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From the Steelers to the Supreme Court: The Amazing Life of Byron “Whizzer” White

Throughout history, the United States has seen many individuals who have achieved great things in multiple career avenues. The word “legend” is tossed around a lot and in most cases is thrown around too often. Someone that is definitely worthy of being given that moniker is Byron “Whizzer” White. He lived a life and accomplished things that very few could compare to. 

Over the course of his illustrious life, White played in the NFL, served as a lieutenant commander in the United States Navy during World War II, graduated from the prestigious Yale law school to become a lawyer, and then became an Associate Justice on the United States Supreme Court. 

In 2002, White passed away at the age of 84 and since his passing, his story in some respects feels swept under the rug. 

Now, you’re probably thinking, “who cares about some guy that played football 80 years ago, and did all these other things afterward?” Despite the fact that TWSN is mostly a sports website, it’s important for people to be open to learning about a range of things that may have a connection to sports but also go beyond them. Especially in a time where athletes are on the forefront of societal change. 

On June 8, 1917, White was born in Fort Collins, Colorado; neither of his parents had even attended high school. He grew up around 17 minutes from Fort Collins in Wellington, Colorado, a very small town in northern Colorado where you had to have a hard-working mentality to succeed. During his Supreme Court appointment, White said, “There was very little money around Wellington.” Adding that “Everybody worked for a living. Everybody.” 

White was a standout athlete and finished the top of an only five-person high school class. In college White continued to excel in both athletics and academics. He played multiple sports in college, including basketball and baseball, but it was on the football field where White really shined. In his final collegiate season, Colorado’s Football team went undefeated, White was a star as a punter, passer, and halfback, resulting in him leading the nation in scoring, rushing, and total offense. 

Academically, White was also brilliant; he was named valedictorian of his graduating class in 1938. This resulted in him being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford. He decided to make a tough decision and opted to delay his time at Oxford to the spring, and instead decided to play in the NFL for a season. 

He was selected fourth overall in the 1938 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates (now the Steelers). In his first season in the NFL as a 21-year-old, White led the league in rushing with 567 yards in 11 games, and was named First-Team All-Pro. His success in the NFL resulted in White earning the league’s highest salary at the time of $15,800. White used that money to pay for his law school tuition. 

At season’s end, he would travel to Oxford, with the intent of staying for three years. Now just imagine if an NFL athlete, especially one that was at the top of his game did something like that, in this day and age. It would be out of the ordinary today if say Saquon Barkley (as an example), decided after his great rookie year to take a break from football to study at Oxford. 

In January 1939, White began studying law at Oxford, although his stay was short-lived as he decided to go back to the United States and go to Yale Law School where he would earn high grades during his studies. He turned down an editorship from The Yale Law Journal and decided to go back to the NFL and play for the Detroit Lions. 

White was able to pick up right where he left off, as he led the league in rushing, and was named first-team All-Pro in 1940. He would play one more season in the NFL, which was not as outstanding as his first two, but he was still awarded second-team All-Pro. This would be his last season in the NFL, as White entered the U.S. Navy in 1942. 

During his time in the Navy, White served as an Intelligence Officer and was stationed in the Pacific Theatre. It was during his time in the Navy where White reconnected with someone who would change his life forever. That person was John F. Kennedy, the future 35th President of the United States. The two first met in 1939 on the French Riviera, where they were both vacationing at the time. White and Kennedy were both Navy Lieutenant’s and White was given the responsibility of having to write the official report of Kennedy’s torpedo boat, PT-109, that was sunk by the actions of a Japanese destroyer. 

After the war in 1946, White would come back to Yale to finish law school. He graduated magna cum laude, finishing first in his class. After that, he moved to Washington D.C. to serve as a law clerk for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Fred M. Vinson during the 1946-47 term. This was also around the same time when White met his future wife Marion Stearns. They would end up being married for 56 years, raising two children. 

White and his wife would then move back home to Colorado. He was able to earn a job working for the Denver law firm, “Lewis, Grant, Newton, Davis, & Henry,” where he would spend the next 14 years working his way up the ranks as a lawyer and attorney.

