Colorado Justice.pdf

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By Jim Campbell

Just what kind of man is Byron Raymond White, the former Colorado gridiron great and now
retired U.S Supreme Court justice? A passage from the Bob Woodward-Scott Armstrong best-
selling book on the Supreme Court, The Brethren, perhaps best explains it. Potter Stewart, like
White an associate justice on the highest court in the land, was a Yale Law School classmate of
White’s. According to the book, Stewart would often see White studying diligently in the law
library in his steel-rimmed glasses, and would then subsequently read about White’s game-
winning National Football League exploits on the sports pages. The authors said it best when
they wrote, “To Stewart and his classmates, White was both Clark Kent and Superman.”

How did Byron White get from tiny (population 347) Wellington, Colorado -- near such well
known towns as Buckeye, Teds Place, Owl Canyon, and Logcabin, but not too far from Ft Collins
where he was born on June 9, 1917 – to a highly-respected position on the Supreme Court? The
quick and easy answer might appear to be football, but a deeper look into the man and his
motivation shows that White could have just as easily attained the respect and status he enjoys
had he never whizzed across America’s gridirons.

Growing up in the sugar beet-raising country just east of the Rockies, young Byron had positive
role models in his parents and older brother Clayton, whom was known as “Sam”. Sam who went
on to become a doctor, went off to the big state university at Boulder, the University of Colorado.
Pure athletic scholarships were not the universal practice in those days of the early 1930s but
the state university of Colorado did offer academic scholarships to the valedictorians of every
one of the state’s high schools. Byron White aimed at getting one of these scholarships, saying,
“Sine they were offered, you made a concerted effort to be first in your class. That’s how I got
to go to college.”

While not playing varsity football as a college freshman – it was 1934 and an athlete was only
eligible for three varsity seasons in those days – White did what he would do all his life achieve
greatly off the playing field. He ranked at or near the top of his class academically, and
continued to do so for his entire career at Colorado. His sophomore season in 1935 foretold
nothing of things to come, as a knee injury limited him to only two games, in which he rushed
for a total of just 100 yards on 34 carries.

But White’s junior season of 1936 was a different story, as he generated a considerable amount
of publicity in the Rocky Mountain region as a triple-threat tailback for Colorado. Local writer
Leonard Cahn was the one who dubbed him “Whizzer,” a nickname that White grew to dislike,
and other writers on a national basis soon took up Cahn’s alliterative moniker. Fans of the silver
and gold (the school colors for Colorado in White’s day), took up the cry of “Go it, Whizzer,”
whatever that meant. But White did usually “went it.” During the 1936 season Colorado could
manage just a 4-3-0 record, but among the highlights of the campaign was White returning a
kickoff 102 yards for a touchdown against Denver University, while also scampering 97 yards
for the Frontiersmen (Colorado would not be known as the Buffaloes, nor join the Big Eight
Conference until after White’s graduation) against Utah in a 31-7 win.

Before the 1937 season, the prestigious magazine Illustrated Football Annual had this preseason
prognostication for the approaching gridiron battles of the Rocky Mountain region: “If triple-
threat Byron White duplicates his daring deeds, Colorado has a chance to hit the top.” And
White’s senior season got off to a big start, as the Cinderella Colorado outfit upended Missouri
14-6 in the season opener. The St Louis Globe-Democrat said that “Missouri found the punting,
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passing and sprinting of Whizzer White far too potent a combination”. His booming punt early
in the first quarter pinned the Tigers inside their one yard line and turned the game’s
momentum toward Colorado. The Frontiersmen then knocked off six more opponents in a row,
including four shutouts, while allowing just 13 points through the six games.

