While Jesse Whittenton might not have gained as much notoriety as some other defenders on Vince Lombardi’s championship teams partly because he retired at age 30, he was an elite cornerback and an all-around, old-school athlete.
In high school, along with being a football star, he qualified for the Texas state track meet in the high hurdles. At Texas Western, or what is now the University of Texas-El Paso, Whittenton doubled as a quarterback and defensive back in the one-platoon era of college football, and his statistics reflected his talent and versatility. He rushed for 1,351 yards, passed for 1,381 yards and intercepted nine passes. Later in life, he also briefly played on the PGA’s Senior Tour.
As a pro cornerback, Whittenton was a two-time Pro Bowl choice and a gambler, but one who rarely made mental mistakes. He also had quick reactions, a nose for the ball and a knack for being in the right place at the right time. In seven seasons with the Packers, Whittenton intercepted 20 passes, including a team-high six in 1960.
Whittenton also had a rare gift for stripping opponents of the ball and securing possession before it ever touched the ground. His most memorable strip occurred on Dec. 3, 1961, when the Packers beat the New York Giants, 20-17, to clinch the Western Conference title en route to winning their first NFL championship under Lombardi. Three plays into the fourth quarter, Whittenton snatched the ball out of the arms of fullback Alex Webster at the Giants’ 30-yard line and set up the Packers’ winning touchdown. Webster had already gained 22 yards on the play and threatened to put the Giants in position to pad their 17-13 lead.
Another of Whittenton’s hallmarks was playing well in big games. In both 1961 and ’62, Giants receiver Del Shofner was named to the Associated Press All-Pro Team. Shofner ranked third in the NFL in receptions in 1961, but caught only one pass for 29 yards against Whittenton in the ’61 regular-season showdown and three for 41 yards in the NFL Championship Game. In 1962, Shofner ranked fourth in the NFL in receiving yards, but in the league championship game caught five passes for a mere 69 yards against Whittenton, who injured his ribs in the first quarter and was forced to play softer coverage than usual thereafter.
“He is as close to being a perfect defensive back as anyone in the league,” Lombardi wrote of Whittenton in his 1963 book, “Run to Daylight.”
“Speed offensively is great but speed in your defensive backs is a must and Jesse has that. He can run with any halfback or receiver in the league and … he is a great student of opponents.”
The Packers signed Whittenton as a free agent on Oct. 14, 1958, when they placed outside linebacker Carlton Massey on injured reserve with a broken leg. A fifth-round draft choice of the Los Angeles Rams in 1956, Whittenton played two seasons for them before being traded to the Chicago Bears. The Bears waived him on Sept. 24, 1958, four days before that year’s opener after he developed a pleurisy virus.
Two weeks after joining the Packers, Whittenton replaced John Symank as a starting safety and played both there and at cornerback over the remainder of the season. Whittenton won the starting right cornerback position in Lombardi’s first season and held it for six years.
In all, Whittenton played in 88 games for the Packers before announcing his retirement on July 19, 1965. Leg injuries late in his career contributed to Whittenton’s decision to retire, but he also purchased part of a country club in El Paso, Texas, and became a golf pro. One of his business partners was Lee Trevino, a two-time U.S. Open and two-time PGA champion.
Born May 9, 1934, in Big Spring, Texas. Given name Urshell Jesse Whittenton. Died May 21, 2012, at age 78.
- Cornerback: 1958-64
- Height: 6-0; Weight: 193
- College: Texas Western, 1952-55
- Associated Press All-Pro Team (chosen since 1940): 1961
- Pro Bowl Selection (game played since 1950): 1961, ’63
- Packers 50th Anniversary Team: 1969
- Packers All-Modern Era Team: 1976