For many years, White had resisted getting involved in politics until his old friend Kennedy, who was a senator at the time, asked him for his help in the early stages of his presidential campaign in 1960. He was very active, raising awareness about the campaign, while he managed to get a lot of support from his home state of Colorado, to go out and vote for Kennedy. White was asked by Robert Kennedy, JFK’s brother, to take charge of the national Citizens for Kennedy organization during the general election campaign. 

Senator Kennedy eventually became President Kennedy, as he was sworn in on January 20, 1961, after beating Vice President Richard Nixon. President Kennedy offered White the job of deputy attorney general, the second-highest position in the Justice Department. He would be behind Robert Kennedy who was appointed Attorney General by his brother. 

Despite the fact that White wasn’t the top dog in the Justice Department, he still was tasked with a job full of significant responsibilities. White was in charge of overseeing the day-to-day administration, recruiting lawyers for essential positions, overseeing the department’s initiatives in Congress, along with taking a hands-on approach to selecting nominees for 70 new federal judgeships. 

Since President Kennedy’s time in office took place during the early 1960s, which was also the height of the Civil Rights Movement, White had the responsibility of having to monitor federal efforts to thwart the intensifying violence that accompanied the freedom rides, sit-ins, and marches. This resulted in the former All-Pro White having to go down to Alabama to administer 400 federal marshals and deputies who were sent to restore order in the state in May of 1961. 

In March of 1962, President Kennedy was made aware that Justice Charles E. Whittaker would be leaving the Supreme Court. Once he heard that news he knew exactly who he wanted to fill the vacancy. Kennedy quickly identified White as his top choice. When White was first introduced to the idea, he was hesitant and expressed little enthusiasm at the prospect of taking on such a prestigious position. He was convinced to take the job by Nicholas Katzenbach who was serving with him in the Justice Department, along with Attorney General Robert Kennedy. 

When White was rising up the ranks in his legal career, he tried to do everything he could to hide his athletic past, so he could be accepted for his jurist credentials. He hated his nickname “Whizzer” which was bestowed upon him by sportswriters and was something he had a hard time shaking off the rest of his life. 

When President Kennedy made the announcement of White’s nomination, he characterized him as, “the ideal New Frontier judge,” adding that he has “excelled in everything he has attempted.” This was a well-said statement by a President that was one of the best orators in modern history.

White pictured on the far left, with President John F. Kennedy (middle), and First Lady Jackie Kennedy (right) Via: New York Times

White was only 44 years old at the time, making him one of the youngest people ever to be put on the court. He went on to serve for 31 years on the Supreme Court, which was one of the longest tenures among 20th-century justices. White’s judicial legacy is one that is rather complex, as he is someone that is sometimes forgotten because of how private he was during his life and his time on the court. He was a man that enjoyed his privacy, which makes it a good thing that he was not a justice in this day and age. 

A big reason why Justice White’s legacy on the Court is considered to be complex is that even though he was appointed by a Democratic President, his views didn’t necessarily always align with Democratic or liberal views. Which in reality is not the worst thing in the world, because a Supreme Court Justice is supposed to be independent on their rulings and make decisions based on the Constitution. 

In terms of his Judicial style while on the Supreme Court, White had a tendency to be an imposing figure on the bench during cases and was known to be a shrewd operator who wasn’t afraid to ask unnerving questions to lawyers. He was someone who was willing to help inexperienced lawyers focus their arguments at times, but could also tend to be frustrated when they weren’t able to pick up his methods. 

Some of his most controversial decisions are when he dissented in the cases of Miranda v. Arizona (1966) and Roe v. Wade (1973). Miranda v. Arizona established that a person who is under arrest must be informed that they have a right to remain silent, and that they have a right to an attorney; the reason this is important is that it prevents people from self-incriminating themselves. 

