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Whitaker remembered with honor staff

Staff Photo by Christen Coulon

Over 35 football seasons have been played on the field at Don Whitaker Memorial Football Stadium behind McNairy Central High School. In recognition of Donald Ray Whitaker, Darryl Melton, a friend and an admirer, organized and presented an event on May 1 that honored Whittaker’s memory and accomplishments.

His mother, Ruby Whitaker and family were presented an honor staff, or a Christian-based walking staff, by Melton in the presence of Don’s family, friends, and fans.

“If you got kids, go to their games and watch them play ball,” said Ruby Whittaker in tears. “Don’t sit at home and send the kids to play ball. Get involved in their sports or whatever they are playing. It’s a way to keep them out of trouble...with your kids doing what they want to do (while you) encourage them to do what they want to do.”

On July 4, 1978, Whitaker died at age 21 in a tragic car accident on Highway 142, along with two other young individuals. That fall, the football field was dedicated to his memory. 

After looking up exact dates from earlier editions of the Independent Appeal, the Whitaker Family was able to report that Superintendent Eldon Howard, Principal Wayne Henry, and School Board Chairman C.E. Kiser, and Vice Chairman Joe Dan Maness initiated the recognition of Whitaker at their home football stadium on Sept. 22, 1978.

“I will never forget Terri Kerby calling me and telling me about Donald’s untimely death,” said Melton. “(Don) was such a fine young man and such an exceptional athlete.”

Several friends, colleagues, and family members participated in the event, including Arkansas Tech Alumni: Kelly Davis, Jim Murphy, and Larry Brown, who drove approximately 300 miles to attend, and locally established alumni Darryl and Marty Melton and Bob and Pat Brooks.

Former Bobcat Football Coach, Sam Guthrie, who passed away at age 69 in March 2011, coached Whitaker from 1972-75 and knew he had potential to be college football player after graduation.

Melton helped organize a meeting with Arkansas Tech and Whitaker was their first signed football scholarship. That fall after graduation, he reported to Russellville, Ark. and met with the new Wonder Boys Head Football Coach and former quarterback, Leon Anderson, where he started every game as a freshmen defensive linebacker.

Melton was named All-Conference Defensive Back in his senior year of high school in 1969, when MCHS was founded. 

In his freshmen year of play, Whitaker was recognized as All-Conference Honorable Mention, an honor usually only awarded to seniors if at all. He went on to play one more season with the Wonder Boys and still today, Whitaker holds Arkansas Tech’s fifth all-time Single-Season Tackles Record with 115 tackles.

Shortly after his stadium recognition, Arkansas Tech held a “Don Whitaker Night” in the same season to honor his memory and his two years spent with the team.

“In 2008, I attended a reunion at Tech and was looking at Tech’s athletic records,” said Melton. “As a freshman we can only imagine what records Donald would have broken had he played three more seasons.”

Maness, a former school board member, was also one of the many longtime supporters who honored Whitaker’s event and even newer MCHS arrivals, such as present-day Principal Cecil Stroup attended.

In a three-year time frame, Melton has handed 22 honor staffs to special people and friends who deserve recognition in a unique way for what they have accomplish as higher, Biblical honor. Whittaker was one of the chosen few who have touched the lives of many with “his life and achievements on the gridiron.”

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