From the moment he took the call from Wolverine Willie, Jason Whitlock’s substantial finger should have been poised to hang up. Only a couple of weeks earlier, Willie, a frequent caller to sports-talk radio shows, had been banned from Jim Rome’s Jungle for one of his signature parody songs. Rome and many of his followers thought the tune was anti-Semetic, and the host gave Willie the boot.
Even if Whitlock hadn’t known Willie’s reputation, the Kansas City Star columnist should have been wary when the frequent caller to his afternoon radio show, The Doghouse, began singing in a redneck drawl to the tune of Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line.”
“I keep my zipper wide open all the time,” Willie sang. “Arrested for performing an indecent crime.”
Another host might have cut off Willie at that moment. For the local horde that finds Kansas City sports-talk radio so absorbing, there was no question who was being attacked in Willie’s joke.
The target was Kevin Kietzman, Whitlock’s former colleague and boss at WHB 810. And Willie’s song was just the latest version of an urban legend that Whitlock himself had helped perpetuate — that late one night, Prairie Village police stopped Kietzman while he was driving home from an 810 function and caught him, literally, with his pants down.
In the version spread by Whitlock and his listeners, Kietzman, caught in a compromising position with a young coworker, barged out of his car with his pants around his ankles and berated police, asking them repeatedly whether they knew who he was.
“My family’s broken and in a state of disgrace, ’cause I left a stain on some poor girl’s face,” Willie crooned.
Whitlock roared with laughter.
Problem is, the story’s not true.
On the night of January 10, 2002, Prairie Village police did indeed pull Kietzman over. But that’s about all that the song — and the other stories — have right.
“He was not in any act,” says Lt. Wes Jordan of the Prairie Village Police Department. “He wasn’t naked. His pants weren’t around his ankles. He was given a field sobriety test to be sure he was OK, and he was.”
Kietzman drove off without even getting a ticket.
But in Willie’s song, Kietzman ends up passing out at a casino. Willie’s tune finishes on a strange note, suggesting that Whitlock himself has taken advantage of Kietzman’s subsequent marital split-up by moving into the Kietzmans’ bed.
Chuckling hard, he asked Willie to sing the song again. So Willie gave his first-ever encore performance.
On a more recent afternoon, Whitlock erupted in paroxysms of laughter again when another caller told an elaborate joke about Kietzman that eventually implied that his rival host was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the owner of the world’s smallest penis.
An hour later, Whitlock was still chuckling. “We’ve got to have him tell that joke again,” he said.
Sometimes, listening to Whitlock’s afternoon radio show, it’s hard to reconcile the program’s oafish and tired routines — fart jokes and blow-job references — with the man who has made himself one of the most recognizable faces in Kansas City.
The former college football player who has transformed himself into a nationally known columnist today finds himself in an enviable position. Influential sportswriter. Daily radio host. Frequent guest on national television shows. Sought-after endorser of local charity events.
But after helping to transform a staid sports section into a caustic battlefield through righteous name-calling and smart blame-placing, Whitlock’s writing recently has grown flabby as his various radio feuds have taken up more of his time. Which got two sports-obsessed writers to wonder about Whitlock: How did a sports columnist become one of Kansas City’s biggest celebrities?
“There are few writers who own a town,” says Denver Post columnist Woody Paige. “Royko owned Chicago; Jim Murray, Los Angeles; Mitch Albom, Detroit. Jason, it seems, has developed an incredible following in Kansas City.” Thanks to that following, Whitlock earns hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary and writes an additional column for ESPN.com. Besides the radio gig, there are the regular appearances on ESPN’s The Sports Reporters and numerous references to his work on the network’s Around the Horn and Pardon the Interruption.
With that kind of success, it’s reasonable to assume that some sort of satisfaction would set in and convince Whitlock that he’s above petty feuds like the one with Kietzman (which Kietzman largely ignores).
But the man apparently can’t help himself. In a Star story about sports radio in Kansas City, Whitlock told his coworker Wright Thompson, “I’m a paranoid black man who always thinks he’s one mistake away from having everything taken from me.”
People who know him well told us repeatedly that, despite his success, Whitlock isn’t at ease with himself. Despite evidence to the contrary, Whitlock tells others that he’s less admired than hunted. And that insecurity apparently started when he was a boy.
