BOULDER - The University of Colorado lost its greatest Buffalo ever Monday morning, as retired United States Supreme Court Justice Byron "Whizzer" White passed away in Denver from complications due to pneumonia. He was 84.
White first made a name for himself while playing for the University of Colorado's undefeated 1937 football team, leading the Buffaloes to an 8-0 regular season record. But observers of the program knew he was something special well before that senior season.
The first All-American at Colorado in any sport, he led the nation in rushing with a record-breaking total of 1,121 yards (in eight games), and amassed 122 points. Those marks, erased nationally only after colleges went to 10- and 11-game schedules, set CU records. He was known as a "60-minute performer," excelling on defense as well as offense.
White led that 1937 team to Colorado's first-ever bowl appearance, facing Rice in the '38 Cotton Bowl on New Year's Day in Dallas. Though Rice won, 28-14, "Whizzer" left them talking. He threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Joe Antonio and then returned an interception 47 yards for a touchdown to put Colorado up 14-0 in the first quarter before the Owls battled back. He rushed 23 times for 54 yards in the game, and had 166 all-purpose yards including returns.
White was also a .400 hitter on the baseball team, and a standout on CU's basketball squad that made the N.I.T. in 1938.
He still is the owner of 15 records listed in the CU football media guide, with two of his records, most points scored as well as most points accounted for in a single game, were bettered just last fall, when Chris Brown scored six touchdowns (36 points) in CU's 62-36 win over Nebraska. It is estimated that at one time or another he held four dozen of the school's football bests.
Denver sports writer, Leonard Kahn, gave White's nickname to him. Kahn labeled White with this name because "he seemed to whiz by people."
His off the field performances were just as impressive as the ones on it. In 186 hours of undergraduate work, White earned 180 hours of A, and 6 hours of B. He was the student body president, a member of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, a Rhodes Scholar, and Phi Beta Kappa.
After his time at Colorado, the Wellington native went on to play professional football for the Pittsburgh Pirates (now known as the Steelers). White was Pittsburgh's first pick in 1938, and led the league in rushing with 567 yards in 1938 in being named All-Pro. White left professional football to attend post-graduate school at Oxford College in England. After Oxford, White played one more season of football with Detroit, and again led the league in rushing with 514 yards, as well as in punt returns with 1 in again named to the All-Pro team. In the off-season, White attended Yale Law School.
During World War II, Justice White was an officer in naval intelligence, serving most of his duty in the South Pacific. During his time of service, Justice White earned a Bronze Star, and formed a friendship with John F. Kennedy.
Following the war, Justice White returned to Yale Law School where he graduated first in his class in 1946. After a successful career as a corporation lawyer, he entered the political sphere in 1960, heading a pre-convention Kennedy movement that helped the soon-to-be president win the state of Colorado. He later served as deputy attorney general under Kennedy.
On March 30, 1962, White was appointed an associated justice of the U.S. Supreme Court at age 44, the youngest nominee ever to the land's highest court. He served for 31 years, and retired in March 1993.
CU's present day athletic director, Dick Tharp, was fortunate to meet Justice White as a young lawyer and fondly recalled his experiences with him.
"I first met Justice White about 25 years ago when I was introduced to him by (prominent CU alum) Ira Rothgerber," Tharp said. "As a young university lawyer, who had actually filed several briefs and petitions in the court addressed to Justice White in his 10th circuit role, I was overwhelmed by his kindness, forthrightness and absolute unabashed interest in the athletic fortunes of the University of Colorado.
"I remember it struck me, just a fan at the time, about how informed he was even though dealing with the difficult workload and pending legal issues of the day," Tharp continued. "Whenever I saw him subsequently he never failed to ask about the university and offer me personal encouragement. He always had an unmistakable presence about him."
The honorable Byron "Whizzer" White was the first athlete inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame in 1965. He was also inducted into National Football Foundation's College Football Hall-of-Fame, the GTE Academic Hall-of-Fame, and was selected to CU's Athletic Hall-of-Fame in 1998. White was a member of the 1940 NFL All-Decade team. White was the leading vote-getter and was thus easily selected to CU's All-Century Team in 1989, marking the school's first 100 years of football, and his football number, 24, was the first retired by the University.
"I had the wonderful opportunity to personally present and induct him as the first member of the University of Colorado Athletic Hall of Fame," Tharp added. "He represented the epitome of the reason we have athletic programs at a major university, that is to allow a talented young person to learn how to achieve the highest levels of success, whether in athletics or serving our country and society in a capacity such as the Supreme Court. We will miss his presence but, at the University of Colorado, we will always have a sense of his presence in our programs."
