For most athletes the peak of their professional careers occurs between the lines. Once they retire from the game, they recede into the background of history. But for Whizzer White, his years as a star running back in college and in the pros with the Lions served merely as prelude to his historic tenure as one of this country’s greatest legal minds.
Byron Raymond White was born in Fort Collins, Colorado, an expansive and beautiful community situated on the Cache La Poudre River north of Denver. He excelled at academics and sports as a youth. He was presented with several options upon his high school graduation: he was offered a football scholarship by five schools; a scout for the St. Louis Cardinals dangled a $5,000 signing bonus if he would become a pro baseball player; and he won a Rhodes Scholarship to the University of Oxford in England. He pursued the latter option, putting off his football career for one year. He returned to the U.S. to play halfback for the University of Colorado.
His college athletic career was tremendously successful. He lettered four times for the Buffaloes football team and served as captain for two seasons. In his senior year he led the conference in rushing and paced his team to a perfect 8-0 record. He played second base for the baseball team for three years and was offered a contract by the Cardinals, Browns, and the White Sox. As point guard for the basketball team he helped the Buffs to the initial NIT tournament in 1938, advancing to the finals at Madison Square Garden.
But it was on the gridiron where White earned a reputation as a star. He was agile and elusive out of the backfield as a ball carrier. A newspaper editor gave him the nickname “Whizzer,” a moniker that followed him the rest of his life, even after he gained fame in Washington D.C.
“Whizzer” White finished second in the Heisman Trophy as a senior and was coveted by many NFL teams. Pittsburgh selected him fourth overall in the 1938 NFL Draft and as a rookie he led the league in rushing and was the highest-paid player in the league. In the off-season he attended Oxford and continued his education in pursuit of a law degree at Yale. He played the 1940 and 1941 seasons for the Lions, leading the league in rushing for a second time in ’40. When World War II broke out, he enlisted in the Navy.
After the war, White finished his law degrees rather than return to the NFL. There’s little doubt that “Whizzer” could have been a Hall of Famer had he been able to concentrate solely on football. But he had different interests and goals in mind.
White practiced law in Colorado for 15 years starting after WWII. He quickly established himself and his firm as the best in the state. In 1960 he led John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in the state. After JFK was elected, he appointed White as U.S. deputy attorney general. In 1962 Kennedy appointed the 44-year old White to the United States Supreme Court. He was so universally popular that he was affirmed via a simple voice vote.
“He has excelled at everything. And I know that he will excel on the highest court in the land,” Kennedy said.
Byron “Whizzer” White spent more than four decades on the U.S. Supreme Court, defying labels as a “liberal” justice by often siding with the other side or dissenting over controversial decisions. He tended to favor a less ideological court, preferring the judiciary keep their politics out of the business of justice. He retired from the bench in 1993 and died in 2002 at the age of 84. He’d come a long way from his days as a college athlete and star in the NFL. He’d lived enough for many lifetimes, and he’d served his country in uniform and in his robe on the highest court in the land.
“Of all the athletes I have known in my lifetime,” said Pittsburgh owner Art Rooney, “I’d have to say Whizzer White came as close to anyone to giving 100 percent of himself when he was in competition.”