Whitlock grew up in suburban Indianapolis — not exactly Compton, but the boy apparently wasn’t taking any chances. In a 2001 profile for KU’s student newspaper, The University Daily Kansan, Brandon Stinnett describes a ten-year-old Whitlock, home alone, grasping a knife for safety against possible intruders as he watches television and waits for his older brother to arrive. “Jason was always kind of scared of everything,” Whitlock’s mother, Joyce, told Stinnett.
Like his paranoia, Whitlock’s love of sports started early. He was a standout offensive lineman at Warren Central High School in Indianapolis, blocking for future NFL player Jeff George, the man with the million-dollar arm and the plug-nickel disposition. Whitlock earned a football scholarship to Ball State, but he ended up on the bench and realized that his pro-ball prospects were fading fast.
David Knott was the faculty adviser for The Ball State Daily News when Whitlock started exploring sportswriting during his junior year.
“When he first got there, his writing skills had some pretty rough edges,” Knott says. “But he was a hard worker, and he was determined to become a good writer.”
Knott recalls that Whitlock mostly filed game reports and wasn’t much of a presence in the newsroom. “He was the football player who came to work for the paper, you know what I mean?” he says. “He didn’t hang out. He was busy with football, too.”
Whitlock wasn’t impressed with the region’s sports columnists, Knott says.
“He thought they weren’t being hard enough on the teams, and he was exactly right,” Knott says. “On the other hand, that wasn’t the style in those days, especially not in Indiana.”
Whitlock also disliked the local columnists’ impersonal third-person voice.
“One of the things I always preached as a journalism professor, especially in column writing, was that the columnist should keep the I out of it,” Knott says. “Jason definitely did not agree with me on that, and who am I to argue with the success he’s had?”
Whitlock eventually earned an apprenticeship at The Herald-Times in Bloomington, Indiana. There, he worked for sports editor and Bob Knight biographer Bob Hammel, who still remembers marking up Whitlock’s first story.
“It looked like a red-ink pen had bled to death,” Hammel says. “I told him, ‘I don’t know how serious you are with this. You are going to have to learn a lot of things really fast.'”
Hammel suggested to Whitlock that he read James Kilpatrick’s syndicated Sunday newspaper column, The Writer’s Art. When Hammel left at 2 a.m., he saw only one light in the newsroom still on. It was at Whitlock’s desk. In front of Whitlock were back issues of the paper’s Sunday edition, opened to Kilpatrick’s column. The scene convinced Hammel that maybe Whitlock had a chance.
During Whitlock’s year at the Herald-Times, he and Hammel made an odd pair. Hammel says that Whitlock charmed his wife and took obvious pleasure in arguing the conservative counterpoint to Hammel’s liberal politics.
“I think he sort of emulated a rising genre of cynical writing,” Hammel says. “That’s the vogue right now, and he rode that wave and represents it to many people.”
After brief stints at the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina and The Ann Arbor News in Michigan, where he called for the benching of then-University of Michigan quarterback Elvis Grbac in his first column, Whitlock moved to the Star in October 1994. He soon found that the daily’s history of sports reporting was dominated by the 44-year reign of Joe McGuff, who deserves some credit for bringing the Royals to town.
“He’s not as big as Joe McGuff,” says Tom Shattel, a Kansas City native who worked for the Star before moving to his current position as a sports columnist for the Omaha World-Herald. “Nobody will ever be that big. In this era of loud and brash and in your face, [Whitlock is] a different kind of Joe McGuff. He’s a different kind of celebrity.”
McGuff, who joined the Star in 1948 and retired in 1992, was the calm, reasonable voice of the Star‘s sports page. A member of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s writers’ wing, he was popular with athletes and colleagues. George Brett renamed his ALS charity golf event after McGuff last year.
The Star has showcased other caustic columnists, notably Dick Mackey. And there was Jonathan Rand, who was critical yet by-the-book. But no one aggressively crossed lines like Whitlock does. No one even came close to his nasty personal vendettas.