The toughest matchup in this string of wins came against Utah. as Coach Bernard F. Oakes’
Colorado team found themselves trailing the Utes 7-0 before White took control. Late in the
third quarter he kicked a field goal to get CU (as fans of the University of Colorado identify
                                                    their school) on the-scoreboard, before he
                                                    broke off touchdown runs of 85 and 57
                                                    yards. For good measure he kicked both
                                                    extra points, to produce the final score as
                                                    some saw it: White 17 Utah 7. His initial
                                                    touchdown – the 85-yarder – was typical of
                                                    White’s open field running ability. He
                                                    fielded the high punt with a war party of
                                                    six Utes surrounding him. By ducking and
                                                    darting, twisting and turning, juking and
                                                    jiving, White broke into the clear: and
                                                    once in the open, the 6-1, 187-pounder just
                                                    outran everyone.

                                                      Heading into the traditional Thanksgiving
                                                      Day season finale for 1937 against the
                                                      University of Denver, Colorado found
                                                      itself undefeated with a 7-0 record. In the
                                                      late 1930s Denver was usually the equal of
                                                      Colorado on the gridiron. But led by
                                                      White, who scored three touchdowns
                                                      while also firing two long scoring passes,
                                                      Colorado crushed Denver by a score of 34-
                                                      7 to claim its first undisputed Rocky
                                                      Mountain Conference championship since
                                                      1924. The largest sports crowd in the
                                                      Rockies to that time (28,157) turned out
                                                      for the game.

                                                       By virtue of its undefeated regular season
                                                       8-0-0 record in 1937, Colorado received an
                                                        invitation to the Cotton Bowl game to be
                                                        played in Dallas on January 1, 1938. This
would be just the second staging of the annual Cotton Bowl classic that would soon become a
major New Year’s Day event, at a that time when postseason play for college teams was limited
to the Rose, Cotton, Orange, Sugar, and Sun Bowl games, plus the East-West Shrine all-star game.
Colorado was matched against Rice, champions of the Southwest Conference, a team that came
into the Cotton Bowl with an overall record of 5-3-2 and was led by its dazzling tailback Ernie
Lain. White did all he could do to make it an exciting game, as he led the Frontiersmen on a long
first quarter drive that culminated with a nine-yard touchdown pass to Tony Antonio. Shortly
afterwards, White intercepted a Rice pass and zipped 47 yards to the endzone, and with his extra
point conversions, Colorado was staked to a 14-0 lead. But then Rice got serious, and using vastly
superior manpower while Lain fired three touchdown passes and scored one himself, the
Southwest Conference champions eventually pulled away to a win by a score of 28-14.

But in the nationally reported Cotton Bowl game White had proven that the attention given him
during the season was merited. He was named a consensus All-America backfield selection for
the 1937 season, while also finishing runnerup in the Heisman Trophy voting. White had led the
nation in four important statistical categories for 1937 (the first season that the NCAA officially
maintained national player and team statistics): scoring (122 points), rushing (1121 yards on 181
carries for a 62 yd average), all-purpose running (1970 yards for a 246.3 yards per game average),
and total offense (1596 yards). White also handled the punting for Colorado with a very
respectable 42.5 yard average, intercepted four passes on defense and returned them for a total
of 103 yards, returned 47 punts for a lofty 12.5 yd average, and returned four kickoffs for an
outstanding 39.8 yd average. He also completed 21 of 43 pass attempts for 475 yards, while his
122 points were scored on 16 touchdowns, a field goal, and 23 PAT’s. Simply stated, there wasn’t
very much that Byron White didn’t do in his senior season of 1937.

But Byron “Whizzer” White was far from a one-dimensional “jock” While a junior at Colorado he
had been tapped for the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa honors society, and in his senior year he was
ranked first in his class, was valedictorian and the student body president. He also followed after
his brother Sam in winning a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University in England Even though
the NFL draft was still relatively new, White looked good to pro football teams and he was
questioned about his interest in the play-for-pay game, of which he had little. One of the men
interviewing White about playing pro football was the legendary Green Bay halfback Johnny
Blood (McNally), who in 1938 was player-coach for the NFL’s Pittsburgh Pirates (later Steelers).
Despite White’s plans to study abroad at Oxford, Pittsburgh team owner Art Rooney obtained
the NFL rights to the Colorado running back and offered him a sensational contract.

