It’s not likely for a Minnesotan to become a pro tennis player. “That’s like becoming a Jamaican bobsledder—but in reverse,” says David Wheaton.
But as the youngest of four growing up blocks from public tennis courts in Deephaven, Wheaton fell hard for the sport at a young age. He won the Minnesota State High School tennis title as a ninth-grader before his parents decided to put their Minnesota home up for rent in the mid-1980s so he could train at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida. Then it was on to Stanford and a pro tennis career that took him to Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and countless countries along the way. How many can say they’ve played Andre Agassi—and won?
The Lake Minnetonka native—yes, he put “Lake Minnetonka” as his hometown in Wimbledon player listings—thought he had it all. Then a fitness coach invited him to go pheasant hunting as a break from his grueling training schedule.
“I wasn’t mesmerized by hunting, but by the dogs!” says Wheaton. The teamwork and camaraderie he saw between hunters and hounds was unlike anything he had experienced before. Wheaton—who grew up with dogs but always saw them in a “utilitarian” light—was soon taking trips to a breeder in Iowa and figuring out how a dog would fit into his busy travel schedule. In 1998, he brought home a yellow Lab who was at once attractive and athletic—personable and poised. He was named, simply, “Ben.”
“When we got Ben, he changed us,” says Wheaton, who is married with a son. “Ben was intelligent, noble, regal, my right hand man,” says Wheaton. “He was the dog of a lifetime.”
Ben would turn out to be more to Wheaton—and his family and friends—than simply a great dog. He recently became the subject of My Boy, Ben: A Story of Love, Loss and Grace. In his second book, published by Tristan Publishing of Golden Valley, Wheaton describes life with Ben: the way he became an “egalitarian” dog owner (pick up the book for the full story on that) and how Ben added excitement and depth to every day. But it’s the chapters about losing Ben—after a battle with prostate cancer when Ben was nine—that illustrate the profound effect pets can have on our lives. Wheaton, who is Christian, also says the experience opened the door to understanding God’s grace in a whole new way.
“Providence is the story of Ben,” writes Wheaton in My Boy, Ben. “From preconception to puppyhood to adulthood to his passing… [it’s] the story of how God can use even a dog to bless and teach and guide the course of a life.”
My Boy, Ben is also as much a commentary on life in Minnesota as it is life with a dog. Between stories about family and tennis matches, Wheaton describes going to “the cabin,” the “Great Minnesota Get-Together,” and taking advantage of seasons that—love ’em or hate ’em—punctuate life in our state.
Whether skating on Lake Minnetonka with his furry friend or searching for meaning after Ben’s death, Wheaton’s words make one thing clear: Dogs can change our lives for the better.
“Dogs enhance our lives so much—taking a walk is so much more fun with a dog,” says Wheaton. “It points to something: we’re designed for relationship, to relate to God, other people, and—I think—to pets.”
Personalized copies of My Boy Ben: A Story of Love, Loss and Grace are available at davidwheaton.com. Or, pick up your copy at Excelsior Bay Books, 36 Water St., Excelsior; 952.401.0932; excelsiorbaybooks.net. Check davidwheaton.com for information about upcoming appearances.