The Lions have a long line of tailbacks who made an immediate impact: Kevin Smith, Kevin Jones, Barry Sanders, Billy Sims, etc. Thousands of yards rushing, many touchdowns, and awards aplenty have been bestowed upon young Lions runners. But none of them, not even Barry, made the impact that Byron "Whizzer" White did. Besides leading the NFL in rushing twice, including his rookie year, and being named All-Pro in all three of his seasons in the NFL, Byron White was a Rhodes Scholar, a Yale Law graduate, and was named by President John F. Kennedy to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he served for 31 years.
Whizzer White, like Dutch Clark, hailed from the state of Colorado--and White, like, Clark, was an All-American. White's 1937 campaign led the UC-Boulder Buffaloes to the second Annual Cotton Bowl; the first time the Buffaloes had ever earned a postseason berth. Amazingly, his 1937 academic campaign won him a Rhodes Scholarship offer. He wasn't done, though; he turned right around and took the hardwood. He and shooting guard Jim Schwartz (!) were a formidable backcourt pair. The Buffaloes made the NIT--then the premier college basketball tournament--and made a run to the championship game, where they lost to Temple on the Madison Square Garden floor.
After that, White had an excruciating choice to make: accept the Rhodes Trustee's once-in-a-lifetime offer of a free Oxford education, or accept the Pittsburgh Pirates (now Steelers') astounding offer of a $15,000 contract. You see, then-39-year-old Art Rooney knew he needed a superstar to draw the crowds. He made White his 1938 first-round draft pick, and an offer he thought White couldn't refuse.
To Rooney's astonishment, that's exactly what White did--despite being nearly destitute, Whizzer could not turn down the opportunity to attend Oxford. Then, to White's astonishment, he found he wouldn't have to; Oxford allowed him to delay his enrollment for a year so he could fulfill his physical potential first. Joining the team only two days before their first game, White was nevertheless its best weapon and headline attraction. Unfortunately for him and the Pirates, he ran into the Detroit Lions.
The Lions, never having suffered a losing season in their history, were opening what would be Dutch Clark's final campaign as a player/coach. The Lions held the Pirates scoreless through three quarters; Whizzer White's late touchdown narrowed the losing margin to 16-7. White was quoted as saying this later that year:
"No player ever was as good as my publicity made me out to be. Well, maybe Dutch Clark is. But I'm no Dutch Clark. He's the tops."
Despite Whizzer's NFL-leading 567 yards on 152 attempts, the Pirates were still a mess. There was speculation that White's privileged status was tearing the team apart--true or not, Rooney was definitely losing money hand-over-fist. White's future was clearer this time: he could delay his Rhodes scholarship no longer, so off to England he went.
During his freshman year, though, WWII broke out, and the American students were sent home from Oxford. Whizzer White returned Stateside and resumed his football career. He came to Detroit and took over for the man he said he wasn't: Dutch Clark. Attending Yale Law during the week and playing for the Lions on weekends, White again led the NFL in rushing in 1940. White was named to the All-Pro team again in 1940, and yet again in 1941. Unbelievably, he not only graduated from Yale Law at the end of those two years, but did so magna cum laude, the first to do so in a decade.
After graduation, White heeded the call to service, joining the Navy and serving in the Pacific theatre as an intelligence officer. When his tour of duty ended, he declined to return to professional football and began his law career in earnest. In 1960, he was the chairman of John F. Kennedy's Colorado campaign, and in 1962, at age 44, White was appointed by Kennedy to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. After a 31-year term on the bench, the tenth-longest in history, White hung up his gavel.
If you are like me, you questioned your worth as a human being approximately 72 times throughout this article. It's inconceivable that a man could be such an incredible athlete, such a formidable mind, and possess such indomitable work ethic. Yet, White did--and while he didn't achieve the wins-and-losses on-field glory that our first Leather-Bound Lion did, there's no question that Byron White achieved a personal and professional standard greater than any other NFL player. To this day, the NFLPA's highest honor is the Byron "Whizzer" White Award, given to those who exemplify commitment to community and team.