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A former Oregon State Giant Killer looks at mortality and a life that has been full of giving, loving

(EDITOR'S NOTE: This column, which was first posted on Aug. 20, 2012, is being re-posted after the death Tuesday of former Oregon State football player Don Whitney. He was 64.)

I don’t think Don Whitney would mind me writing that he is well into his fourth quarter of life, with only the two-minute drill still ahead.

Sadly, the former standout with Oregon State’s famed Giant Killers is in the final stages of a battle with pancreatic cancer.

Whitney, 64, was diagnosed with the disease a year ago. After months of chemotherapy and hospital visits for blood infections, he made the choice that many in his predicament face.

“I let go of the chemo, with the goal that I’m going to live life the best I can for the remaining time I have,” says Whitney, who lives in Edmonds, Wash., with his wife of 16 years, Beth, and 11-year-old son Colin. “One doctor said I have three or four months left. That was a month or two ago. The other one didn’t have any estimate. You just don’t know about that.”

Mortality is a sobering thought, and Whitney admits it hasn’t been easy.

“Sometimes you can get down,” he says. “But when you have Beth and Colin in your life, it’s hard to stay down very long. You love seeing them. That’s what gives me hope daily. That and the wonderful support of friends and colleagues.”

During our half-hour phone conversation, Whitney’s voice never broke down, though his words sometimes came in halting fashion. There is no self-pity in this man with rich athletic skills and a gentle soul that nearly carried him into the clergy.

“In my entire life, I’ve never met anybody so strong and so courageous,” says Eric Pettigrew, a former Beaver of a later era who grew to be close friends with Whitney. “Such a give-it-your-all individual.”

Pettigrew was an offensive tackle who played for Craig Fertig and Joe Avezzano from 1978-81, fortunate that his path crossed with Whitney, who served as Oregon State’s first athletic academic advisor.

Following his playing days as a three-year starter in the secondary from 1967-69, Whitney spent a year in Japan, living with a Japanese family and studying religion, in particular Zen Buddhism. During his time as an academic advisor at OSU a decade later, he encountered Pettigrew and teammate Rudy Guice.

“It was the start of my junior year, and I was on academic probation, on the way to being kicked out of school,” Pettigrew recalls. “Don connected with Rudy and me. He told us about his experience in Japan and said we could do the same thing, but we had to have the grades.”

The trip appealed to both players. Their grades improved, and after their senior year in Corvallis, they spent four months in England on an American Heritage exchange program.

“It was the best experience,” Pettigrew says. “It helped changed the course of both of our lives. Up to that point, no one on the academic side (at OSU) cared enough to take us and help us focus on what was important.”

Whitney pushed the trip to Pettigrew and Guice for a particular reason.

“The more people in college who get exposed to the international world, we can maybe decrease the amount of conflict and violence out there,” he says. “If we see we’re more alike than different.”

Today, Guice is a federal probation officer living in Portland. Pettigrew is in Seattle, a state representative in the 37th legislative district while also serving as director of business development for Regence Blue Shield of Washington.

Whitney made a difference with them, as well as many other students during his four years at Oregon State and subsequent 28 years in various capacities at the University of Washington.

It’s what he has always wanted to do, from the point when he opted not for an theological career but one in academic service.

“I couldn’t see myself preaching every Sunday,” Whitney says. “For me, ministry is more about the one-on-one relationship, where you counsel people and help them grow and develop.”

The kid from Athena in rural eastern Oregon, who transferred to Pendleton High as a senior to play for Coach Don Requa and improve his chances to make it at the college level, did what he set out to do.

Whitney was a stalwart during one of the finest eras of football in Oregon State history. He developed the student-athlete academic program there, then spent nearly three decades in a variety of positions as a successful administrator at UW. He married for the first time at 48 years old, fathered a child and became a loving family man.

A deep thinker, Whitney embraced the meditation synonymous with Zen Buddhism but remains a hybrid when it comes to religion.

“I never converted to Buddhism,” he says. “There’s a piece of me that is Buddhist; there’s a piece that is Christian. I’m a little eclectic in my religious beliefs.”

Religion, he says, has helped him since the diagnosis of cancer.

“The heart of Buddhism is compassion,” Whitney says. “The heart of Christianity is to love the neighbor as thyself. Continuing to focus on loving other people keeps things in perspective. I focus on trying to be loving, day by day, to family and friends.”

Whitney’s friends have risen up to help his family in time of need. Several have brought meals by the house once a week. Many have come by to visit or called to check on how Don is doing. Former teammate Larry Rich has driven up from Lincoln City several times to help with projects around the house.

It has been a difficult time for the entire Whitney family. In February, Beth underwent a masectomy.

“She’s on the better side of what she has going,” Don says, “but it has been a challenge to balance everything.”

Whitney spends his days feeling blessed by family and friends. Feeling appreciative of his time at both Oregon State and Washington. Enjoying the love he has created and shares with those around him.

“Don is such a great, genuine guy,” says Pettigrew, who wound up working alongside Whitney at UW for several years. “When I first met Don, I thought, ‘No way was he a player. His hands are soft, he speaks quietly, he looks wiry, has a bald head. No way was this guy an athlete.’ "

First impressions can be deceiving. Don Whitney was a fine athlete. And as those who know him will attest, he is an even better man.

kerryeggers@portland tribune.com

Twitter: @kerryeggers