A Tribute to Byron White

By Tagliabue, Paul | The Yale Law Journal, March 2003 | Go to article overview

A Tribute to Byron White


Tagliabue, Paul, The Yale Law Journal


Byron "Whizzer" White set a standard--both on and off the field--that few others have approached, let alone equaled. As the NFL concludes its eighty-fourth season, it is appropriate to remember Whizzer White, a man who uniquely combined and epitomized a range of values that players in the League continue to strive to attain. The contribution of athletics to White's character and later accomplishments, particularly in public service, also has striking relevance to the current debate on the place of athletics in higher education. (1)

Even a brief review of Whizzer White's accomplishments highlights his extraordinary place in American--and NFL--history. He still ranks as one of the greatest college football players of all time, having achieved distinction on the gridiron while earning both a Phi Beta Kappa key and a Rhodes Scholarship at the University of Colorado. White's success as a collegiate scholar-athlete was followed by three seasons during which, first for the Pittsburgh Pirates (now Pittsburgh Steelers) and then for the Detroit Lions, he led the NFL in rushing while studying law at Yale, where he finished first in his class. Those achievements led the legendary owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Art Rooney, who knew thousands of professional football players during his Hall of Fame career, to observe, "Of all the athletes I have known in my lifetime, I'd have to say Whizzer White came as close to anyone to giving 100 percent of himself when he was in competition." (2)

Notwithstanding his extraordinary accomplishments on the field and in the classroom, White was a man, to paraphrase Kipling, who could walk with Presidents but not lose the common touch. Johnny Blood, Pittsburgh's colorful player-coach, said of his teammate, "We had a lot rougher life in those days, but he fit right in. He was a man with a hoe, you know. He's no ivory tower person; he's no dreamer." (3) President Kennedy, who served with White during the Pacific campaign and later appointed him to the Supreme Court, made the point succinctly, "[He] was no mere professor or scholar, but had actually seen life." (4) One example illustrates the point: In 1940, when White took summer classes at the University of Colorado Law School, he waited tables even though he had been the highest-paid player in the NFL that year. When asked why, he replied, with characteristic modesty, "I waited table[s] for my board when I was in school here.... It's a good way to earn your food and you don't make money to go to school." (5)

White recognized that his experience as an athlete provided a solid basis for his later career in public life, including public service: (6)

   This business of performing under some kind of pressure and being
   willing to face up to requirements proves its utility in other
   activities of life.... I am in favor of exposing young people to
   situations that require the highest performance on a regular basis.
   While athletics are a manufactured environment, there comes that
   moment when you stand face to face with doing. The moment--perhaps
   a fraction of a second--comes when you either do or you
   don't. (7)

With specific reference to football, he remarked, "This kind of experience is valuable in maturing one. It contributes to one's self reliance, initiative, and integrity.... [And] it is damn good fun, which is not to be sneezed at." (8)

White's upbringing in Colorado surely led him to recognize the extent to which participation in athletics develops qualities and values critical to success in life after sports. But his later experiences at Oxford and Yale no doubt reinforced this conviction. As Yale's former president and later Commissioner of Major League Baseball A. Bartlett Giamatti so well demonstrated, both universities have long traditions teaching that participation in athletics is indispensable preparation for success on far more important playing fields and battlegrounds of life. …

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