clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

2016 Election: Remembering the great Byron “Whizzer” White

Looking back on the life of Colorado Buffaloes football great turned Supreme Court Justice.

New York Times/ Getty Images

The 2016 Election is finally coming to a close with one of the most divisive decisions for President in recent memory. Regardless of ones political affiliation, the right to vote is what makes the United States of America great. The University of Colorado has a unique tie to US politics with one of greatest football players to ever wear what was then Silver and Gold for the Buffaloes.

Early Life in Colorado

Byron "Whizzer" White came to Boulder in 1934 as a product of Wellington High School. As valedictorian of his class he was offered a scholarship to attend CU and decided to be the true definition of a student-athlete.

As a football player at Colorado, he was an outstanding halfback that challenged opposing defenses, leading the nation in rushing during his senior season in 1937 with 1,121 yards in eight games. The Buffaloes went undefeated that season and White finished as a runner-up for the Heisman Trophy to Yale’s halfback Clint Frank.

Colorado met Rice in the 1938 Cotton Bowl on New Years Day. The hard fought battle between the Buffs and Owls ended in a 28-14 loss for CU. White returned an interception for a touchdown in the game, but the Buffaloes were held to just 95 total yards on offense.

University of Colorado Athletics

As CU’s first All-American for Football, he was also a .400 hitter in baseball and a member of the Buffs’ 1938 NIT basketball team. Colorado won three games to advance to the semifinal round of the inaugural tournament held at New York’s Madison Square Garden. It was a year before the first NCAA tourney was officially established.

1938 CU Basketball- Left to right: Dick Harvey, 'swisher' Schwartz, Byron 'Whizzer' White, Jim Willcoxen, and Don Hendricks.
Bettmann/Getty Images

The League and studying abroad

White left Colorado as a Rhodes Scholar and was highly sought after to play in the National Football League. Pittsburgh Pirates (modern day Pittsburgh Steelers) owner Art Rooney and head coach John McNally saw White as a valuable asset to a team that needed a solid rusher. McNally played a dual role of coach and player at halfback during the 1937 season, leading the Pirates to a 4-7 record. Rooney drafted White with the fourth overall pick in the 1938 NFL Draft, signing him to a record $15,000 contract.

As a rookie, "Whizzer" led the NFL that year in rushing with 567 yards and four touchdowns. Rooney was once quoted by Yale University in 2003 as saying, "Of all the athletes I have known in my lifetime, I’d have to say Whizzer White came as close to anyone to giving 100 percent of himself when he was in competition."

The 21-year old phenom played one season for the Pirates before heading to England to pursue studies at Oxford, where he was admitted for law classes in October of 1939. White developed a friendship with then U.S. Ambassador to London Joseph Kennedy along with the entire Kennedy family. White’s intention were to stay in Europe throughout the course of the following five years, but he returned to the US to play for the Detroit Lions for two seasons from 1940-41.

War and coming home

White’s NFL career cut short when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1942. He would help the U.S. fight in World War II as an Intelligence Commander stationed in the Pacific Ocean. The star athlete’s first pick was to join the United States Marine Corps, but was held out due impaired vision. He earned two bronze stars for his heroic service to the country while in the Navy and was discharged in 1945.

White decided after the war to continue his studies in law and forgo his NFL career. He left the game of professional football with a total of 1,622 yards and 12 touchdowns in three seasons with the Pirates and Lions (1938, 1940-41).

The once NFL star sought a new career by attending Yale Law School and graduated in among the top of his class in 1946. Also that year, White married his longtime love Marrion, the daughter of CU President Robert Stearns. He would become a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Fred Vinson before him and Marrion moved back to Colorado.

Byron and Marrion White
Bill Johnson/ Getty Images

While In settling back in Denver, White became better established as an attorney for fifteen years at the Davis Graham and Stubbs law firm until 1960. He tapped into his connections with the Democratic Party as the chair of Colorado’s presidential campaign for John F. Kennedy. Both White and Kennedy had a relationship going back two decades before that point. Kennedy was elected president later that year and White was named as Deputy Attorney General— the second highest ranking official in the U.S. Justice Department.

White sitting at his desk in Washington DC
The LIFE Picture Collection/ Getty Images

On the bench of the Supreme Court

The post as Deputy would be short lived for White. After two years Kennedy appointed him to the United State Supreme Court to replace Charles Evans Whittaker in 1962. During his 31 years of service to the highest court in the land, White ruled on landmark cases for Abortion (Roe v. Wade), right to due process (Robinson v. California), gender discrimination (Frontiero v. Richardson) and the death penalty (Furman v. Georgia).

Justice White was a champion on civil rights and upheld the United State constitution to the fullest extent. After Brown v. The Board of Education, he worked toward desegregation in schools, even thought it was an unpopular stance at the time. Affirmative Action, the Klu Klux Klan Act, and the Civil Rights Act of 1991 were just some of pieces of legislation that White had a positive impact on during his time with the court.

Supreme Court Justice Byron "Whizzer" White 1962-1993
Bettmann/ Getty Images

He stayed on the Supreme Court bench until his retirement in 1993 and was succeeded by current Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. White remained active in the court system and contributed to lower appeals courts until his death on April 15, 2002 at the age of 84.

The legendary Coloradan was awarded posthumously with the Presidential Medal of Freedom— the highest civilian honor. Since 1967 (AFL-NFL merger), the NFL has awarded players for contributions to the community with an award named after White.

The University of Colorado retired White’s No. 24 calling him the "Greatest Buff ever" and was inducted into College Football Hall of Fame in 1954 and CU Hall of Fame in 1998. White was a courageous American that helped shape the country’s outlook into the 21st century and forever a Buffaloes icon.