The hard-to-refuse offer turned out to be for $15,800 for the 1938 season, and if you don’t think
that was astronomical remember that linemen in the NFL at that time were being given $100-a-
game “take it or leave it” offers. White, though, was still set on going to England to study, but
his brother Sam found out that Byron could report to Oxford as late as January of 1939 and still
be able to attend as a Rhodes Scholar. So Byron White contacted the Pittsburgh team and soon
became the NFL’s highest paid player at that time. One of the league’s highly regarded rookies,
White was also the NFL’s leading rusher with 567 yards, while also being named to some of the
All-Pro squads. There were often rumors that White’s NFL teammates wouldn’t block for him
because of his high salary, but these were not true said Armand Niccolai, an All-Pro tackle on
the Pittsburgh team “We liked him and respected him”, explains Niccolai. “We blocked for him
He was a little different from us, more serious. But we all admired how motivated he was; how
he wanted to succeed outside of football If anything, I blocked harder for him because you knew
he was giving it all he had.”

When White got to England, he and the other Rhodes Scholars were invited to parties given by
United States Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy at the embassy in London There White met young
Jack Kennedy, and their paths would cross again later that summer in Europe, and still later in
the Pacific. But with war clouds gathering on the European continent, White suspended his
studies at Oxford and enrolled at Yale Law School. White could still fit the NFL into his plans,
and so he played the 1940 and 1941 seasons with the Detroit Lions, who had purchased his
contract from Pittsburgh for $5,000. Pro football hall of famer Alex Wojciechowicz was a
member of the Lions at the time, and he said of White: “We all had a great deal of respect for
him On train trips we would play gin rummy by the hour, while White read law books, and no
one gave him any grief about it. He was a team player, and we knew it.”

In 1940, White again led all NFL ground-gainers with a total of 510 yards rushing. His last season
of professional football was 1941, after which a combination of law school and the impending
military draft made pro football an impracticality for him After two years at Yale Law School,
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White enlisted in the naval intelligence branch after he had been turned down by the Marine
Corps because of color blindness. He served in the South Pacific, where he renewed his
friendship with Ensign John F. Kennedy. When Kennedy’s PT-109 was sunk, it was White who
wrote the official report for the Navy. After the war, Lieutenant Commander White – with two
bronze stars – returned to finish up at Yale Law. He was graduated with high honors in 1946,
and then clerked for Supreme Court Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson for a year before settling into
private law practice in Denver.

White’s reputation as an able attorney was growing through the years, and in 1959 he supported
his old friend Jack Kennedy in his quest for the U.S. presidency. White delivered the majority
of Colorado’s votes at the Democratic convention, and he was asked by Bobby Kennedy to head
the National Citizens Committee for the Kennedy-Johnson ticket. After handling that assignment
during the 1960 election, White was subsequently appointed deputy attorney general in the
Kennedy administration, although he said he “didn’t get involved to get a job.” Shortly thereafter,
on April 16, 1962, White became Kennedy’s first appointment to a seat on the Supreme Court.

Over the years, White’s became a swing vote in Supreme Court deliberations. He was neither as
liberal as first thought, nor as conservative as later portrayed. He would vote with and against
liberal colleagues; with and against conservative colleagues, depending on the issue. Throughout
his years on the court, White displayed the Kennedy vigor. On one occasion a law clerk found
the thumping sound from above his office was being caused by Justice White, who was taking
a break from opinion-writing by dribbling a basketball. The younger law clerks who played
basketball with White in the Court’s fourth-floor gym soon learned why he had lettered in the
sport while at Colorado.

Though a veteran of only a short career in professional football, White was paid a fine tribute
by the NFL Players Association when they named their organization’s highest service award
after him, stating that “Byron White – scholar, athlete, patriot, humanitarian, and public servant –
– is the personification of the ideal to which professional football players aspire.”

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