Western Oval, the Footscray Football Club's home ground, was renamed Whitten Oval in his honour. His enthusiasm for State of Origin football is marked by the E. J. Whitten Legends Game, a charity match held annually since 1995.
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, Don "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. In Round 5 against St Kilda at the Western Oval, Whitten kicked two goals in a 28-point win, but suffered a serious injury to his left ankle. Although his injury responded quickly to treatment, Whitten would not play again until Round 8 against Geelong.
He was a key member of Footscray's 1954 VFL Premiership victory, the club's only premiership until 2016.
Whitten 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. 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.
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;
Over the course of his playing career, Whitten experienced conflict with the Footscray committee, none more dramatic than at the end of the 1966 VFL season, when he came close to joining Richmond after he was replaced as coach. When Footscray refused the clearance, Whitten threatened to retire, and the matter was only resolved when former teammate Jack Collins took over as club president and convinced Whitten to return and play under his former coach Charlie Sutton.
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.
He coached Williamstown in the 1975 VFA 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 right up 'em". He also once famously said: Years ago you had to crawl over cut glass to get one (i.e. a state guernsey), 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.
In 1992, Whitten was awarded the Order of Australia medal for his services to Australian football.
In 1996, he was among the first batch of inductees to the Australian Football Hall of Fame, and was one of the twelve players immediately elevated to Legend status. He was selected as Captain of the AFL Team of the Century. In 2009 The Australian nominated Whitten as one of the 25 greatest footballers never to win a Brownlow medal.
Whitten is one of only three Australian rules footballers recognised as a Legend of Australian Sport in the Sport Australia Hall of Fame, alongside Ron Barassi and Leigh Matthews.
In 1995, Whitten went public with the announcement that he was suffering from prostate cancer. On June 17, he made his final public appearance at the MCG before the State of Origin match between Victoria and South Australia. Suffering from blindness due to a stroke, Whitten was driven in a black convertible for a lap of honour around the MCG, accompanied by his son and three grandchildren while Mariah Carey's cover of the song "Hero" was played 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. 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. News of 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.
One journalist remembered Whitten's impact on communities in the western suburbs of Melbourne:
They loved him out there because he was a larrikin. He made them feel good. He was like them. There was a defensiveness out there—the place stank from the tanneries and abattoirs and maybe other people looked down on us. But we could say to them: "We've got the best player in the league."
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 Footscray, which was also renamed in his honour.
After Whitten's death, his son, Ted Whitten jnr instituted the EJ Whitten Legends Game in the memory of his father. The game is a charity match to raise money for prostate cancer research.