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Memory Lane: Dennis Whitson called several hundred high school and college games over a 36-year period

Bill Lane • Mar 21, 2010 at 12:00 AM

Name: Dennis Whitson

Born: Sept. 6, 1947

Where: Pigeon Roost, N.C.

High School: Unicoi County

Residence: Erwin

Then: The son of a logger, Dennis Whitson grew up in a large, sports-minded family. There were 11 children, and six of the seven boys participated in high school athletics. One even went on to pitch in the World Series.

Donning a striped shirt to officiate basketball games isn’t what many people aspire to do, yet Whitson accepted that role and made quite a name for himself blowing a whistle.

His record as a TSSAA official was second to none. Before retiring in 2009, he called several hundred high school and college games over a 36-year period. This included eight state tournaments.

The venues ranged from bandbox-size gyms at Lamar, Boones Creek and Sulphur Springs to spacious arenas like the Murphy Center in Murfreesboro, The Omni in Atlanta and at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

Whitson began calling recreation league games for $3 each. When he finally gave it up, Whitson was earning $75 for a high school doubleheader.

“It was never about money,’’ he said. “Every time I called a game, I loved it even more. When I got my monthly schedule, I could feel the adrenaline flowing.’’

It took Whitson 3½ years to get on the varsity assignments list. His first game was a matchup between the Church Hill and Rogersville girls. Veteran official Johnny Holder conducted the opening tipoff, then told Whitson: “You run the game now.’’

It took an attitude adjustment for Whitson to succeed.

“When I reached the varsity level, I was smart-alecky — always talking back to coaches,’’ he said. “One of the Big 10 Conference coaches eventually called me aside and warned that would have to cease or I’d never make it as an official. My life on the hardwood changed that night.

“I learned never to allow a coach to lure me into an argument. A lot of the younger officials today will carry on conversations with coaches during the course of a game. That’s a mistake. I quit doing that long ago.’’

He took the same approach to crowd control. “If you’re a really good official, you’ll ignore comments from spectators unless there’s profanity. If that occurs or if one of them enters the playing area, you summon the school’s athletic director.’’

Technical fouls were generally a last resort for Whitson.

“It’s a two-game suspension and a $250 fine if two technical fouls are charged to a coach,’’ he said. “I’d just let them talk. I stayed away from them. That’s their livelihood.’’

Whitson’s inaugural state tournament game was in 1983 at Nashville and his last one at Murfreesboro in 2008.

A standing room-only crowd of 7,000 watched Science Hill take down nationally ranked Oak Hill Academy at Freedom Hall. Science Hill defeated Florence, S.C., in a preliminary to an Atlanta Hawks game with 25,000 in the arena. He called both games, and also worked 10 annual events in the Bahamas.

Whitson said a moving screen was his most difficult call.

“An offensive player must delay on a pick-and-roll,’’ he said. “Sometimes, that’s hard to catch.’’

Whitson was bold and would come to the rescue of a fellow official in a heartbeat. He was involved in three altercations while defending partners.

He also umpired high school and college baseball games and men’s and women’s softball for about 20 years.

The reputation of Gene Whitson, a younger brother, was growing fast as a basketball official until a motorcycle accident forced him to quit.

“Gene was probably the best official around, and I’m not being prejudiced,’’ Dennis said. “He could call a game and you wouldn’t realize he was there. He ran the floor well, knew the rules and controlled the game.’’

An undersized basketball player in high school, Dennis soon gave up the sport to compete at the Erwin YMCA. He was a player/coach for the Rock Creek Church of God team that lost only one game in six years. Four Whitson brothers were on the squad.

Dennis was a deadly foul shooter. At the age of 28, he took on all comers in a statewide contest at Johnson City and won by hitting 47 of 50 shots.

He also was a world-class softball player. Dennis batted .685 and averaged nearly 50 homers a summer over a 19-year span. Playing for Giant Wholesale out of Johnson City, he was accorded All- America honors in 1980 as a pitcher — based on hitting, fielding and mound skills.

Anthony Whitson, his son, was an all-state and professional baseball player. In a Unicoi County uniform, he broke Bo Jackson’s national home run record by swatting 24 in the 1987 season, during which he pitched the Blue Devils to the state tournament with 14 consecutive wins.

The 6-foot-3, 220-pound right-hander was drafted by the Chicago Cubs and spent two seasons in the Appalachian League. Anthony has coached two youth league teams to state titles.

Ed Whitson, another of Dennis’ younger brothers, pitched in the major leagues for 15 years. He was drafted in an early round by Pittsburgh in 1975. Four years later, Ed was standing in the majors. He had three different stints with San Diego and also played for San Francisco, Cleveland and the New York Yankees.

He was a starting pitcher for the Yankees against Detroit in the 1984 World Series.

“The whole family gathered at my home to watch him on TV,’’ Dennis said. “Detroit got five runs off Ed in the first inning. He later told me he was so nervous he could barely walk to the mound. He appeared later in the series as a reliever.’’

Now: Dennis Whitson has worked 24 years for the Tennessee Department of Transportation as a surveyor and heavy equipment operator.

He and his wife, Faye, have been married 36 years. They have three children, four grandsons and three great-grandsons.

“If it hadn’t been for my family,’’ he said, “I don’t know what I’d ever done.’’

Bill Lane is a Times-News sports writer. E-mail him at blane@timesnews.net.

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