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Justice's diverse skills unmatched

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By HUBERT MIZELL, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 21, 2002

You'd like to see Byron Raymond White's spirit perpetuated, as the epitome of a role model, but to ask anyone, however smart or gifted, to emulate "Whizzer" may be too much.

Especially now, when many extraordinary athletes are prone to arrogance, intoxicated by fame and wealth, with the collegiate experience seen more as a nagging steppingstone than life's cornerstone.

As an All-America football runner, White's speed was blurring, triggering the "Whizzer" nickname he would forever loathe, figuring it was braggart baloney potentially harmful to being the ultimate in a team player.

As a jock or a justice.

Always a team mentality.

White's portfolio, in historic ways, is more remarkable than any sportsman of his 84-year lifetime, from Babe Ruth to Tiger Woods.

White died last week, casting a shadow higher than the Rocky Mountains he loved, with accomplishments so varied and extraordinary, and personal constitution so devout, that no century is apt to see his equal.

Son of a Colorado lumberjack, White was valedictorian of his high school class of 10 in backwood Wellington near the Wyoming border. Always smart, always learning, always humble.

Ella Mae Doyle, then his girlfriend, recalls boy White "sitting on street corners reading books while the rest of us goofed around." He would become a judicial Einstein.

It was White's football skills that earned a scholarship at Colorado where, during his freshman season in 1935, a Denver newspaper christened the teen whiz as "Whizzer" in a Sunday headline. It stuck though White thought it stunk.

This wasn't just a Gerald Ford who was a pretty fair University of Michigan center, headed for the House and Representatives and eventual casting as president of the United States when Richard Nixon fumbled. White was a more sensational football talent; the Barry Sanders or Marshall Faulk of his time.

He was the first-round NFL draft pick of Pittsburgh in 1938, having graduated No. 1 in his CU class and being a Phi Beta Kappa member. We may have to explain that to the millionaire dropouts of modern sports. Byron and brother Sam were Rhodes scholars and invited to expanded education at hallowed Oxford University in England.

White played basketball at CU and led the Buffaloes to the first NIT championship game in 1938 when the NCAA Final Four was in its infancy and the NIT considered stronger.

By then, White had become a national legend and New York sports writers probed for deeper personal information on the studious jock sensation from the Colorado outback. White was irritated and spent much of his life shunning media and personal acclaim.

So different from now. . .

Temporarily, money would woo Whizzer. Football veterans in the late '30s had an average salary of $8,000 but the Pirates (eventually recast as the Steelers) knew of White's academic aspirations and Oxford options, so team owners ballooned his rookie pay to $15,800. "How could I refuse?" he would say. "I could use it to pay my way through law school."

Comparatively, it was millions.

There was audible complaining, not unlike now when No. 1 draft choices are handed $5-million plus before breaking their first sweats as professionals. New York Giants ruffian Tuffy Leemans put an especially hard tackle on White, announcing, "I wanted to find out what a $15,000 player feels like."

Whizzer quieted the mutters, leading the NFL in rushing with 567 yards for 11 games; being named rookie of the year. After the season, White sailed for Europe and Rhodes studies. He would quickly become Oxford friends with Jack Kennedy, whose father was serving as President Roosevelt's ambassador to the Court of St. James.

A relationship for the ages.

World War II was festering, so White came home to enroll at Yale Law School. Colorado's colossus kept gathering steam if not ego. In his spare time, Whizzer played two more seasons with the Detroit Lions and repeated as the top rusher in 1940 with 514 yards.

He joined the Navy and served as an intelligence officer in the South Pacific, earning a Bronze Star. Another quite traumatic association evolved with Kennedy when White wrote the official report on the sinking of JFK's famed PT-109. After the war, White returned to Yale, graduating magna cum laude, No. 1 in his law school class. He returned to Colorado in 1947, using his sporting touch to become a superb fly-fisherman, quietly practicing law for 13 years until Kennedy ran for president.

White bloomed as a 1960 political activist for his old Oxford pal, delivering 27 critical delegates at the Democratic National Convention. JFK was elected and, in 1962, named the wondrous Whizzer as a justice to the Supreme Court. Just over a year later, JFK was assassinated.

During his 31 years on the highest court, or since 1993 retirement, White seldom allowed outsiders a peek at his amazing life. Whizzer was long gone, even if the old runner had been named to the College Football Hall of Fame.

Pals never called him that.

There were fierce, elbow-throwing pickup basketball games involving justices and aides, with White as a spirited regular in his 40s and 50s, playing on private hardwood a few steps from the sacred Washington chambers, on what old Whizzer liked to call, in the athletic sense, "The highest court in the land."

Never been (or will be) an athlete quite like him.

-- To reach Hubert Mizell, e-mail or mail to P.O. Box 726, Nellysford, VA 22958.

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