Hutchinson Talks With NYTimes About Justice Byron White

Before Myron Rolle, There Was Byron White
Connor Ennis
The Quad - The New York Times College Sports Blog
October 27, 2009

Myron Rolle’s stay in Oxford as a Rhodes scholar has prompted many references to Bill Bradley. However, given the fact that Bradley was a basketball player and Rolle starred at Florida State in football, perhaps a more apt comparison would be Byron White. How accomplished was White’s life? Here is what Linda Greenhouse wrote in White’s obituary when he died in 2002:

A sports hero, Rhodes scholar, successful lawyer, triumphant political organizer and director of Robert F. Kennedy’s Justice Department — Byron R. White had been all of these before his friend John F. Kennedy named him to the Supreme Court in 1962.

To learn a little bit more about White, we turned to Prof. Dennis J. Hutchinson of the University of Chicago Law School, a former law clerk for White and also the author of his biography, The Man Who Once Was Whizzer White.

In the context of his time, just how good a football player was Byron White?

He was a superb power runner and the point to keep in mind about his accomplishments is that he did set the record as a college player for most all-purpose yards in a season, a record that lasted for about 50 years until it was broken in 1988 by Barry Sanders. All-purpose yards is rushing yards, receiving yards, kick return yards and interception return yards. And he averaged almost 250 yards a game in all-purpose yards. To say he was a triple threat wasn’t enough; he was a quintuple threat because, in addition to running, passing and catching he also played defense and kicked. But he was a person of enormous strength as a power runner. The only reason he wasn’t more well known during his day was the newspapers’ East Coast obsession with college football at the time.

Professional sports in White’s time (the late 30s and early 40s) were much, much different than they are now on many different levels, not the least of which is the amount of money that a player can make. That being said, was it a difficult decision for White to halt his career for a year and go over to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar?

The initial decision was, Do I sign with Pittsburgh or do I take the Rhodes? And he dithered and dithered and it became quite a cause celebre in his home town. Everyone wanted to give him advice and there was moral freight on both sides of the argument. Was he in it just for the money? And if he was he would be condemned. But he was offered a lot of money for those days to play and if he turned it down he was essentially turning away money that would have helped both of parents, who were stuck in the throes of the Depression, and his brother, who wanted to go to medical school. But he was able to get a deferment of a year from Oxford. So he played for Pittsburgh in 1938, and matriculated in the fall of 1939. Then the war broke out and he went back to Yale Law School, before leaving to play for the Detroit Lions and then going back to finish law school.