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Byron White: The man who did it all

The ‘Pirates’ first-round draft pick in 1938, “Whizzer” White’s time in Pittsburgh only scratched the surface of his life accomplishments.

Sporting News Archive Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images

Nicknames can be either a blessing or a curse, especially when they’re awarded so early in life.

As a 17-year-old freshman at the University of Colorado in the mid-1930s, a small-town boy named Byron White picked up a nickname from local Denver Post columnist Leonard Cahn during the annual Colorado-Denver freshman game that, for better or worse, stuck with him for the rest of his life.

Byron “Whizzer” White was christened after his freshman season, and the expectations that came with it were immediate. Despite a knee injury that derailed his sophomore season, White came back stronger in his junior season with All Rocky Mountain Conference honors.

Those expectations were finally met in White’s senior season. Somehow, he blew past any expectations that could have been reasonably expected of him.

White re-wrote the NCAA record books with a 1,121 yard, 122 (13 touchdowns, 19 conversions and a field goal) point season—records that stood until the NCAA expanded from eight to 11 game seasons. White led the Buffaloes to an 8-0 season and a trip to the Cotton Bowl, the first bowl game in program history, in 1937.

Although, if the Cotton Bowl hadn't been scheduled against Rice Institution (now Rice University), White may have skipped the game altogether. Initially worried about playing a bowl game in the middle of examination season, during his push for a Rhoades Scholarship, Rice’s own academic integrity reassured White and Colorado to compete. The Owls prevailed over the Buffs, 28-14, but White did bring an MVP trophy back to Boulder.

Fresh off his record-breaking season, with All-American honors as a halfback, White was named as a finalist for the third Heisman Trophy. For context, Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith was the 86th winner in the trophy’s history earlier this year.

The 1937 Heisman Trophy race came down to three, a Bulldog, a Buffalo and a Panther—yes, a Pittsburgh Panther. The Bulldog, Yale quarterback Clint Frank, passed for 489 yards, rushed for 667 yards, picked off four passes and scored 11 touchdowns. The Buffalo, Colorado halfback Byron White, led the NCAA in rushing yards with 1,121 yards and 122 points, NCAA records as pointed out above. And the Panther, Pittsburgh halfback Marshall Goldberg, rushed for 701 yards and five touchdowns.

Frank ran away with the Heisman, receiving double the votes of White and Goldberg combined, yet it’s White who’s remembered today for several reasons. White might not have won the Heisman, but he was a top selection in the 1938 NFL Draft.

With the fourth pick in the 1938 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Pirates selected White. But, if not for the money, White may have never seen the field.

White was born in Fort Collins, Colorado in 1917, just up the road from where he was raised in Wellington. The son of Alpha Albert White, the branch manager of a local lumber supply yard, White grew up in a town of “about 350 God-fearing souls,” according to Alfred Wright’s 1962 Sports Illustrated article.

In a town with just a few stores, a bank, and a post office, according to Wright, White didn’t have much to do in town besides working in the sugar beet fields or playing a multitude of sports.

As a 100-pound high school freshman, White didn’t take to playing football until later in his scholastic career, but he did play baseball, basketball and ran track & field, too. The love of athletic competition continued at Colorado where White earned 10 varsity letters in football, basketball and baseball.

As a freshman at Colorado in the early 1930s, Byron White was the local kid from Wellington, about an hour from the Boulder campus. The valedictorian of his high school class, White earned a state-sponsored scholarship to Colorado for his academic achievements.

That, in itself, was quite the achievement. A boy from rural Colorado whose parents did not finish high school, rising to the top of his class, no matter how small, to earn a scholarship to one of the finest institutions of learning in the state. However, for White, it was just the beginning of a long, long life of achievement.

In addition to his success on the gridiron, White was an accomplished basketball player. White and the Buffs played at Madison Square Garden in 1938 in the inaugural National Invitational Tournament (NIT), established by the New York Basketball Writers’ Association. At the time, the NIT was the equivalent of today’s March Madness.

The blossoming popularity of White around the country made the experience for him and the Buffs hellacious. Dennis J. Hutchinson wrote in his 1993 biography of White, The Man Who Was Once Whizzer White, about the Madison Square Garden ordeal for White and the Buffs:

“No one was prepared for the New York fans (bellowing “Whizzah! Whizzah! Whizzah!” as the team ran down the runway to and from the floor of Madison Square Garden), nor for the press, who demanded one photo opportunity after another, heckled the players when they would not answer questions, and then ridiculed them in print when they did. White never forgot the abuse.”

The Buffaloes advanced to the tournament final, losing to the Temple Owls—man, a tough stretch of luck for White against Owls.

The intensity of the press scrutiny and general athletic fatigue weighed heavily on White, and he chose not to play baseball during his senior season. Despite the allure of professional football, a sport which he loved, he appeared ready to return to his true calling: academics.

Following a 4-7 season in 1937, with a record of 19-37-2 in the first five seasons of the Pittsburgh Pirates franchise, the Pirates banked on White transitioning from collegiate star to professional star. After selecting William Shakespeare in the first-ever NFL Draft in 1936—no, the other Shakespeare—and Mike Barsak with the fifth pick in the 1937 Draft, the Pirates needed this pick to change the fortune of the team’s early struggles.

The Pirates undoubtedly anticipated White’s worldly aspirations, as the consummate student was indeed awarded a prestigious Rhoades Scholarship to study abroad at Oxford University, but his talent on the football field was too much to pass upon.