Not coincidentally, Whitlock has tapped into markets that have usually been difficult for the Star to reach, attracting young readers and African-American fans. His column was a Public Enemy track in the paper’s Barry Manilow mix tape.
Teaming Whitlock with optimist Joe Posnanski gives the Star a “perfect mix” of columnists, says Rick Dean, sportswriter for The Topeka Capital-Journal. “They’ve got the rabble-rouser, and they’ve got the poet,” he says.
But Whitlock’s arrival here was not without its bumps. Sportswriters travel in herds. They attend the same press conferences. They ride the same elevators to the same press boxes at stadiums. Occasionally, they carpool to games and events. Kansas City has historically been even more insular.
“Kansas City media for years had been almost a fraternity,” Shattel says. “Here comes Jason, who was from Michigan and had a certain style and was not one of the boys.”
Shattel remembers Whitlock sitting by himself in the Arrowhead Stadium press box during Chiefs games that first season. “I thought, that’s not right,” Shattel says. “I felt bad for the guy at first.”
But Whitlock bulled his way into the local scene and wasn’t afraid to stand up for his work.
“He wrote something about the Chiefs that just pissed off everyone in the locker room,” Dean says of one early column. “To his credit, the day it ran, he stood in the middle of the locker room big and wide and defiant just waiting for anyone to confront him. Marcus Allen finally said, ‘Come here, young brother. We’ve got something to talk about.’ That’s the mark of a pro.”
Dean’s editor at the Capital-Journal, Kurt Caywood, also remembers Whitlock’s auspicious entrance at the Star.
“He was a ripper when he got here,” Caywood says. “He was going to point out the worst thing. If you lost, he was going to fix blame for why you lost.”
In past seasons, Chiefs cornerback Eric Warfield has been a frequent target of Whitlock’s barbs.
“It came to be a week-in, week-out thing,” Warfield says. Warfield felt compelled to clear the air, approaching the columnist at a public event. The two so effectively put the harsh columns behind them that the next time they met in public, Whitlock asked permission to attend a party at the Chiefs player’s house.
“He actually called my cell phone,” Warfield says. “He was more than welcome. He’s not a bad guy. He writes what he sees.”
What Whitlock might see one day isn’t necessarily what he will see the next, though.
“I don’t know of anybody who can jump from one position to another as freely and with as clear a conscience as he can,” Caywood says. “In that respect, he may be unique. I’m cursed by remembering what I wrote last week and generally believing it.”
And Whitlock is an unapologetic fan, something other sportswriters have a hard time understanding.
Caywood says that during Dante Hall’s now-famous kick return last October against Denver at Arrowhead, Whitlock went as crazy as the fans outside, high-fiving quarterback-turned-broadcaster Ron Jaworski over Caywood’s head.
“‘Have you ever seen anything like this? Look at this! Look at this! I’ve got goose bumps!'” Caywood says Whitlock shouted. “I was sitting there without goose bumps. It’s my fucking job. I’m watching a game. Sorry. I don’t know what that says about him.”
Cheering in the press box violates unspoken rules, but on one occasion, Whitlock’s behavior crossed into universally offensive territory. In 1998, Dean, like Whitlock, was covering a Chiefs-Patriots game in Foxboro, Massachusetts. The stadium layout allows the back-row fans to turn around and look into the press box. After a Patriots touchdown, the fans heckled the visiting media.
“They were banging on the windows and giving us some razz as if we give a damn what the score was,” Dean recalls.
Dean says Whitlock took the opportunity to taunt the crowd, which was shivering on a 30-degree afternoon. He wrote “Warm in here” on a piece of paper and held it up to the glass.
“When they saw that, we got a few one-finger salutes,” Dean says.
“Good food, too,” Whitlock wrote to the fans.
“It was all fun,” Dean says. “By this time, I stopped paying attention.”
He looked up quickly a few minutes later, when the windows began rattling. Stadium security staff confiscated Whitlock’s third sign, which read “Pats suck. Bledsoe gay?” The confrontation made national news, and the Star suspended Whitlock for two weeks.
“I was in Kansas City for a college-journalism conference, and it happened to be the very time when Jason was suspended,” Ball State’s Knott recalls. “I went down and talked to him, and he explained what had happened. With that style, when you step over the line, they just reel you back in for a while until you cool down. It keeps life interesting, and it keeps the sports world from taking itself too seriously.”
