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White Left Mark
On And Off The Field
Byron White is simply the best player
ever to set foot on the field for CU. He played over 50 years ago.
Ray Didinger of Knight-Ridder Newspapers wrote the following article that appeared in the Boulder Daily Camera on July 4, 1993, the week the former CU great stepped down from the Supreme Court after 31 years of service. (Keyed in by CU Student Assistant SID Mitch Schneider).
By Ray Didinger
Rooney, the late owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, had a soft
White, the star halfback who went on to become a Supreme Court justice, was the only player who ever handed a paycheck to Rooney. He did it more than once in the 1938 season, despite the fact that he led the National Football League in rushing that year as a rookie.
His contract called for a $200 bonus for all exhibition games, Rooney once said. He refused to accept it because he knew the team was losing money. He said, Ill play, but only for the same amount youre paying the other fellas. That was $50. He wouldnt accept a penny more. Rooney signed the former University of Colorado All-America to a $15,800 contract, which was the highest salary in the league at the time. Rooney had to make his offer attractive enough to convince White to put his Rhodes scholarship on hold, at least until the end of the football season.
White stopped accepting his pay around midseason. He told Rooney he didnt feel he was worth the money. The team was losing, there were rumors the other players resented him (Rooney denied that) and he was embarrassed by the attention. The owner quietly mailed the checks to Whites attorney so they could be deposited in a trust without White knowing it.
came closer to giving 100 percent every day than any human being I know,
Rooney said. We didnt have a very good team and he took some
terrific beatings, but he never let down. I thought he was worth twice
what I was paying him and I told him so. He would say, No, I havent
Byron had such pride and integrity. He is very down-to-earth, but he has a tremendous mind.
Whites photograph still hangs in Rooneys old office at Three Rivers Stadium alongside other Steelers greats such as Bill Dudley, Bobby Layne and Terry Bradshaw. No matter how many years passed, no matter how much distance the conservative justice put between himself and his football career, his alter ego- the legendary Whizzer- lived on.
White, now 76, stepped down from the nations highest court earlier this week.
It has been an interesting and exciting experience to serve on the court, he wrote to President Clinton in March. But after 31 years, Marion (His wife) and I think that someone else should be permitted to have a like experience.
White was named to the Supreme Court by President John Kennedy in 1962. A whole generation of Americans has grown up knowing White only as the stern justice who seldom spoke in public. Indeed, White was the only member of the court not to read his opinions from the bench.
But in his youth, the Whizzer was one of the nations most celebrated athletes. As Arthur Daley once wrote in The New York Times: The Whizzer isnt cut from the normal pattern. He is like a fictional character who stepped right out of a story book.
He was too
good to be true, or so it seemed.
White was the O.J. Simpson of his time, in addition to being a straight A student, Phi Beta Kappa and president of the student body. He earned spending money by waiting on tables in a fraternity house. In the summer, he worked at his fathers lumber yard in Wellington, Colo.
Wrote Colorado assistant coach Frank Potts: To my mind, (White) was the perfect combination of brains, strength and coordination. He had the strongest forearms and chest development I ever saw. He was hard as iron all over. His straight-arm was like a mules kick.
He was just plain mean and ornery and tenacious. He knew everybodys assignment and hed knock the block off any guy who didnt do his job. He wasnt dirty, just mean. Ask anybody who ever tried to tackle him. He made every play sting.
The 6-2, 190-pound White also starred for the Colorado basketball team. He led the Buffaloes to the championship game of the first National Invitation Tournament in 1938, where they lost to Temple, 60-36.
In his early
years on the Supreme Court, White played pickup basketball with law clerks
and other staffers, sometimes 20 years his junior. Rex Lee, Whites
former clerk, recalls swinging his elbow and accidentally hitting the
justice in the stomach. Whites
midsection was so hard, Lee said: I thought I had hit the wall.
Over the years White downplayed his athletic background. He seldom
talked about his NFL career, which was cut short after three seasons by
World War II.
not attend many sporting events. He made it clear he hated the nickname
Whizzer. Even old friends knew better than to use it around
White declined most interview requests (including one for this story), but several years ago, he agreed to chat with Ed Kiely, former publicity director for the Steelers, for a profile in Gameday, the NFL magazine. Kiely recalls meeting White early one morning at the Supreme Court building in Washington.
