Salem-Keizer sports legend ‘Cheeseburger’ still going strong 4 decades in

Published: Dec. 21, 2022 at 10:50 PM PST
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SALEM Ore. (KPTV) - If you’ve played in the Salem-Keizer area at any level in the past four decades, chances are that a man named “Cheeseburger” was either coach, umpire or official.

At 73, legendary Salem official John Witherspoon is still doing it well.

“They all seem to remember you, none of them seem to throw rocks at you or anything,” Witherspoon says.

The man, better known as “Cheeseburger,” has been doing it his own way since moving to the capital city from Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1965.

“Back in High School I went over to Bob’s Hamburgers and had 25 cheeseburgers, seven french fries, two chocolate shakes and a Coke for lunch one day,” Witherspoon says.

Of course, that’s how the legend came to be but it almost was not, Cheeseburger was just John at the age of 12 when he was involved in a severe car accident.

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“Catapulted the spare tire into the back of my head.”

Witherspoon spent the next three months in the hospital, three of his brothers did not survive the crash.

“I would say it took probably 30 years or more to get to where you didn’t cry and sob about it and kind of lay there and whatever and get all choked up and whatnot.”

The North Salem High School alum had to craft his own path into sports.

“Due to the accident and all the head injuries and all that and whatnot, they didn’t let me take gym class all the way through school. My parents wouldn’t allow me to play any kind of sports. They were afraid I’d get whacked in the melon again and die off.”

Cheeseburger got in the game by coaching, volunteering, umpiring, officiating and mentoring through Salem Little leagues, the Boys and Girls Club and at Four Corners Elementary School.

“If you keep them out of cop cars, you keep them in school, you are teaching them how to get along in the world and quit being a bunch of bozos and whatnot,” Witherspoon says. “It’s a real good investment I think. Monetarily wise it’s not good for me but it’s good for them.”

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It’s all love for Cheese who runs a small auto repair shop to pay the bills. The community teamed up on a GoFundMe effort to assist him in getting a pacemaker seven years ago.

“Something like that happens, you find out there are a lot of them out there, I guess they care about you because they dug into their wallet and made the fat man get well.”

Cheeseburger was recently a reluctant recipient of the ‘The Spirit of Salem Award’ for his decades of service by the Chamber of Commerce.

“I don’t do this crap so I get an award and a pat on the back, ‘hey, there, atta boy, come on over here...’ it ain’t just me, you gotta figure if it wasn’t for them, I probably wouldn’t be able to do what I am doing,” Cheeseburger says. “I’m thankful for people that are around, and you just do what you can do. I guess the Big Dog upstairs said you are supposed to be chewed on all your life so get your ass out there and get chewed on so there I am!”