When writing straight news stories, keeping life interesting isn’t necessarily a top priority. Yet even when writing fact-based pieces, Whitlock has trouble keeping his conspiracy-minded commentator’s tone off the page. In Las Vegas to write a column about a championship fight in June 1997, Whitlock heard about a scuffle at the MGM Grand Casino, the bout’s host hotel. Working with former Chiefs defensive lineman Neil Smith and then-Dallas Cowboys linebacker Broderick Thomas as his only sources, Whitlock filed a story with the accusatory opening sentence “Las Vegas police and the MGM Grand Casino and Hotel would like for you to believe there were no gunshots and no rioting following the Evander Holyfield-Mike Tyson fight.”
Whitlock then turned to his experts, Smith (“They’re covering it up nice. But I definitely heard gunfire”) and Thomas (“I was right in it. People were shot”). Neither hotel representatives nor local law enforcement officials were quoted. It turned out that no shots were fired. The suspicious sound came from a cracked plate-glass window. Yet in a story with fewer than 300 words, Whitlock managed to allege a sinister cabal of Vegas forces and imply a cover-up with far-reaching implications.
Whitlock might not have a knack for news, and he lets Associated Press 2002 Columnist of the Year Posnanski accumulate the writing awards. But he has cultivated a much bigger identity than his colleague.
“Jason is right on target when he says it’s not enough just to be a columnist,” Dean admits. “‘You’ve got to be a multimedia man.’ We laughed at him when he said that, but, hell, he’s been proven right. He’s on The Sports Reporters when the rest of us are in Topeka.”
Whitlock has ballooned past the confines of his column. He’s become a regular on The Sports Reporters, an invitation that’s generally reserved for household names like Mitch Albom and Mike Lupica.
On ESPN’s weekday roundup Around the Horn, regional sports reporters engage in competitive banter, with the last writer left standing given fifteen seconds to sound off on any topic. Whitlock’s words often appear on the show’s “Buy or Sell” segment, during which host Max Kellerman will read a few of his lines about, say, the burgeoning greatness of KU’s 2003-04 men’s basketball team or the grim playoff hopes of the Chiefs. The writers then agree or disagree with his assertions, often assigning Whitlock amusing nicknames in the process. (The Chicago Sun-Times‘ Jay Mariotti calls him “Brainlock,” and Paige alternates between “Jabba the Hutt” and “Donyell Washington.”)
Both Paige and Holley, competitors on the program, call Whitlock a standout scribe.
“I respect the hell out of him,” says Michael Holley, an African-American columnist for The Boston Globe. “As a columnist, I think he is absolutely necessary. I don’t say that because he is black and outspoken. I say it because he is outspoken. He takes on issues like a blocking back takes on middle linebackers.”
Whitlock applied the same all-out-blitz approach to radio. He first hit the air in 1997, doing one-hour guest spots with local sports-radio pioneer Chad Boeger. At the time, Boeger was hosting a sports-talk show on then-fledgling KCTE 1510. “I think he liked what I was doing,” Boeger says. “He saw me as a young entrepreneur that was trying to do something different in town, the local guy who was kind of the underdog.”
Like Kietzman, Frank Boal and Soren Petro, Whitlock had a one-hour segment each week, during which he and Boeger talked sports and took calls from listeners. The outspoken Whitlock was a natural for the growing medium of sports-talk radio, Boeger says. “We built our station on people who say what they think and let the listeners respond.”
In 1999, during the Final Four basketball tournament in Tampa, Florida, Whitlock began negotiating with Boeger for a more serious role at the station.
Over dinner with radio colleague Todd Leabo and Boeger, Whitlock explained that Entercom, the radio conglomerate that owns former Royals flagship KMBZ 980 and KRBZ 96.5, among other stations, also was seeking his services. But Whitlock chose Union Broadcasting, Boeger’s company.
“He really felt like he wanted to be part of the local team,” Boeger says.
For the most part, Whitlock’s full-time employer supported his new gig. Occasionally, Boeger says, Star sports editor Mike Fannin would call, frustrated that the station had broken a story the paper wouldn’t have until the next day. “I think that would get under their skin a little bit,” he says.
