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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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I lived in a rooming house when I first went to college and went out for athletics, and I pledged to Phi Gamma Delta, the same fraternity my brother belonged to. I was 17 then and I'd go out a little, but I didn't go over to the fraternity much. I was waiting on table at a sorority to earn some money, and by the time I was through work at night I wanted to study at home.

I had a hard time with my knee in my sophomore year. It was swelling up like a balloon, and I could only play part of two games. I decided I wouldn't let them operate, that if I couldn't play athletics then what the hell. Howard Waite, the trainer, helped a lot. Every day he would tape it up, and I was reasonably sure in my own mind that the knee was fairly secure. So was the doctor and so was the trainer.

When you have a bum knee like that you develop a protective reaction. Anytime anyone got within 100 yards of me, I'd make damn sure my knee was bent. You can't get hurt as long as it's bent. I started every basketball game that sophomore year, and by the time basketball was over I knew the knee was O.K. I didn't go out for football in the spring, but I played baseball, and after the baseball season I put on my football cleats and worked out with the knee.

By the fall my knee was all right, except if I kicked the ball the normal height my knee gave me trouble, so I had to learn to kick low. It was great for accuracy and kicking into the wind but not much good for getting down under the punts. Everybody thought I was through and didn't expect me to have much of a football year, but I really didn't think about it. I figured they wouldn't miss me. They had Kayo Lam, a very good tailback at Colorado who was a senior when I was a sophomore. He's now the graduate manager.

In my junior year, when my knee turned out to be O.K., I had a pretty good year. That was when all the publicity started, and I had a little difficulty adjusting to it. I thought it was exaggerated, and besides, it set me off from the other people. As much as anything else, you never felt you were alone anyplace. You couldn't go anywhere without somebody wanting to come up and talk to you. But I figured these newspaper people knew what they were doing and it was their job to do it, so I went along with it as best I could.

Our coach, Bunnie Oakes, knew as much football as any coach I've ever had. You may remember he played on the same team at Illinois as Red Grange. Oakes put great store in the punt and the punt return, and he saw no reason why you couldn't play basketball with a football, catch it while you were running at full speed.

I spent a half hour to 45 minutes every night practicing on catching punts at full speed, learning how to go to the ball at the last possible second. I remember we beat Utah that year 31-7, and I think I returned three punts for touchdowns in that game and maybe set up a couple more with runbacks.

It was in my senior year that the basketball team came East to play in the National Invitation Tournament in Madison Square Garden. We beat a couple of good teams, but we were badly beaten by Temple in the finals. The New York newspapers put out quite a bit of publicity about the team and about me. I figured it the same way I always had—it was their job and they probably knew what they were doing. But I didn't like it, even so.

I made a couple of darned good friends on that trip to New York, people who had grown up in Colorado and now worked in New York. The Colorado people put on a banquet for us and took us on a tour of the Stock Exchange and other sights and were really friendly to us. That was the first time I really had a chance to see anything of New York people and find out about how they take everything so seriously. Whatever they do they've got to know everything there is to know about it.

That spring I didn't play baseball. I'd had about enough of competitive athletics. Thinking back on it, though, I think maybe I enjoyed my three years of baseball more than I did any other sport. When spring comes around you're ready for a blow after all those months of football and basketball. I was usually pretty run-down, and a couple of times I even came down with the flu and had to go home to recuperate. Except in my senior year I was always ready to get out in the sunshine and horse around playing a relaxed game like baseball.

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