"With his chiseled face, he looked like a Presbyterian elder, Kiely said. I didnt know what to expect. You know, we think of our Supreme Court justices as larger than life.
I called him Mr. Justice, He said, Call me Byron, He put me right at ease. He was a warm guy with a good sense of humor. He just doesnt care for the spotlight.
We talked about how (football) had changed, Kiely said. He said when he played, the game was idyllic. There wasnt all the pressure there is now. I remember him saying, If I played today, I dont think I could stand it. Id chuck the whole thing.
White faced considerable pressure during his brief pro career, which consisted
of one season in Pittsburgh and two in Detroit (1940-41). He was the leagues
biggest name and No. 1 draw. Fans were familiar with his college exploits
and paid to see him perform similar feats in the NFL.
The trouble was, Whizzer had an inferior supporting cast both in Pittsburgh and Detroit. Also, he was a target every time he stepped on the field.
Tuffy Leemans, the New York Giants Hall of Famer, once slammed White to the ground and said: I always wondered what it felt like to hit a $15,000 football player. White could have folded, but instead he fought back. He finished the game with 191 total yards and earned a grudging handshake from Leemans.
Ive been exhibited like a freak since I signed with Pittsburgh, White was quoted as saying. I find myself pressing all the time in an effort to live up to my reputation. I try not to, but I cant help it. You know as well as I do that no player ever was as good as my publicity made me out to be. Well, maybe Dutch Clark (of Detroit) is. But Im not Dutch Clark.
White was too hard on himself. He led the league with 567 yards rushing as a rookie, while Clark missed most of the season with an ankle injury. And contrary to rumors, White got along well with his teammates, even though his intellectual pursuits set him apart from most athletes of the time.
There is nothing in his character to offend anybody, said Johnny (Blood) McNally, who was Pittsburghs player-coach that season. On the field, he took his bumps the same as everybody else. On the train, he would play cards with the boys, then hed go off by himself, get out his glasses, pipe and law books and go to work.
He was not aloof by any means. He just had interests that differed from the rest of us. We respected him for that.
White left on his Rhodes scholarship after the 1938 season. Thinking White would not return to football, Rooney sold the Whizzers rights to Detroit. It proved to be a mistake, because when the war broke out in 1939, most American students returned home from England. White came back to play two seasons with the Lions.
Showing no signs of rust, White led the NFL in rushing, with 514 yards in 1940. The following season, he led the league in punt returns with a 13.8-yard average. He also averaged over 41 yards per punt and played both ways, offense and defense.
were stories in the paper that (White) was making $1,000 a game, which
was fantastic money, said Maurice Britt, who was an end with the
Lions in 1941. None of us (players) knew if it was true and no one
asked. We were just glad to have him on our side.
Byron was class wit a capital C, said Britt, who played one season with the Lions before enlisting in the Army. He won the Congressional Medal of Honor for action in Europe and later served two terms as lieutenant governor of Arkansas. I still remember him leaving practice with his law books under his arm. It wasnt hard to see this was a man who was going places.
White joined the Navy in 1942. He never returned to football, choosing to devote full time to his studies after the war. He graduated magna cum laude from Yale Law School and spent one year as clerk to Supreme Court Justice Fred Vinson. He returned to Colorado, where he dabbled in Democratic politics.In 1960, White headed the Kennedy for President campaign in Colorado. After his election, Kennedy rewarded White by appointing him deputy attorney general. And on March 30, 1962, President Kennedy appointed White to the Supreme Court to replace retiring Justice Charles Whittaker. White was 44 at the time.
White was a hard-nosed questioner from the bench, but outside the court, he was almost invisible. He was rarely seen in the public cafeteria or walking the halls. He avoided the Washington TV circuit and declined countless invitations to address law schools and commencements. As a result, he was seen as aloof and rather cold.
Kiely has seen a different side.
finished the interview, I was ready to leave, Kiely recalled. (White)
said, Call me when youre in town again. Well have lunch.
I said, Are you serious? He said, This is the
loneliest job in the world. You cant have friends (in Washington).
You never know what could be a conflict of interest. "
We did get together several times. We talked football. We laughed. You ask what kind of guy he is? Ill tell you. Hes one of us. Hes a good guy.
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