Boeger acknowledges that Whitlock was not the smoothest at first. The morning show sounded like a tape from a fraternity lounge, with copious references to Whitlock’s bedroom and bladder.
“Farting is very important to me,” Whitlock told Stinnett for the Daily Kansan profile. “I’ve built my entire life around farting.” When Stinnett trailed Whitlock for a day, he observed a particularly pungent example of post-Gates flatulence. After asking former 810 coworker Megan Maciejowski to roll down her car window, Whitlock, Stinnett writes, “thrust his ample buttocks through the window, relieved himself of a noisy stream of gas, then walked to his house with a look of satisfaction on his face.”
But despite the potty-talk — or perhaps because of it — people tuned in, and Whitlock eventually improved.
“On-the-job training,” Boeger says. “He’s continued to learn from day one until now.”
One thing he’s learned is that making enemies can lead to riveting radio.
He fought with 980’s Don Fortune after the talk-show host ridiculed Whitlock’s column calling for a Royals opening-day boycott in 1995 to protest the players’ strike of the previous year. Whitlock eventually called off the boycott, saying he was satisfied that the Royals intended to please fans with more giveaways and other perks. Fortune dismissed the proposed boycott as a stunt and claimed that Whitlock was aware of the concessions in advance. Whitlock called Fortune’s show and blasted him on the air.
The next year, he branded KCFX 101.1’s Bob Gretz as “a media puppet.” He wrote, “Most of you already know that Gretz is a joke, and that it would take a sledgehammer, two crowbars, a flame-thrower, mace and a stick of dynamite to remove his lips from [Chiefs President and General Manager Carl] Peterson’s backside.”
In February 1997, Whitlock skewered Peterson for failing to sign his former high school teammate Jeff George. Killing two birds with one column, Whitlock wrote that Peterson was “playing kissy-face with a no-backboned jacks player [Fortune] whose football expertise comes from his high school experience as a powder-puff cheerleader.”
Whitlock, however, seemed unable to comprehend that his own incessant cheerleading for his former high school buddy George was more obnoxious than anything promoted by Fortune or Gretz.
“Jason has always found cheerleading very distasteful, yet he has never fully appreciated the way Jeff George has been covered by the media,” Knott says. “Jeff never made it big-time, and he probably never will. But it’s understandable that he’d take such a strong stance. They were high school buddies, and you don’t always see things in full light when people are that close to you.”
Though Whitlock and Fortune were briefly rumored to be prospective partners in 1999 (“He shouldn’t have a problem working with me. He certainly needs the help,” Whitlock told the Star‘s Jeffrey Flanagan at the time), they never quite ended their feud. In his June 22, 2003, column about moving from 810 to the new, Entercom-owned KCSP 610, Whitlock wrote, “It wasn’t that long ago that Don Fortune was the king of sports talk in Kansas City. Back then, a host could be totally uninformed and a homer and still draw huge ratings.”
But recently, Whitlock has reserved most of his venom for Kietzman, who was Whitlock’s boss at 810. Along with being the host of the ratings-topping afternoon show Between the Lines, Kietzman co-owns the station.
“Jason always saw him as competition,” Boeger says.
During his first show on 610 last fall, Whitlock described his “divorce from WHB” and blasted Kietzman at length in a diatribe riddled with references to his former employer’s traffic stop.
“They say a fish rots at the head, and the pun is intended,” Whitlock said. “The great family man is an imposter.”
Whitlock again hauled out what he apparently considers his most damning insult, the implication that Kietzman participated in nonathletic extracurricular activities in high school.
“You have a former high school yell leader trying to undermine and pick on three former football players,” Whitlock said in an incredulous, disgusted tone, referring to himself and former Crunch Time hosts Bill Maas and Tim Grunhard, who also are now on 610.
Whitlock now competes with Kietzman head-to-head for ratings, having moved from his early morning Neighborhood slot at 810 to his Doghouse slot from 2 to 6 p.m. on 610. But bad blood with one of the bosses wasn’t the only reason Whitlock left when his contract with 810 expired at the end of 2002. Boeger says that by then, he and Whitlock had been negotiating for several months. Boeger won’t specify the sticking points, but he says he didn’t believe they were insurmountable. “I thought it was going to get done,” he says.
