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A Modest All-America Who Sits on the Highest Bench
Alfred Wright
December 10, 1962
Justice Byron R. White, the greatest athlete of his time, a member of football's Hall of Fame, a warrior and a scholar, was President Kennedy's first appointment to the Supreme Court. Here are his reminiscences on a career of action and service
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December 10, 1962

A Modest All-america Who Sits On The Highest Bench

Justice Byron R. White, the greatest athlete of his time, a member of football's Hall of Fame, a warrior and a scholar, was President Kennedy's first appointment to the Supreme Court. Here are his reminiscences on a career of action and service

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The state university passed out one academic scholarship to the first man in the graduating class of every high school in the state, so you made a noticeable effort to be first. That's how I was able to get to college.

The White House biography of Justice White continues, "He graduated from the University of Colorado in 1938, ranking first in a class of 267.... Mr. White was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honorary society and was active in college activities, including varsity athletics, and was president of the associated students in 1937-38. In 1937 he was selected as a member of the All-America football team, and in 1954 he was named to the National Football Hall of Fame."

These bald statements envelop some singular feats. For instance, White won his Phi Beta Kappa key in his junior year. He won three varsity letters in football, four in basketball and three in baseball. In his junior year he began to attract a good deal of local publicity as a triple-threat tailback on the football team, and a local sportswriter, Leonard Cahn, christened him with the catchy name of Whizzer.

As Whizzer White, the Justice began to get national publicity, due in no small part to the journalistic attentions of Grantland Rice. During his final season he was the leading ground-gainer and leading scorer in college football, and he averaged 31 yards on each of his punt returns. He scored 13 touchdowns, 19 conversions and kicked the only field goal he attempted. He and his teammates were unbeaten and untied and went to the Cotton Bowl to play Rice on New Year's Day. During the first 10 minutes of that game White ran for a touchdown with an intercepted pass, threw a pass for another Colorado touchdown and kicked two extra points to help give his team a 14-point lead. After that, the heavier Rice squad wore down Colorado and won the game 28-14.

There was a fellow out there at Colorado named Harry Carlson [the Justice went on], who was the dean of men and director of athletics for years and years. He's still out there, and I always try to see him when I go home. He was very soft-spoken and a damn fine baseball coach. He was a very wise fellow, very high-principled. We used to spend a lot of time together fishing; he was a great fisherman.

Carlson had as good an idea as anybody about what competitive athletics are all about. He was a strong fellow for not letting competitive athletics interfere with your work. He didn't think it was much of a problem, really. Carlson believed in hard competition. You did athletics because you enjoyed them. There was no training table, no segregated living. In Carlson's day athletes were accepted and acceptable.

Those were the days of the great college football games like USC and Notre Dame, and you'd read about them in the papers. I remember reading about Dutch Clark playing for Colorado College and all the fabulous stories about him. When I was a freshman in college he was the basketball coach, so I got to know him.

I didn't know what I wanted to be in life when I went to college. My uncle was a lawyer in Audubon, Iowa, and a very good one. My brother and I and my parents drove over to see him a couple of times. I took a great shine to him. My dad was always interested in the law and would have made a fine lawyer himself. He used to like to discuss and argue all kinds of things with my brother and me.

By the time I got to college my brother was already very well known, so it was fairly easy for me to get around. Sam was a good athlete and had played end on the football team. He was spending a year there doing postgraduate work when I arrived as a freshman.

I started off studying chemistry and mathematics and science, but by the end of my second year I'd switched over to the humanities and economics. I quit chemistry just at the point where you've done all the boring memory work and it begins to get interesting. I have a feeling that if I'd kept on with it I'd have ended up as a doctor. My parents wanted me to be what I wanted to be. They had a pretty simple prescription for living. You worked hard, did as well as you could and were considerate of other people's feelings.

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