Before Supreme Court, Byron “Whizzer” White had iconic football career

Editor’s note: Last in five-part series profiling Colorado football icons. Floyd Little, Darian Hagan, Andy Lowry and Sonny Lubick were previously profiled.

J.C. Derks couldn’t believe what he was watching when the Colorado football team visited Utah on Nov. 8, 1937.

A writer for the Salt Lake Tribune, Derks became smitten with Buffs running back Byron “Whizzer” White.

“An assemblage numbering well towards 20,000 persons Saturday saw the finest exhibition of football playing that has yet been witnessed on a Utah gridiron.”

Those were Derk’s words after Colorado posted a 17-7 win via White’s tour de force. According to news reports, White rushed 23 times for 187 yards (including a 95-yard touchdown run), completed two passes, averaged 25 yards per punt return, 39 yards on punts and made two kicks.

White was a Colorado football icon and, really, a Colorado icon.

After retiring from pro football in 1941, he served his country in World War II, earned a law degree from Yale, campaigned for John F. Kennedy in 1960, served as deputy attorney general under Robert Kennedy and was the first Coloradan appointed to the Supreme Court (1962). White retired from the high court in 1993 and passed away in Denver on April 15, 2002, at age 84.

“He was like Joe Namath,” former Pittsburgh player-coach Johnny Blood told football historian Dan Daly in a story for The Washington Times after White’s death. “People who weren’t necessarily football fans would come to the park not so much to see a game, but to see Whizzer White.”

Exhibit A: After White’s final college game, a 28-14 Cotton Bowl loss to Rice in which he threw a touchdown, ran for another and had an interception, Colorado state highway engineer Arthur Fant returned home from Dallas and his son was born. He named him Byron Arthur Fant, “because I wanted him to have the same first name as White.”

They all came to see White during his three years (1935-37) with the Buffaloes. In the record book section of last year’s Colorado media guide, White’s name appeared 105 times.

White, who was born in Fort Collins and attended high school in Wellington, was CU’s first football All-America selection (’37) when he led the Buffs to an 8-1 record and set national records with 1,221 rushing yards and 122 points.

White’s No. 24 is one of only four numbers retired by CU.

After finishing his Colorado career, White was drafted fourth overall by the NFL’s Pittsburgh Pirates (now Steelers). But imagine this happening in any of the following eras: White hedged on signing a contract.

White turned down a $15,000 offer in January 1938 and the Pennsylvania newspapers that year were full of updates. On July 31, once Oxford agreed to postpone his enrollment until 1939, White signed with the Pirates.

Oxford was temporarily out and pro football was momentarily in. According to Daly, the Pirates played two non-league games on the West Coast to maximize White’s celebrity.

In 11 games for the Pirates, White led the NFL in rushing attempts (152) and yards (567) and completed 29 of 73 passes for 393 yards (two touchdowns and 18 interceptions). He debuted in a loss at Detroit … and played again two days later against the New York Giants. The Pirates went 2-9 and White’s time in Pittsburgh was over.

“Everything was a one-year deal,” said Daly, who has written two books on football history — “The Pro Football Chronicles” and “The National Forgotten League.” “Art Rooney was happy to let him go — not because he hadn’t played well, but because (the Pirates) lost a ton of money that year and he started dumping contracts late in the season.”

One player Rooney sold was Frank Filchock to Washington. Filchock was later the Broncos’ first coach (1960-61). According to Daly’s book, at one point during White’s rookie year, the Pirates had only 20 players (10 below the limit).

After the season, White headed to England.

White didn’t play in 1939 and while in New York in March 1940, he said: “No more pro football for me. … I intend sticking close to the old textbooks.”

But football called when White returned to the United States because of World War II and he signed with the Lions.

White showed no rust in ’40, leading the NFL in rushing attempts (146) and yards (514). After the season, he volunteered for the Marine Corps, but was turned away because of color blindness. The following year, he rushed 89 times for 240 yards and just like that, White was done with pro football at age 24. On May 5, 1942, he joined the Navy’s intelligence division.

“A lot of guys had short careers back them,” Daly said. “Of course, none of them went on to be a Supreme Court justice. Tom Harmon was another very famous back who played a few seasons and then went onto other things. Harmon was older (28), though, and had lost several seasons to the war.”

White was stationed in the Pacific and earned two Bronze Stars. Daly said White was aboard the USS Bunker Hill in 1945 when it was hit by two kamikazes that killed 346 men and wounded 264 others.

White isn’t in the Pro Football Hall of Fame because he didn’t play long enough, period. Daly said White did travel to Canton, Ohio, to present Blood and former Pirates teammate Walt Kiesling for induction.

But he was revered for his play.

In Daly’s story after White’s death, Hall of Famer Ace Parker called White, “the greatest player I ever saw. … White couldn’t pass or kick with some of the rest of them, but he was the best all-around player in my opinion.”

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