Whitten grew up in the western suburbs of Braybrook and Footscray in Melbourne. As a youth he played for Braybrook on Saturdays and Collingwood Amateurs on Sundays; he was urged by the Collingwood Amateurs coach, Charlie Utting (a former Collingwood VFL star) to try out for the Collingwood team but was told later to come back in a few years after building up body strength. Within 12 months he was playing for Footscray, the team he had always supported.
Whitten made his VFL debut in round 1, 1951, against Richmond at the Punt Road Oval and joined a special group of players by kicking a goal with his first kick. During the match, "Mopsy" Fraser, a notoriously volatile defender for Richmond, knocked Whitten out late in the third quarter. Whitten later said that Fraser did him a favour that day, hardening his attitude and making him realise that League football was a no-nonsense game that only the toughest could succeed at. He was a key member of Footscray's 1954 VFL Premiership victory, the club's only premiership to date.
Played his very best football as a key position player, either at Centre Half Forward or Centre Half Back. Australian football writers Russell Holmesby and Jim Main described Whitten as a "prodigious kick, a flawless mark" and as having unequalled "ground and hand skills".
With superb all-round skills, the extraordinary talent of being able to kick equally well with his right and left foot,
One of the best exponents of the "flick" pass, which was eventually banned, Whitten was one of few football players to have the ability to play any position on the field. He was regarded by his contemporaries in the 1950s and 1960s as the greatest naturally talented player of his era;
With the demands of coaching and playing beginning to take a toll on his ageing body, Whitten was allowed by the Footscray committee to play four games in 1970 to break Dick Reynolds' longstanding VFL record of 320 games before he retired as a player. His 321st and final game was against Hawthorn at the Western Oval, a game which Footscray won by three points. He continued to coach Footscray until the end of the 1971 season.
As well as being a star player (he appeared for Victoria on 29 occasions), Whitten was a passionate promoter of the game – in particular the State of Origin competition, representing and captaining "The Big V" on many occasions. He was also chairman of selectors for the state team after retiring from playing football. He was a key promotional tool for the series, with its biggest rivalry between Victoria and South Australia, often featured promoting the Victorian team with his saying "Stick it up 'em". He also once famously said: Years ago you had to crawl over cut glass to get one (i.e. a state guernsey), in an era when there was an ever diminishing esteem in representing one's state, a situation that continues to the present day. He worked as a football commentator on television throughout the 1970s and as a radio commentator in the latter part of his life.
Mike Brady wrote a song about him called, "It all sounds like football to me". Ted Whitten is heard answering questions humorously on the song.
E.J Whitten statue which stands outside of the Whitten Oval
In 1995, Whitten went public with the announcement that he was suffering from prostate cancer. During a State of Origin game only weeks before his death, Whitten, suffering from blindness due to the cancer, was driven around a lap of the MCG, with his son Ted jr. by his side and Mariah Carey's "Hero" playing on the PA system. He received a standing ovation from the crowd, most of whom were too young to have ever seen him play in person, but for those who had had the privilege to see him play, it was a very emotional moment. The date of the game was Saturday 17 June 1995. This event was polled as the most memorable football event by the Melbourne newspaper The Age, and the moment is captured in Jamie Cooper's painting the Game That Made Australia, commissioned by the AFL in 2008 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the sport.
Whitten died from cancer on 17 August 1995. His death, while imminent, came as a shock to the football community.
Whitten's passing was broken live on an episode of The Footy Show. Producer Harvey Silver learned of Whitten's death early in the recording of the episode, but did not break the news to host Eddie McGuire and panelists Sam Newman, Wayne Schwass, Garry Lyon and Doug Hawkins until during the final commercial break of the episode. Hawkins in particular, who was a close friend of Whitten, was emotionally distressed upon hearing the news, and could only manage to say "He was a great man, Teddy." Newman, also a close friend of Whitten, told host Eddie McGuire after the news was broken to the studio audience and viewers: "They say the show must go on, but if we'd known that when we started, the show wouldn't have gone on." The usual studio audience applause that came with the conclusion of the episode was replaced with a silent fade to the Footy Show motif.
Such was Whitten's popularity, he was given a nationally televised state funeral, had a bridge named for him (EJ Whitten Bridge on the Western Ring Road) and a statue erected at the Bulldogs' former home ground, Whitten (Western) Oval in West Footscray, which was also renamed in his honour.
^Piesse, K. (1993) The Complete Guide to Australian Football, Pan Macmillan Publishers Australia, Melbourne.
^Holmesby, R. & Main, J. (2002) The Encyclopedia of AFL Footballers, Crown Content, Melbourne.
^On one occasion, playing against Richmond at Footscray, in the mid-1960s, he broke out of the ruck, to the left, from a centre bounce, ran two paces to balance himself, and kicked a left-foot torpedo kick for a goal. The ball was returned to the centre, bounced, and Whitten burst out of the pack, to the right, ran three paces and kicked a right-foot torpedo kick for a goal.
^Others, such as Ron Barassi, who were not bestowed with Whitten's level of natural talent, were at least his equal in terms of performance, tenacity, courage and aggression – and, might well have been a first pick in any team before the volatile Whitten – had to work much harder on the acquisition of their football skills. This may explain why they, who had to learn how to do things, were eventually more successful as coaches than was Whitten, the "natural".