While debating on whether to play professional football or continue his education, White turned down a $15,000 contact from the Pirates, before eventually accepting a $15,800 contract—the highest in the NFL at the time.

The offer proved to be too great for White to pass up, saying at the time that he’d be able to use the money to pay for his tuition at Oxford, and after successfully petitioning Oxford to delay his enrollment, White officially became the starting tailback for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

And what a wild season it was for White and the Pirates.

White led the NFL in rushing as a 21-year-old rookie with 152 carries for 567 yards and four touchdowns in 11 games. Serving as the hybrid quarterback in an era where quarterbacks were not nearly as essential as they are today, White also attempted 73 passes (completing 29) for a completion percentage of 39.7% with two touchdowns and 18 interceptions.

Playing in just 11 games, with two games sometimes falling within the same week, White’s numbers obviously don't jump off the page, but his talent was widely admired.

Ryan O’Halloran detailed just how well respected White was across the league in his 2020 Denver Post article:

“In [Football historian Dan] Daly’s story after White’s death, Hall of Famer Ace Parker called White, “the greatest player I ever saw. … White couldn’t pass or kick with some of the rest of them, but he was the best all-around player in my opinion.””

Even with the NFL’s leading rusher in 1938, the Pirates stumbled to a 2-9 record. The roster fluctuated to just 20 players at a point in the season, well below the minimum, and the Pirates were exactly where they had been before White. Despite Pirates’ owner Art Rooney wanting to bring White back, for reasons outside of football, his career in Pittsburgh came to a rather unceremonious end.

In January of 1939, White sailed to England to fulfill his scholarship at Oxford, but with the outbreak of World War II in Europe the same year, White returned to the United States—and the NFL. However, this time he didn’t return to Pittsburgh. He chose the Motor City.

During his two seasons in Detroit, White rushed for 754 yards on 235 attempts, leading the NFL in rushing yards again in 1940, after a full season off, with 514 yards and seven touchdowns. He also threw for 799 yards at a 40% clip, throwing two touchdowns to 17 interceptions.

At the ripe age of 24, having led the NFL in rushing yards twice in three seasons, White hung up his cleats and joined the Navy to serve in World War II. He would never return to the gridiron, but he never left the spotlight he so desperately hoped to avoid.

White joined the Navy as an intelligence officer, after originally being turned away from the Marines because of his colorblindness. O’Halloran detailed White’s military service in his Denver Post article:

“White was stationed in the Pacific and earned two Bronze Stars. Daly said White was aboard the USS Bunker Hill in 1945 when it was hit by two kamikazes that killed 346 men and wounded 264 others.”

After the war ended in 1945, White was honorably discharged with the rank of lieutenant commander and went back to school to finish his law degree graduating first in his class, like everywhere he’d been, from Yale University in 1946.

White left Connecticut for Washington to serve as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Fred M. Vinson, the 13th Chief Justice in U.S. history. Some would say it was natural progression for a law student, but I will say it was foreshadowing. White left Washington for Colorado after serving as Vinson’s clerk, beginning a career in law.

After a 15-year law career back home in Colorado, White reunited with future U.S. President John F. Kennedy, campaigning with him during Kennedy’s 1960 election bid. White and a young Jack Kennedy had first become acquainted during their shared time in England in the late 30s.

After Kennedy’s successful election, White was named as the United States Deputy Attorney General in 1961, serving under JFK’s brother Robert during his time in the administration.

In 1962, Kennedy appointed White to the U.S. Supreme Court, replacing Justice Charles Evans Whittaker. White spent 31 years on the nation’s highest court, the fourth longest-serving Justice of the 20th century and the 12th longest of all time.

White’s athletic rigor was reflected in his three decades serving on the Supreme Court, as he was a direct, logical voice at every level. He was known for his crushing handshakes, even as he hit his 70s, and his impeccable resolve in dealing with court proceedings in a straight-forward manner.

Yet, White would never live down the idea of being known as a football player.

Throughout White’s life, he made his feelings on being in the spotlight pretty clear. The Madison Square Garden disaster as a young man stuck with him perhaps, but White was always someone who preferred to fly under the radar—at least, in the aspects of his life he could control. However, for someone who despised the spotlight so bitterly, he had a knack for remaining in the spotlight in some capacity his entire life.

White was particularly unhappy with his lifelong nickname, “Whizzer,” which even followed him to Washington. He had hoped to leave that life behind him.

The legend says that White, having recently arrived in Washington to serve as Deputy Attorney General for JFK, was having lunch in a restaurant in D.C. one afternoon when a waitress asked if he was “Whizzer” White.

“I was,” he replied.

For a man who did it all—a Rhoades Scholar, a Heisman Trophy runner-up, a first-round NFL draft pick and subsequent NFL rushing king, a decorated Naval war hero, a Deputy Attorney General of the United States of America and a Supreme Court Justice, to name just a few—White didn’t leave much to be desired. Besides maybe a world where nicknames didn't exist.

As much as he resented the professional athlete status that followed him throughout his life, White was a superstar at... well, everything. He just happened to have started in football, and even in the 1930s, sports were transcendent.

White doesn't need a nickname, he already has so many—too many—prestigious titles, and Whizzer just happens to be the one that’s brought up first.

For better or for worse, White is, and will always be, Byron “Whizzer” White. The Supreme Court Justice, the WWII hero, the Deputy Attorney General, the husband, the father, and yes, even the football player.

He could never escape the nickname, but he’ll always be remembered for doing, well... everything, which does include being a football legend in Pittsburgh.