His walls are littered with Oregon posters. He wears an Oregon ‘O’ on his chest. But until this year, Rodney Witherspoon wasn’t associated with the University of Oregon. Well, not officially at least.
This past football season, the Oregon football team opened its doors to the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex, a football facility unparalleled by any university across the nation. Among the complex’s most interesting quirks was that it had its own barbershop.
One of Witherspoon’s former customers was James Harris, a former chief of staff with Oregon and now assistant general manager with the Philadelphia Eagles. Harris told Witherspoon of the possibility that there might be a barbershop included in the new complex. Immediately, Witherspoon was all in with the idea.
“Right away, I thought this couldn’t be anyone else but me,” Witherspoon said. “I put the word out that I wanted to be the guy.”
Determining the right barbershop to go to can be difficult for a person in a new town. In a college town like Eugene, this statement holds true on a consistent basis. College athletics are like a revolving door, with athletes — and students — coming to Oregon from all across the nation.
One of the reasons Witherspoon’s barbershop, N Da Kut, a small shop tucked away on Lawrence Street, has become the place for Oregon athletes to get a haircut is through Witherspoon’s reputation. A reputation for not only a good haircut, but for his ability to engage in conversation and talk about the many facets of daily life.
This reputation allowed Witherspoon to get the job inside the Oregon locker room, and it all started with a relationship he built with new Ducks defensive coordinator Don Pellum.
“Initially when the building opened, we contacted Rodney Witherspoon, a highly recommended local barber about scheduling appointments with our student-athletes in the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex,” Craig Pintens, Oregon’s senior associate athletic director of marketing and public relations, said in an e-mail to the Emerald last week. “Rodney is a great guy and we are glad he is associated with our program.”
When Pellum was a linebacker for Oregon in 1980, Witherspoon was a student at Lane Community College. The two met at a local basketball court and a friendship bloomed. When Witherspoon returned to Eugene in 1997, after living in Pasadena, Calif., he needed a way to find customers.
“I didn’t sit around and wait for business,” Witherspoon said. “I went out there and got it.”
Witherspoon went to Oregon’s Casanova Center and sought out Pellum. He talked with Pellum and since then, Pellum has been going to Witherspoon for haircuts on a weekly basis. Cutting Pellum’s hair eventually evolved into Witherspoon being the go-to barber for Oregon athletes. Football players like LaMichael James, Dennis Dixon and Ed Dickson have all gone to Witherspoon for a haircut and continue to keep a close relationship with the smiling, smooth-talking barber.
For players like former Oregon wide receiver Josh Huff, Witherspoon was more than just a barber. He had become a father figure for a young man on his own and away from home.
“There were times when he was talking to me about my life and I could sit there and almost imagine my father if he was in Oregon giving me the same lessons,” Huff said. “Where I’m from, the barbershop is where you go to get a haircut. But most importantly that’s where you go to get life lessons. I’ve learned a lot from him.”
When talking with him, Witherspoon portrays a feeling of positivity and appreciation in every smile and every laugh. However, when he left for California, after his time at LCC, he never envisioned coming back to Eugene.
As a part of a pharmaceutical distributing factory in Pasadena, Witherspoon was enjoying life. That is, until Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1994. A 15-second earthquake on Jan. 17, 1994 destroyed Witherspoon’s house and prompted him to consider a relocation. He wanted to head somewhere in the likes of Atlanta, but his older brother, Vasti, talked him into coming to Eugene.
“My brother convinced me to come this way because Eugene needed barbers and hairdressers,” Witherspoon said. “This wasn’t my first choice. I had no idea I’d come back to a small town after being in a city for 12 years.”
Witherspoon’s second coming in Oregon got off to a rocky start. His stepfather, who raised Witherspoon along with his mother, passed away. Two years later, Vasti, his only brother, died in a car accident.
Though Vasti is gone, Witherspoon still thinks about him every day.
“I always think about him,” Witherspoon said with a smile. “I wonder what he would say about how I turned out. His daughters always tell me, ‘Uncle Rodney, my dad would’ve been so happy to see you now.’”
Follow Joseph Hoyt on Twitter @jhoyt42