- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 18, 2002

Tackling Whizzer White, opponents would complain, was "like tackling a bag of bones."
"He weighed about 190 pounds," one of his teammates on the Detroit Lions, Bill Fisk, once told me, "but it was all frame. He was a tough sonofagun, I'll tell you."
The word "tough" comes up a lot in discussions of White, who died Monday at 84. "He's the toughest individual I can think of," said Ned Matthews, who also played with Whizzer in Detroit. "He was well-built, and his veins stuck out on his arms and shoulders. The year he was with us, of course, he was studying for the bar, but, boy, when he crossed that white line out there, he was a Jekyll and Hyde. He was mean. He'd knock your head off."
There hasn't been much written about White's pro football career, which is unusual for such a famous player. And make no mistake, Whizzer was a very big deal, the Red Grange of his day. To get him to don the uniform of the Pittsburgh Pirates (precursors of the Steelers) in 1938 and delay his Rhodes Scholarship studies several months owner Art Rooney paid him $15,000, easily the highest salary in the league.
"He was like Joe Namath," said Johnny Blood, Pittsburgh's player-coach that year. "People who weren't necessarily football fans would come to the park not so much to see a game but to see Whizzer White."
Unlike other stars, though, White rarely talked about his gridiron exploits in later life and left little behind in the way of recollection. He did consent to an interview in the '60s with sportswriter Bob Curran, who was writing an oral history of the early days of pro football ("Pro Football's Rag Days"), but the chapter on Whizzer is, predictably, the shortest in the book. Guess he was too busy serving on the Supreme Court.
A pity, because he sure would have had some stories to tell. I would have loved to hear him talk about Blood, one of the NFL's all-time characters. During White's season in Pittsburgh, the team played two non-league games out West to capitalize on his drawing power he'd been an All-American at Colorado and Blood simply disappeared for a couple of weeks, actually missing a game against Philadelphia.
At that stage of the season, Johnny recalled in Ray Didinger's history, "Pittsburgh Steelers," "Rooney had fired the trainer and let three players go [to save money], so on that trip I was the club trainer, baggage man, head coach and player. We had no fullback in Los Angeles, so I played 60 minutes at fullback, a position I never played before. After the game in Los Angeles, we had just finished two games in three days, and I was beat. I told Walt Kiesling, my assistant, I was going to San Francisco for a couple of days' vacation and he should take the team back East."
Most of the Pirates lived downtown many at the Forbes Hotel, where Rooney's office was. But White, preferring a quieter existence, roomed with teammates Tuffy Thompson and Stu Smith in a home in Mount Lebanon. "A lady rented two rooms to us," Thompson said. "We wanted to get out where the fresh air was. I had a car, a little Pontiac, and we'd come into town every morning for practice."
The season was pretty much a disaster right from the start. The first time White touched the ball, on a punt return against Detroit, "I lost the ball in the shadows and it caught me in the right eye," he told Curran. "The ball bounced away and was recovered by the Lions. You can be sure that I received some original messages from the stands. For three weeks, the eye was black."
Pittsburgh finished last in the Eastern Division with a 2-9 record. Late in the season, the team was down to 20 players 10 less than the roster limit. Then there was the 27-0 loss to a minor league team in Cincinnati. But that wasn't the worst of it. The worst of it was that so many guys were hurt in that game that Rooney postponed the Pirates' next scheduled contest against the Cleveland Rams.
White did lead the league in rushing with 567 yards, beating out the Giants' Tuffy Leemans. And he won the rushing title again in 1940 when, after a year at Oxford, he joined the Lions for two seasons. But none of the three NFL clubs he played on finished with a winning record. Then the war came along, and he had more pressing matters to attend to.
How good was Whizzer? Well, Hall of Famer Ace Parker, a man not given to hyperbole, considered him "the greatest player I ever saw. And I saw some good ballplayers Cliff Battles of Washington, Don Hutson of Green Bay, Tuffy Leemans of the Giants and Sammy Baugh of Washington, to name a few. White couldn't pass or kick with some of the rest of them, but he was the best all-around player, in my opinion."
No, Whizzer wasn't much of a whiz as a passer, wasn't your classic triple-threat tailback. According to "The Pro Football Encyclopedia," he threw for just four touchdowns in his career and had 35 passes picked off. But he was a fine two-way player who covered the indefensible Hutson about as well as anybody. The only reason he isn't in the Pro Football Hall of Fame is that he didn't play long enough. (He made a couple of appearances at Canton in the '60s, however, to present Blood and Kiesling at their inductions.)
White was fortunate to make it out of the war more fortunate than most people know. He was serving as a lieutenant on the U.S.S. Bunker Hill in 1945 when the carrier was struck by two kamikazes. Three hundred forty-six men were killed and 264 wounded, but Whizzer, who was below deck when the planes hit, lived to tell about it.
Another NFL player who was aboard, former Rams and Lions tackle Roy Stuart, described the scene: "I was in the air office gabbing when the first plane came in. There was about a 30-second interval, and then the second plane hit. And when I saw the fire in that office, I knew it was time to move. The office I worked in every day was demolished, so I guess I'm lucky to be here."
Years later, Ned Matthews was in Washington for a convention, and he called the Supreme Court and left a message for his old Lions teammate now Justice White. "I hadn't seen him since 1942, and this was 1978, I think," he said. "Anyway, at 6:30 the next morning I got a telephone call from Whizzer. He invited me over to the Supreme Court, and we had a tremendous visit. I'll tell you, it was a thrill to see him. You know what he did?"
No, what? Tell us.
"He took me into the court and sat me down in his seat."


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