Part of the discussion had to do with Whitlock’s on-air partner. His original sidekick, Steven St. John, had moved to the company’s FM station, KZPL 97.3. Boeger suggested Maas, with whom Whitlock had locked horns at staff meetings and traded shots on the air. The two didn’t talk for a month after one exchange. The tension made for great radio.
“There had been some intense moments,” Boeger says. “I thought this would be something new and challenging for both of them.”
By arranging the pairing, Boeger might have unwittingly sent both packing. “At some point, instead of talking through me, they started talking to each other,” he says. After allowing his Union Broadcasting no-compete contract clause to expire, Maas became Whitlock’s cohost earlier this month.
Last October, Whitlock went to Boeger’s office and told him he was moving to Entercom, in part to have a better lifestyle with an afternoon show. “As a journalist, I paid a heavy price for those 4 a.m. wake-up calls five days a week,” Whitlock wrote in a Star column about the switch last summer.
But even with a more suitable schedule, Whitlock continues to give his writing job short shrift. As one of the first columnists to bring sports-talk sensationalism to a sleepy sports section, Whitlock gave the page a toxic, radioactive glow. His vendettas and his campaigns to get players benched and coaches canned used to make his columns compelling, even for readers who bristled at Whitlock’s tone. These days, though, Whitlock occasionally errs on the other extreme, shamelessly pandering to local readers and driving bandwagons.
In late November last year, he proclaimed KU’s Jayhawks as “America’s top team” on the slimmest of evidence. And a December Chiefs slam buried an insightful thesis (“The Chiefs have the softest defense in the NFL, and their offense chooses the weirdest, most inopportune times to completely disappear”) in a muddle of say-nothing player quotes and maddening generalities. There was a time when Whitlock would have pointed a finger or two and made the culprits pay.
Not that he has mellowed — he still lands a few hefty haymakers each week. But with the exception of his recent borderline-brilliant column on disgraced Mizzou basketball player Ricky Clemons — by far the best take on the scandalous taped jailhouse phone conversations — Whitlock’s more interesting assaults now take place in the Doghouse.
These days, hearing Whitlock talk about his columns on the air (when he stays away from fart jokes and parody songs) has become much more engaging than reading the columns themselves.
If Whitlock thinks his position as a black columnist makes him vulnerable, he’s not alone. Ivan Carter, a Star sportswriter who is also African-American, describes Whitlock as “wary.” Carter says this trait is common among successful blacks, who worry that their prosperity will be taken away.
“When an African-American gets to a certain level, there is a threat there, and whether it’s real or imagined, it’s real for them,” he says. “It’s almost paranoia in some cases. It’s a tightrope, man. The bigger you get, the more you feel there are people who want to see you go down.”
Carter says he has seen resentment directed at his colleague. “A lot of people smile at his face and talk snap behind his back,” he says. “There is a lot of jealousy over that guy being as prominent as he is in the sports media. People wish they were in that position.”
“The most pointed critiques of journalists by journalists come in anonymous forums,” Holley says. “For example, you’ll see a lot of cheap shots taken in chat rooms. There is also the perception that many black columnists were hired simply to satisfy a demographic or, worse, a quota. There are so many layers to unfair treatment that it’s difficult to uncover why you’re being treated that way. Is it because you are black? Is it because you are black and confrontational? Or is it because you are a columnist — regardless of race — that makes people uncomfortable?”
Los Angeles Times sports columnist J.A. Adande first crossed paths with Whitlock in the early ’90s, when he covered Big 10 basketball at The Chicago Sun-Times and Whitlock covered the Michigan squad for the Ann Arbor News. About eight years ago, he went out with Whitlock in Kansas City and was amazed by his local celebrity status.
“All kinds of people came up to him,” Adande recalls. “People noticed him everywhere he went. The number one thing for a columnist is to have people react to you, and people react to Jason.”
But that popularity, he says, can come with a price. “People do feel threatened when a black man is coming with an intelligent opinion. They’re used to seeing black people compartmentalized in the arenas of entertainment and sports. It’s basically, aEntertain us, but we don’t really care what you have to say or think.’
