"Dad," my 24-year-old son, Kenneth, asked not long ago, "what was your greatest moment in sports?" I suppose Kenneth expected me to tell him about one of my triumphs as a handball player who had won a one-wall doubles state championship in New York and a four-wall intercollegiate championship in Illinois and had earned sundry minor titles in squash, badminton and racquetball. I'd spoken to him of some of these achievements before. But I thought about his question for a while, then realized that my greatest moment in sports—certainly my most memorable—had not been as a participant but as a spectator.
More than 50 years ago—on Thursday evening, Dec. 29, 1938, to be exact—I was standing in the inner lobby of New York City's old Madison Square Garden (the one that stood on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th streets). A few yards away, the ticket taker was in his copper-and-glass booth. My brother Elihu, at 19 two years older than I, was in line at the box office in the outer lobby, about 20 yards away. In his pocket were a couple of dollars our father had given us to buy tickets to the National Hockey League game between the New York Americans and the Boston Bruins. It was scheduled to begin in a few minutes. We were ardent hockey fans, eager to see the New York debut of the Bruins' sensational rookie goaltender, Frank Brimsek. He would be playing with such stalwarts as Eddie Shore, Cooney Weiland, Bobby Bauer, Dit Clapper, Woody Dumart and Milt Schmidt. Coached by Art Ross, the Bruins were the team most feared in the league at that time (they would win that season's Stanley Cup). The Americans, now long gone, played second fiddle to the far more popular Rangers, but they were a decent team, led by the outstanding forward line of Art Chapman, Lorne Carr and Sweeny Schriner.
As I was waiting for Elihu to buy our tickets, a group of 10 or 12 young men, most of them taller and sturdier than I, walked to within a few feet of me, stopped and started talking among themselves. They were obviously waiting for someone, as I was. I paid little attention to them until a tall, well-built fellow—hatless, bespectacled and wearing a gabardine trench coat open at the neck so that a bright tie was visible—hurried up to the group. In his right hand was a sheaf of tickets. He began distributing them to the men, and I could hear each recipient saying, "Thanks, Whiz," or "Thank you, Whizzer."
"Whizzer?" Could it be the Whizzer? Byron (Whizzer) White, one of the greatest halfbacks in the history of college football? The man who, as a senior at Colorado in 1937, had made Grantland Rice's All-America team? A triple threat who could kick and pass and run with the best of them? Who got off an 84-yard punt against Missouri? Who ran back a punt for 75 yards and a touchdown against Colorado State? Who in a game at Salt Lake City, with the Utes leading Colorado 7-3 in the fourth quarter, received a punt on his 15, retreated to his three and then ran 97 yards for a touchdown? Who later picked up 57 yards on an end run for another touchdown against Utah? Whose straight-arm was compared to a Joe Louis jab and whose nifty open-field pivots had humiliated dozens of eager tacklers? The Whizzer White who led the Buffaloes to an unbeaten season and then scored one touchdown and threw for another in Colorado's 28-14 loss to Rice in the 1938 Cotton Bowl game?
White had also graduated at the head of his class in June; was Phi Beta Kappa; had been awarded a Rhodes Scholarship but had delayed going to England to play a season in the National Football League for the Pittsburgh Pirates (later the Steelers), thereby earning $15,800, more than any other NFL player that season. He had earned that whopping salary when he went on to lead the NFL in rushing.
Had this been the TV era, I am sure I would have recognized White's face immediately, but in 1938 all I had to go on were blurry black-and-white newspaper photographs, so I couldn't be sure.
And then, to my amazement, he handed me a ticket. "Th—thanks, Whizzer," I said.
"O.K.," he said. "Now let's go in." As the members of the group offered their tickets to the ticket taker, I stood rooted to the spot.
"Aren't you coming in with us?" Whizzer asked.
"Sure...sure." My voice came out in a whisper. "I'll be right in."