Byron Raymond "Whizzer" White was born June 8, 1917 in Fort Collins, Colo. Nearly a century later, it can be said that he not only left an indelible mark on the field and in the classroom at the University of Colorado, but for the state of Colorado and the entire nation as well.
CU-BOULDER CHANCELLOR, PRESIDENT, LAW SCHOOL DEAN LAUD SCHOLAR-ATHLETE BYRON WHITE
Officials at the University of Colorado at Boulder expressed sadness today at the death of Byron R White, retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice, CU-Boulder valedictorian and the school's first All-American football player.
"It was a privilege and pleasure for me to have known Justice Byron White," said CU-Boulder Chancellor Richard Byyny. "His tenure on the Supreme Court was distinguished, characterized by independent thinking and enormous integrity.
"Of all our alumni in the first half of the last century, he stands out and is a source of great pride. He exemplified the high achieving student who is also an outstanding varsity athlete. We are sorry to lose him and will always revere his memory," Byyny said.
"This is a very sad loss for the nation and for the state of Colorado," said CU President Elizabeth Hoffman. "Justice White was one of CU's most distinguished alumni, and his memory will always live on at the University of Colorado. His careers as a CU football player, a Supreme Court Justice and a passionate advocate for First Amendment rights exemplify the best of CU's long-standing culture of excellence."
White was the first Coloradoan appointed to be a Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy. He served for 31 years, before retiring in 1993.
"Justice White was excellent in everything he did, from the day he arrived at the University of Colorado as a freshman, to his death today," said Law Dean Harold Bruff. "He was a fine lawyer, a fine Justice and a fine man."
CU FOOTBALL RECORDS STILL HELD BY WHITE
Longest Kickoff Return (shared)--100 yards, vs. Denver at Denver, Nov. 26, 1936.
Longest Punt--83 yards, vs. Missouri in Boulder, Oct. 2, 1937.
Average Gain Per Rushing Play, Season, Minimum 100 attempts--8.37 (134 for 1,121), 1937.
Most Rushing Touchdowns, Quarter (shared)--4, vs. Colorado Mines in Boulder, Oct. 30, 1937.
Most Rushing Touchdowns, Half (shared)--4, vs. Colorado Mines in Boulder, Oct. 30, 1937.
Most Punt Returns, Season--47, in 1937.
Most Punt Return Yards, Season--587, in 1937.
Highest Punt Return Average, Game (minimum 3 returns)--53.0 (3 for 159), vs. Utah in Boulder, Nov. 7, 1936.
Most Punts Returned For Touchdown, Game--2, vs. Utah, Nov. 7, 1936.
Most Punts, Game--14, vs. Missouri in Boulder, Oct. 2, 1937.
Most Punting Yards, Game--581, vs. Missouri in Boulder, Oct. 2, 1937.
Most Points Scored, Half--27, vs. Colorado Mines in Boulder, Oct. 30, 1937.
Most Points Scored, Season, By A Senior--122, in 1937.
Most Touchdowns, Quarter (shared)--4, vs. Colorado Mines in Boulder, Oct. 30, 1937.
Most Touchdowns, Half (shared)--4, vs. Colorado Mines in Boulder, Oct. 30, 1937.
Late Monday afternoon, the SBC Cotton Bowl also issued a release regarding Justice White. Excerpts:
DALLAS - The name Byron Raymond White will forever be associated with the SBC Cotton Bowl. A celebrated college and professional athlete, White was poetry in motion. So gifted, he was dubbed in the media as "Whizzer" White, a nickname he quickly grew to detest.
When questioned about the spelling of his pet name, White's associates were instructed to reply "B-Y-R-O-N." White insisted he had the misfortune of being christened "by some sportswriter who didn't like me."
White excelled on both sides of the ball for the University of Colorado. He led the nation in rushing and scoring as a senior and was regarded as one of college football's most aggressive defensive players.
Sensational in the 1938 Cotton Bowl against Rice, the Heisman Trophy runner-up led the Buffaloes to the end zone on their first possession of the game with a nine-yard pass play. Minutes later, he electrified the crowd with a 47-yard interception return, a mark that stood for 49 years as the Classic's longest. On top of all that, he kicked two extra points and was a unanimous choice for MVP honors despite Colorado's 28-14 loss to the Owls.
While he may have been regarded as "the most popular football player in the United States," Byron White was destined for fame far beyond the playing field.