Supreme Court Justice Byron White served on the bench of the Supreme Court for 31 years. He is the only judge to have played college and professional football where he garnered numerous athletic and academic records.
In 1937, Byron White led the University of Colorado football team to an 8-0 regular season record and became the university’s first All-American football player. In that season, the senior from Wellington, Colorado set a college football record that lasted 51 years. In eight games that year, White averaged 246.3 running yards per game. He rushed for 1,121 yards, returned punts for 587, returned kickoffs for 159 and intercepted passes for 103. It was not until 1988 that Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders broke White’s collegiate, all-purpose running record.
White played both offense and defense. Offensively, he played tailback in a single-wing formation, which allowed him to pass and run. He also played a safety and linebacker on defense.
When he was not passing (314 yards on 22 of 44), running or intercepting passes, he was kicking. He kicked 23 PATs, kicked one field goal, and was the team’s punter averaging 42.5 yards per kick.
Denver Post sportswriter Leonard Cahn saw the potential of White as early as 1935 and nicknamed him Whizzer, a name he never liked but nevertheless stuck.
At the end of the 1937 season, he led the nation in four departments: all-purpose running yardage (246.3), rushing 1121, total offense (1596), and scoring (122, an average of 15.3 a game). Only one player since then has led all four categories. He was Dick Bass of the University of Pacific in 1958.
Yet, after this amazing season, White came in second in the Heisman trophy voting. Clint Frank of Yale won the Heisman in 1937. Grantland Rice called Frank “unquestionably, one of Yale’s greatest all-time players.”
Colorado coach Bunnie Oakes saw in White a player who could play like his old teammate Red Grange. Like Grange, White had an elusive running style as well as punting, kicking, and passing ability.
In 1936, White had his first spectacular game. CU football writer Fred Casotti called it his greatest game. It was the kind of game he would repeat several times the following year. The game was against Utah on a snowy afternoon in Boulder. White set up the first Colorado touchdown by punting out of bounds at the one. When Utah was forced to punt White returned the punt for a 38 yard touchdown. A few plays later he punted the ball out of bounds at the Utah four. The Utah team punted and White, again, returned the ball for a 43 yard touchdown. When Colorado was stuck at their own six White kicked them out of trouble with a 62 yard punt. In the second quarter, he ran for a 38 yard touchdown. The third quarter kickoff was returned for 90 yards by White. In the fourth quarter he threw a touchdown pass.
From that game on Coach Oakes used White as much as possible.
On January 1, 1938, in the Cotton Bowl against Rice, White led the Colorado team to a 14-0 lead with an interception returned for a touchdown and a touchdown pass, but eventually Rice went on to win 28-14. However, most of the fans in the stadium that day (7,000 from Colorado) recognized White as the best player on the field.
Though Byron White did not win the Heisman Trophy, he was a consensus All-American and was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. In 1938, he played for the Pittsburgh Steelers where he led the league in rushing his first year and was the first NFL player to receive a five-figure salary ($15,000). In 1939, he studied at Oxford but was forced to return to the United States because of the war.
He played for the Detroit Lions in 1940, again leading the NFL in rushing. After the war, in which he was a decorated naval officer, he graduated first in his class from Yale Law School.
White has been inducted into the Citizens Savings Hall of Fame and the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame.
In March 1962, he was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Kennedy where he served until 1993. He passed away April 15, 2002 at the age of 84.