"Dad," my 24-year-old son, Kenneth, asked not long ago, "what was your greatest moment in sports?" I suppose Kenneth expected me to tell him about one of my triumphs as a handball player who had won a one-wall doubles state championship in New York and a four-wall intercollegiate championship in Illinois and had earned sundry minor titles in squash, badminton and racquetball. I'd spoken to him of some of these achievements before. But I thought about his question for a while, then realized that my greatest moment in sports—certainly my most memorable—had not been as a participant but as a spectator.
More than 50 years ago—on Thursday evening, Dec. 29, 1938, to be exact—I was standing in the inner lobby of New York City's old Madison Square Garden (the one that stood on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th streets). A few yards away, the ticket taker was in his copper-and-glass booth. My brother Elihu, at 19 two years older than I, was in line at the box office in the outer lobby, about 20 yards away. In his pocket were a couple of dollars our father had given us to buy tickets to the National Hockey League game between the New York Americans and the Boston Bruins. It was scheduled to begin in a few minutes. We were ardent hockey fans, eager to see the New York debut of the Bruins' sensational rookie goaltender, Frank Brimsek. He would be playing with such stalwarts as Eddie Shore, Cooney Weiland, Bobby Bauer, Dit Clapper, Woody Dumart and Milt Schmidt. Coached by Art Ross, the Bruins were the team most feared in the league at that time (they would win that season's Stanley Cup). The Americans, now long gone, played second fiddle to the far more popular Rangers, but they were a decent team, led by the outstanding forward line of Art Chapman, Lorne Carr and Sweeny Schriner.
As I was waiting for Elihu to buy our tickets, a group of 10 or 12 young men, most of them taller and sturdier than I, walked to within a few feet of me, stopped and started talking among themselves. They were obviously waiting for someone, as I was. I paid little attention to them until a tall, well-built fellow—hatless, bespectacled and wearing a gabardine trench coat open at the neck so that a bright tie was visible—hurried up to the group. In his right hand was a sheaf of tickets. He began distributing them to the men, and I could hear each recipient saying, "Thanks, Whiz," or "Thank you, Whizzer."
"Whizzer?" Could it be the Whizzer? Byron (Whizzer) White, one of the greatest halfbacks in the history of college football? The man who, as a senior at Colorado in 1937, had made Grantland Rice's All-America team? A triple threat who could kick and pass and run with the best of them? Who got off an 84-yard punt against Missouri? Who ran back a punt for 75 yards and a touchdown against Colorado State? Who in a game at Salt Lake City, with the Utes leading Colorado 7-3 in the fourth quarter, received a punt on his 15, retreated to his three and then ran 97 yards for a touchdown? Who later picked up 57 yards on an end run for another touchdown against Utah? Whose straight-arm was compared to a Joe Louis jab and whose nifty open-field pivots had humiliated dozens of eager tacklers? The Whizzer White who led the Buffaloes to an unbeaten season and then scored one touchdown and threw for another in Colorado's 28-14 loss to Rice in the 1938 Cotton Bowl game?
White had also graduated at the head of his class in June; was Phi Beta Kappa; had been awarded a Rhodes Scholarship but had delayed going to England to play a season in the National Football League for the Pittsburgh Pirates (later the Steelers), thereby earning $15,800, more than any other NFL player that season. He had earned that whopping salary when he went on to lead the NFL in rushing.
Had this been the TV era, I am sure I would have recognized White's face immediately, but in 1938 all I had to go on were blurry black-and-white newspaper photographs, so I couldn't be sure.
And then, to my amazement, he handed me a ticket. "Th—thanks, Whizzer," I said.
"O.K.," he said. "Now let's go in." As the members of the group offered their tickets to the ticket taker, I stood rooted to the spot.
"Aren't you coming in with us?" Whizzer asked.
"Sure...sure." My voice came out in a whisper. "I'll be right in."
But first, of course, I had to tell Elihu, who was still standing in front of the box office. As I rushed over to him I was still bewildered. Why was White here, anyway? But then I saw a poster announcing a college basketball doubleheader the following night at the Garden. Colorado would meet St. John's in the first game. In that moment, everything became clear. Whizzer, who had also been a basketball star at Colorado, had probably wanted to treat his ex-teammates to a night on the town. He was in New York—I remembered reading about his visit in the sports pages—because he was going to leave for England on an ocean liner in a few days. Because White was no longer at Colorado, it was likely he wasn't familiar with all the basketball players and thus had mistaken me for a member of the team.
I reached my brother just as he stepped up to the box office window. "El," I said, a little out of breath after having threaded my way through the crowds now entering the Garden. "El, buy only one ticket. Whizzer White gave me this one." And I brandished the ticket above my head. You can imagine the look of disbelief that crossed my brother's face. I told him the story as quickly as I could, but only the evidence of a ticket for a seat a mere three rows from the ice convinced him that I was not hallucinating.
"All right," El said, "I'll buy only one ticket. But you've got to let me sit in your seat in the second period."
We hurried to our sections, his high up at one end of the arena, mine close to the ice. When I arrived at my seat, I discovered that it was right next to White's. I was in such a state of euphoria that I was barely able to follow the hockey game. Although I probably knew more about hockey than Whizzer did, I was too overcome by my proximity to greatness to attempt to speak to him. Whenever he did say something to me, all I could do was muster a few monosyllables or nod my head.
Just after the first period ended, an announcement came over the public address system. I can recall it almost verbatim: "Ladies and gentlemen, we have with us tonight the All-American college and National Football League star, one of the most famous athletes in America, Whizzer White. And with him is the University of Colorado basketball team, which tomorrow evening will do battle with St. John's University. Gentlemen, will you please stand."
Whizzer and the members of the basketball team stood up. I dared not budge. But Whizzer, noticing that I continued to sit, turned to me, motioned with his hand and said, "Come on. Get up." Hesitatingly I got to my feet. Wave after wave of applause from all over the Garden rolled over me, and when Whizzer and the players nodded their heads in appreciation, I nodded mine. This is nirvana (a word I had just learned), I thought: Madison Square Garden, 15,000 fans applauding me as I stand next to Whizzer White. Who could ask for anything more?
A couple of minutes later my brother came down from his seat, and I had to vacate mine so that he could have the honor of sitting next to White. But I returned to my place of glory for the final period. Whizzer never noticed the switch and my return.
For the record, the Americans beat the Bruins that night 4-2. On the following evening St. John's edged Colorado 39-37, after coming up with 9 unanswered points in the final minutes. White was in the audience for this game, too, in a seat behind the Colorado bench, but this time he sat next to Ralph Carr, the governor of Colorado.
A few days later, White sailed for England. At Oxford he began to study law, and he later continued his studies at Yale. Whizzer White was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1962 and has been a justice for the past 27 years. I wonder if he still treats his ex-teammates—and the occasional interloper—to hockey games.
Paul Sawyer is a professor of English at Bradley University, in Peoria, Ill.