went we had unbelievable coaches and teammates. When that happens, it just kind of breeds love for the game and you just want to continue to play.”
Growing up in a place like Camdenton, it did not take long for that passion to kindle. By the time Whittle was a freshman, the Lakers had already won two state championships and the program would later go on to be enshrined in the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 2016 after adding three more state titles to its lore. Whittle may not have been a member of any those championship teams, but his play on the field did not go unnoticed after earning All-State recognition as a defensive lineman in 1991 and 1992.
“Camdenton is a special place to play. I always tell the kids of all the places I got to play, Missouri State was a great experience and the pros were a great experience, but there was something special about playing football in Camdenton,” Whittle remarked. “A lot of people say it does not get any better than that and honestly at some level, it really doesn’t. It is just a really unique and amazing place. The community is amazing the way they support that football program and my teammates I had during that time are still some of my closest buddies.
“It is an unbelievable blessing to have graduated from Camdenton and played in that program.”
And while he likely never imagined being a lineman while playing backyard football with his cousins, Whittle was fortunate enough to play for a staff at Camdenton that included Jim “Pappy” Pirch who offered a different perspective on what it meant to play the position. The esteemed linemen group known as “Pappy’s Hogs” became a staple of Laker football that continues to get plenty of love on the field today. Ultimately, it provided Whittle an avenue to continue playing the game he loved beyond the allure of the Friday night lights.
“Pappy did an amazing job of developing pride, if you will, in a unit,” Whittle explained. “It was never a letdown to be an offensive lineman at Camdenton. It was about selflessness and teamwork and as an offensive line, you are only as good as your weakest link. More than anything, a whole football team has to work together like no other sport, but as an offensive lineman, it is like a little team inside of a team so those five guys have to be on the same page.
“The way Pappy and that whole staff just coached, it was a blessing to be a part of that.”
Whittle’s journey continued in Springfield at Missouri State where he was a four-year letterman and received the Arthur Briggs Award as the top scholar athlete in 1995. By the time the NFL Draft arrived in 1998, he had caught the attention of a few teams who came to work him out, but there were certainly no guarantees and Whittle ultimately went undrafted.
“It was something I always wanted to do and something I never gave up on. I worked like I wanted to do it, but I was also realistic that the chances were not great,” Whittle said of the chance to play in the NFL. “We knew there was maybe going to be an opportunity and then the draft came and on draft day, the (New York) Giants called and invited me to training camp. I knew at that point I was at least going to get a shot.”
Even then, Whittle said his chances were not looking good when he first arrived as he was contending for a spot with 15 other linemen. But when the opportunity presented itself, he did not disappoint.
“There were a lot of guys in front of me, but God’s hand was on me throughout my whole career and I had a great career,” Whittle stated. “I just ended up with a career I never dreamed would be possible.”
Well, his former head coach at Camdenton was probably not too surprised as Bob Shore saw firsthand the way the lineman conducted himself on and off the field.
“Jason has those characteristics that make a good football player and good person. If you know one thing, he is dedicated and committed,” Shore noted. “When he is committed to something, he has a trigger and he is tough. He is a rugged football player, no doubt about it, and a very fair-minded one. Jason was always there until the last guy and he was fun to coach too. He was always upbeat, positive and a winner beyond any question.”
And that is why the coach, who was a 2004 inductee for his efforts in leading Laker football, was glad to have Whittle join him in the hall.
“It was well-earned and well-deserved and he would not have it any other way. He did not want anything he did not earn and that is the kind of person he is,” Shore said.
Whittle spent 11 seasons in the NFL. He played for the Giants from 1998 to 2002 and suited up for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2003 before playing with the Giants again in 2004 and 2005. He played for the Minnesota Vikings in 2006 and spent his final two seasons with the Buffalo Bills before retiring after the 2008 season. During that time, he won two NFC East titles with the Giants in 2000 and 2005 and reached the pinnacle in 2000 when the Giants won the NFC Championship and faced the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl.
“I don’t think I ever had a chip on my shoulder. I just kind of tried to play like my hair was on fire or play like it was my last time out on the field every time I went out there,” Whittle said looking back on his professional career. “I did not need a chip on my shoulder just because I did not have anything to prove. I just loved the game of football and I was going to give it everything I had no matter what.”
Whittle noted the many lessons the sport offered like perseverance and what it meant to work hard and how much that helped his character and his ability to grow as a person. During his speech on Wednesday he did not hesitate to thank all those who made his dream possible, noting how difficult that task would be to complete in a two-minute speech. That appreciation also included his own family who supported him every step of the way.
“My mom and dad sacrificed a ton for me. They sat on countless bleachers and were some of the biggest cheerleaders you could ever imagine,” Whittle recalled in front of a record crowd of nearly 1,000 people. “They cheered me on no matter how bad I played and I always played great in their eyes. They never pushed me and always encouraged me and I was grateful for that.
“My poor sweet sisters got dragged along to every sporting event known possible to man,” he added with a smile.
Of course, his gratitude would not be complete without mentioning his wife as well. Whittle and his family currently reside in Osage Beach.
“The biggest Hall of Famer in our family is my amazing bride who enthusiastically moved our family 14 times, most of the time without me as I went on to the next spot and she was left behind packing up the house by herself or at least with the help of my parents or our moms,” he said. “She also gave me the most incredible six kids ever so thank you.”
Wednesday was officially declared “Jason Whittle Day” by Camdenton Mayor John McNabb, who also happened to coach Whittle during his time with the Lakers. When Whittle was told of the honor by Camdenton Athletic Director Bill Kurtz, he thought the athletic director was joking at first but was thankful to have the honor nonetheless. While Wednesday focused on all of Whittle’s accomplishments, he still emphasized how important it was to remember that this day did not exclusively belong to him and what others could learn from the enshrinement of someone who simply started out playing backyard football.
“It is unbelievably humbling and when you go into something like this, it is not really my award. It is everybody’s award,” he said. “It is as much my coaches’ award and my teammates’ award as it is mine and the impact and influence they had on my career, I would not be here without any one of those guys.
“The lesson I guess, if you are a young kid and have aspirations of doing something, is do not let someone tell you that you can’t. Anything is possible if you work hard enough and are willing to sacrifice and do what it takes.”