The case was brought before the Supreme Court, and it was a 5-4 ruling in favor of having the case of Miranda overturned and establishing the new precedent that people in custody must be informed of their rights. White was not in the majority and strongly dissented in the case. He stated that “The proposition that the privilege against self-incrimination forbids in-custody interrogation without the warnings specified in the majority opinion and without a clear waiver of counsel has no significant support in the history of the privilege or in the language of the Fifth Amendment.” White felt that the case should not be backed by the Fifth Amendment, and clearly did not see the correlation between the two. 

Roe v. Wade (1973) which was the historic case that ruled that the Constitution of the United States protects a pregnant woman’s right to have an abortion. The ruling was 7-2 in favor of abortion being legal under the Constitution. Justice White along with Justice William Rehnquist were the two Justices in dissent. In his dissent, he stated that “As an exercise of raw judicial power, the Court perhaps has authority to do what it does today; but in my view, its judgment is an improvident and extravagant exercise of the power of judicial review that the Constitution extends to this court.”

The viewpoint that Justice White is expressing is one that is not common among Democrat Justices. In his dissent above, what you see is how Justice White believed that the Court should not be the ones making this decision and that it should be up to the state governments, which in most cases is a conservative belief. 

He presided over hundreds of cases as time went on and would make decisions on more controversial cases. Another case in particular that comes to mind is Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), which was a case that ruled against protections of homosexual sex in the state of Georgia because it is not protected by the Constitution.

The ruling was 5-4 in favor of not overturning the ruling in favor of Hardwick. In Justice White’s opinion, he wrote a scathing case in the majority ruling saying, the constitutional right to engage in homosexual sex “is, at best, facetious.” A view that today would draw a lot of disgust, to say the least. 

Even when he was in his 60’s Justice White enjoyed playing basketball in the Supreme Court gym, with his law clerks who in most cases were probably a lot younger than him. They described him as someone who was aggressive and competitive during games. Which in some ways is not surprising when you think about how he was during cases on the Court. 

In 1993, after Bill Clinton was elected to be the 42nd President of the United States, his Vice President Al Gore had to make a decision on who he wanted to be sworn in by on inauguration day. Vice President Gore decided to pick Justice White to administer the oath of office to him. It would be the only time Justice White had the responsibility of administering the oath of office to a Vice President.

Vice President Gore (left), Second Lady Tipper Gore (middle), and Justice White (right) Via: Getty Images 

Just two months later, on March 19, 1993, White announced that he would be retiring from the Court. Instead of following tradition and holding a press conference, he decided to send a public letter to his colleagues thanking them for their friendship. When he retired, Justice White was the only remaining justice that was appointed by a Democratic President. In his retirement, he also said that he intended to sit in on cases of the federal court of appeals, which is common among retired justices. White was replaced by the iconic Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who became just the second woman named to the Supreme Court. 

After his time on the court, White would only live for nine more years, passing away on April 15, 2002, at the age of 84 from pneumonia. He was the last living retired Justice at the time of his death. His remains are stored at St. John’s Cathedral in Denver, Colorado. 

Before his death and since he has passed on, White has had many honors in his name, related to sports and the law. For 51 years, the NFL Players Association awarded the Byron “Whizzer” White NFL Man of the Year Award which is given to a player who goes above and beyond to do community service. 

In 2018, the award was renamed in honor of Pro Football Hall of Famer Alan Page who served on the Minnesota Supreme Court for 22 years. In 2003, President George W. Bush posthumously awarded White the highest civilian honor in the United States the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2007, White was inducted into the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Hall of Fame. In 2017, Neil Gorsuch, one of White’s former law clerks, was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Donald Trump. 

Now, if you have made it to this point in the article, I hope that you had a meaningful experience learning about Justice Byron “Whizzer” White. He was a man who has a story that few can compare to, and many could only dream of. You may be thinking that this story doesn’t belong on a sports-centered website, but I disagree.

The whole point of telling this story is to educate people about how sports can be a gateway to other opportunities in life and to educate yourself on various topics. It is also designed to cover how sports and something like being on the Supreme Court has more in common than you may think. Right now we are at a point in time where it is so important that people are open to hearing about subjects that they may not know a lot about, or feel uncomfortable about because that’s how you learn and grow. 

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