Jeff Whittingham is addressing youth gun violence through his Philadelphia-based Growth, Love, Success Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu program. And he’s overcome some adversity along the way.
Story by Sam Cohn
Jeff Whittingham was on the wrong side of a takedown, up 2-0 with a minute left, when he took an elbow to the ear that sent his head crashing down into the mat.
With adrenaline roaring in the heat of the match, his opponent went for a choke out while the referee paced back and forth searching for points to award.
“Is he out? Is he out?”
A sharp voice called out from the crowd pleading for mercy.
The elbow that landed behind Whittingham’s ear knocked him unconscious. He briefly ceased breathing. It sent his body into a five-minute seizure, leaving him unresponsive for nearly 20 minutes. Medical personnel cut through his gi, propped him up onto a stretcher in the back of an ambulance, hooked him up to a defibrillator and rushed him to a nearby hospital where he was diagnosed with a severe concussion.
That match on November 8, 2019, competing in the Tap Cancer Out Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Showcase Tournament in Downingtown, Pa, could have taken Whittingham’s life.
Whittingham’s near-death experience over a year and a half ago in a match against the toughest opponent he ever faced only reinforced what he already knew. His passion and his purpose are to lift up others around him.
Fast forward to today and Whittingham spends a considerable amount of his time working with Growth, Love, Success, a Philadelphia-based program he started with a simple goal: help people. Right now, it’s predominantly a BJJ program but he says he’s just getting started.
The former Temple football standout from 2009-12 first picked up boxing in third grade growing up in Atlantic City, but when his grades began to slip, his mom pulled the plug. Whittingham circled back to the sport after graduation. Then, a few guys he was training with at the time pivoted to BJJ at Gracie Academy on Bainbridge Street in South Philly.
“Martial Arts was something I always admired as a kid. I watched every movie with my dad,” Whittingham said. “Being able to learn how to defend yourself on top of being a powerful human being already, it was intriguing and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to challenge myself. It was the perfect sport outside of boxing.”
Whittingham’s size was really what steered him in the direction of football and BJJ.
When he was growing up he really wanted to play basketball at Temple. But when he realized there were no 6-foot-3 centers in the NBA or guys with his frame playing basketball at a high level, that dream took a backseat.
It wasn’t until Whittingham got to Atlantic City High School that he started playing on the Vikings’ offensive line.
“My freshman year I played and I didn’t know a lick of football,” he said. “I’m telling you, I looked so bad it was horrible. But the type of person that I am, like I’m a beast. You could put me in a room full of lions and I’d come out on top because I’m really just a beast like that.”
It turns out he was right.
Whittingham earned an invite to then-Temple head coach Al Golden’s summer football camp. He remembers spending every day training before arriving at Edberg-Olson Hall, which he remembers vividly being in blistering 100-degree conditions during the summer of 2008.
“A week [after the camp] I started getting letters and stuff,” Whittingham said. “Coach Golden called me up to his office with my family and he just asked me, ‘What would you do if I gave you $200,000?’ He gave me a piece of paper and said, ‘This is your scholarship.’”
The next day, the Atlantic City Press reported that the offensive lineman had committed to play football at Temple. He didn’t even realize he committed but he didn’t question it because that was his new dream.
During his time at Temple, Whittingham saw the field in 25 games across three years, including starting all 11 games at left guard his junior season, one of just seven Owls to start in every contest that year.
After graduating college he began looking for ways to give back to the Philadelphia community, despite not having much himself. His first big project was a Christmas drive in December of 2016.
Whittingham asked himself something that’s objectively difficult to do when you don’t have deep pockets of your own.
How can I help people? How can I be effective? I know I’m not the only person out here hurting.
A few months later, in the spring of 2017, GLS got its start. He looked around and saw a “world full of nonsense,” so he stepped up to the task to help people who, as he says, need motivation, peace and good energy.
The GLS project, as it was called back then, sort of fell apart at the heels because he struggled to assemble a consistent team. But after meeting his girlfriend, Amber Connally, who helped him network more in the community along with Whittingham’s training schedule at Gracie picking up steam, his new program really started to come together.
“For him to have seen a lot of things firsthand and to experience different things and to know how it feels to be that person that needs someone to look up to,” Connally said, “[he’s become that person]. He has had that experience and him putting what he learned not really having that help, to give back to people, I really think that’s great.”
Now, Connally does public relations work and marketing work for GLS all while maintaining her day job at CBS3 Eyewitness News.
“My job is to make sure we get coverage and stuff like that,” Connally said. “I kind of helped him put together a press release and had him send it over. I didn’t even tell them he was my boyfriend at the time, they were already interested in his story.”
She has also connected Whittingham with a handful of local radio stations to help spread the word about the work he’s doing as a means to continue to grow their brand.
Today, GLS is predominantly a jiu-jitsu program out of Gracie gym mentoring inner-city youth in a sport most kids around the area don’t have much exposure to.
It runs every Wednesday from 4:30-5:30 p.m. taught by Whittingham and five other instructors varying in rank. Since the time classes began in January of this year, he said the group of kids have come a long way, learning how to break falls and take each other down.
Right now, the group is made up of about 15 kids, both boys and girls, ranging in age from 15-to-18 years old.
“I do different things [beyond just BJJ] because it’s also a mentoring program,” Whittingham said. “Life is tough, man. A lot of times people don’t know how to manage their emotions. So I felt it was the perfect opportunity to bring someone in who could preach mindfulness.”
As for what comes next, the future of GLS is limitless in his eyes.
His day job is working in a school as a success coach preparing kids for high school but it’s not where he sees himself long term. The goal is to make GLS his full-time job and to be able to devote all of his attention there.
Whittingham sees the program becoming nationwide in major cities across the country. Once COVID becomes less of a threat, he’s planning to unveil a few major plans that are being kept under wraps for the time being.
“I want to create a platform where people can come and be themselves,” Whittingham said. “There are times where as humans we battle and try to please others and be something that we’re not and that creates a form of unhappiness.
“If we can all help each other out and become one, it’ll become a better world.”