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The White House biography continues, "Mr. White was selected as a Rhodes scholar from the state of Colorado in December 1937 and attended Oxford University, Oxford, England from January 1939 to October 1939.... Mr. White played professional football with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1938 and with the Detroit Lions in 1940 and 1941."
I finally finished up college [Justice White said] with a couple of B's and all the rest A's, and in my senior year I felt I'd done well enough to try for a Rhodes scholarship. I hadn't consciously worked in that direction; in fact, I don't think I thought any more about my grades in college than I had in high school. I guess I just got in the habit of working.
My brother was already over at Oxford studying on a Rhodes scholarship, and he thought it would be extremely worthwhile for me to do so. Several lawyers around Colorado had done it, and they all thought that since our system of law was derived from the English common law, I could study three years of law in England and at most take an extra year in the U.S. before taking my bar exams.
By that time I'd given up all thoughts of playing pro football. Art Rooney, who owned the Pittsburgh Pirates, offered me a good piece of cash, and he sent Johnny Blood, who played and coached for the Pirates at the time, out to see me. But I decided I wouldn't play if it meant losing a year at Oxford. My brother talked to some people at Oxford about my coming late, and when he found out it would be all right for me to start in January, I arranged to play that season for Pittsburgh.
Indeed he did play professional football. The Pittsburgh Pirates, who had made White their first choice in the draft, were so anxious to get him they paid him $15,000, the highest salary ever earned by a pro in a single season until that time. White repaid their generosity by leading the league in rushing with 567 yards. No other rookie had ever before led the league in any department, and White did it with a last-place team. After skipping the 1939 season to study abroad, White played in 1940 and 1941 for the Detroit Lions, who had bought his contract from the Pirates. In the first of these two seasons he again led the league in rushing with a mediocre team; only the remarkable Cliff Battles had ever before led the league twice as a runner.
I liked pro ball better than the college game [the Justice said]. In the professional league there is no such thing as a soft game. The money part of it isn't nearly as important as some people make out. Before you sign up you do a certain amount of haggling about the salary, but when the season starts and the whistle blows you play for the same reason you always play games. You play to win.
There were some stories in the papers when I started with Pittsburgh that the team wouldn't block for me because I was making more money than anyone else. As far as I'm concerned, that was just a figment of some people's imaginations, or maybe some people thought they observed it because we were having a lousy season. I never knew anything about it, and anyway you would never make a yard unless those guys blocked for you. I roomed with Ed Karpovich, who played tackle and end, and I knew he would never have put up with that sort of thing.
After football I went to Oxford. There was some question about whether I would go out for a sport like Rugby over there. This man came up to me one day and suggested very clearly that they didn't want me to play athletics at Oxford because I was a professional. I would have had to use another dressing room from the amateurs.
Thinking about it, the Justice burst out laughing.
It was very enjoyable studying at Oxford [he said] and very different from our type of education. They put you completely on your own—you go to school for a couple of months, then take a six weeks' vacation. If you've got any kind of intellectual steam at all you can get a lot of work done.