“Why am I the first black sports columnist in Los Angeles?” Adande continues. “Why did it take until 1997 for that to come about? I was born in 1970. I shouldn’t be the first black anything. And we’re still one step away from extinction. If I leave, get fired or quit, they’re back down to zero black columnists in LA. Think about that.”
Though he shrugs off talk of conspiracy, Adande empathizes with Whitlock’s concerns.
“Black writers carry a double burden,” he says. “Not only do you have to prove for yourself, but also you have to prove for the next black writer who comes along and all the black writers out there. White writers don’t have to carry that burden.”
If Whitlock does worry that he’s a target, we no doubt exacerbated his fears when we chose an unusual way to get near the suspicious columnist. After Whitlock declined our interview requests by e-mail and phone, we crawled out of bed before dawn to shadow him as he walked the Humana River Crown Plaza Marathon on November 1, 2003.
Given the abuse Whitlock takes from callers, you would think he endured abuse every time he stepped out in public — grocery clerks sticking up for their favorite players, restaurant servers discreetly dirtying his dishes, alcohol-emboldened macho dudes wanting a chance to bark at the big dog. We had expected a few marathon fans to mock the jogging giant from the sidelines. Instead, dozens of folks woke up before 8 a.m. to offer encouragement.
Even more stunning was the support from runners. Granted, Whitlock is an unlikely spokesman for the annual marathon, pimping the event and seeking pledges for charity in his column. Karen Raymer, race coordinator, celebrates the attention Whitlock has brought to a race that has usually struggled to find sponsors and generate interest.
“Jason has given us free publicity we could never afford to pay for,” Raymer says.
But Whitlock’s efforts were not universally celebrated.
“To have as the poster child for your marathon this grossly obese human being, there’s an irony there,” says Sally Sawyer, a runner who doubted that Whitlock would finish the marathon as he had boasted. Sawyer shadowed him over the 5 miles he actually completed two years ago. “It pulled the attention away from real runners, the people who had trained.”
Yet not a single runner razzed Whitlock at last year’s event, when he finished 11 miles. Broadway was a stream of runners, parting to go around him and pat him on the back, literally and figuratively, as they passed.
“Good luck, Jason.”
“Jason, go get ’em, buddy.”
One runner turned around and retraced three hard-earned steps to tell Whitlock of his devotion.
“I appreciate you coming out here and supporting the marathon,” the panting runner said. “I know there are a lot of people out here who wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.”
He never acknowledged the two suspicious-looking guys who trailed him only feet away, notebooks in hand.
He also shunned an interview on October 27 at Gates BBQ on Paseo, where he greeted and glad-handed guests, most of whom he was familiar with only by their Internet message-board screen names. The impromptu party resulted from a bet he’d made the day before with George Gates. If Whitlock lost the bet, he would provide free food for fifty friends. Whitlock predicted, in person and in print, that the Buffalo Bills would trounce the Chiefs. Instead, KC won handily. A cookie cake reminded him of his mistaken prediction: “The Bills will beat the Chiefs,” it read, with “Jason Whitlock” signed in blue icing.
The most obvious die-hard fans — the ones that showed up in Chiefs gear — maintained that Whitlock believed the Chiefs would win all along. Whitlock supplied plenty of evidence for these gullible types on his radio show that afternoon. He mock-confessed to having arranged both the Bills victory prediction and subsequent apologetic gesture, dubbing it a Dick Vermeil-approved motivational stunt. Several callers took the bait. Finally, after about the fifth heavy-handed harangue, Whitlock revealed the truth.
“I was dead wrong,” he admitted. “I was joking in my embarrassment. It was sarcasm. Sorry you didn’t catch it.” The caller, still baffled, continued to point out the inconsistencies between his current statements and his column’s claims.
Another caller on the same day cut through the subterfuge to ask a pressing question. “You do an awful lot for the community. Why not let people see who you are?”
Whitlock dodged the query, shifting the discussion back to his alleged chicanery. It’s a question with which he might never be completely comfortable. Although Whitlock is well-known — perhaps more so than any other figure in town — no one really knows him. And that’s just how he intends to keep it.