BYRON WHIZZER WHITE
… ASSOCIATE SUPREME COURT JUSTICE, 1962 1993
… DECORATED WWII NAVY VETERAN
… NFL RUSHING LEADER, 1938 1940, DETROIT LIONS
… GRADUATED #1, YALE LAW SCHOOL; RHODES SCHOLARSHIP TO
… VALEDICTORIAN/ALL-AMERICAN RUNNING BACK, UNIVERSITY OF
A team that has character doesn’t need stimulation.
TOM L ANDRY,
legendary Dallas Cowboys coach
BYRON WHIZZER WHITE
AS TOLD TO ME BY AUTHOR DENNIS J. HUTCHINSON, AUTHOR OF THE MAN WHO ONCE WAS WHIZZER WHITE Byron Whizzer White spent a lifetime divorcing his professional life from his other lives, both private and athletic. There were, however, a couple of times when he referred to athletic experiences that had shaped the attitudes and values he held throughout his life. One example was when he was sent as deputy attorney general to Alabama to deal with the conflict between the Ku Klux Klan and a group of blacks during the Freedom Rides crisis in 1961. The attorney general was very concerned that there was going to be a race riot on his watch. As the conflict mounted to a climax, White was sitting on a bench at the Air Force base and he said to his colleague, John Doar, This is how you get tested. Doar later told me that by the look on his face at that moment he could tell that he was flashing back to his days in football when the odds were against him and yet he would forge forward anyway. It seemed to me he was thinking back to the odds on a riot between the Klan and this group of black churchgoers. He knew the police were not going to stop it or provide adequate protection, so he had to put together his own defense system. COURT OF LAW AND LAW OF THE JUNGLE The second moment that stood out for White happened the first year he turned pro for the NFL’s Pittsburgh Pirates (later the Steelers.) He went into the league as the highest-paid player ever, earning a whopping $15,800 a year.
This fact, as you might imagine, made him a target for every player in the league, barring his own teammates, of course. And every time he ran the ball, he’d get an extra beating. White explained how he was told to handle the resentment to then assistant attorney general William Orrick. Orrick was having problems with some backstabbing associates and sought out White for advice: That happened to me when I started playing professional football. I 20 IT’S HOW YOU PLAY THE GAME was with the Pirates and after the whistle was blown, they were kicking me and I asked the coach, what’ll I do? Wait till you catch one of the outof- bounds passes after the whistle’s blown, he said, and then you kick him there (insert imagination) and kick him in the face and make sure everyone sees you. It’ll cost the team twenty-five yards, but I’ll be able to keep you for a couple of seasons. That’s what Byron didit did cost the team twenty-five yardsbut he never had any trouble after that.
Essentially, according to his brother, Byron had the same attitude when he studied as when he played. He seemed to always demonstrate total self-control and total focus. His brother went on to tell me that when Byron studied, no dogs barked. Byron loved to watch and follow the games. He would flip open the USA Today sports page before anything else. He told me he loved to see first class athletes in their prime being tested. No doubt that was because he tested himself athletically and he wanted to see others tested the same way. HIS OWN VIEW OF HIS SPORTS LIFE Byron viewed playing sports as his duty because he felt it was a job he was entrusted with and not something that would glorify him. I can’t know if he worked harder on the game than on the books, but I do know he worked extremely hard at everything he did. His teammate, Art Unger, on Byron White the football player: Byron would have been just as happy, or maybe even he would have preferred it, if he played with twenty-one other players in an empty stadiumno fans, no coaches, no refs. Football was a personal challenge, something he could use to test his own limits. He just hated the stuff that happened before or after the whistle. He also became a hero to generations of student athletes all across the country. He actually left pro football to go Oxford for a year.
Can you imagine someone doing that today? BYRON WHIZZER WHITE 21 BROTHERLY IMPACT The person who made the biggest impact on Byron was his older brother. He was a Rhodes Scholar before Byron and he went on to become an extremely distinguished physician. Although he carried so many similar qualities into both his legal and his sports careers, Byron hated to mix the two. Once, when a teammate paid a visit to the Justice Department, he greeted Byron with his customary, Hi Whizzer. Byron’s sheepish reply was, Geez, don’t call me that here. He didn’t want to mix business with pleasure. MY WRAP Byron White may have led the most complete, successful, diverse life that I’ve ever heard of. Through his rise in pro football to his days with the Kennedys to the Supreme Court, he was not only the best, but he was humble. He played because he loved to compete, and not for the fame it might bring him. He was the personification of the student athlete, as well as a true rarity: a dominant figure in two distinct careers. It’s amazing how his days in football taught him how to handle his critics and step up under duress.
BYRON “WHIZZER” WHITE Photo Gallery