Jim White was the kind of player that Charlie Weis would love today. White was a tough kid, with a Jersey attitude. His parents, originally from Ireland, settled in Edgewater, N.J. around the turn of the century. Jim's father was what you might call an original fighting Irishman. Patrick White provided for his family primarily through his job as a furniture maker, however he was also known as a bar room brawler on the side. As tough as Jim's father was, he may have inherited his toughness from his mother. Maggie White lived to be 101 years old, and was said to be "as tough as nails."
Coming out of All-Hollows high school, Jim White was a star athlete. Competing in football, basketball and track, Jim was a year-round athlete. Jim's numerous medals in track and field, along with his success on the gridiron, earned him a place in the All-Hollows Hall of Fame. According to his son, Mike, Jim earned so many medals that they filled up an entire three-foot, by five-foot display.
After high school, Jim did not head straight for South Bend. In fact, he first attended college at the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. It was there that White developed a strong relationship with assistant football coach, Moose Krause. Mike White tells the story of how his father Jim and Moose Krause made their way to South Bend:
"Mr. Krause informed my father of a potential opportunity at Notre Dame. Mr. Krause was referring about an opportunity for himself, but my father thought that he was referring to an opportunity for him. This was very typical of their relationship. Mr. Krause was willing to join Coach Leahy's staff if Notre Dame allowed my father to transfer in. The next thing you know, the two of them are heading across country on a train to South Bend. They arrived at Notre Dame by bus, wearing mink coats that were given to them by Holy Cross in hopes that they would stay. As they walked towards the practice field, they thought it would be funny to wear the coats. Needless to say, Coach Leahy did not find the humor in this. In addition, they missed a practice or two, which also did not go over big with Leahy. So Coach Leahy made them join in the remainder of practice, wearing their mink coats. They were told to wear the coats during the following day of practice to make up for the practices they missed. Needless to say, my father's coat was ruined. I am not sure about the fate of Mr. Krause's coat. Whenever the two of them told this story, tears would roll down their faces. I guess the expression on Leahy's face was priceless. It took several years for the steam to simmer down before Coach Leahy would even laugh about the incident."
While Jim was a great football player at Notre Dame, he was definitely a student first. Jim cherished every moment of his time spent at Notre Dame. Every morning he would start his day by attending 5:00am mass. As he was a bit of a rambunctious child, Jim said that Notre Dame offered him the discipline and guidance that he really needed and then some. He referred to his time at Notre Dame as the greatest years of his life, claiming it changed him from a mischievous boy into a grown man.
Despite Leahy's tough disciplinarian approach, Jim White had an excellent relationship with the coach. Leahy loved White's dedication to getting better, his work ethic and overall passion for the game. When Leahy spoke, White listened. He had the utmost respect for his coach. White also had the respect of his teammates. Leahy recognized this, and would make it a point to use White as an example. On occasion, Leahy would tell White that he was going to "get after him today." This meant that he would be sending a message to the rest of the team by being extra tough on White. As a player, White was no slouch. Moose Krause would say that Leahy called White the fastest lineman he ever coached. In addition to his speed, Jim White hit like a ton of bricks. It was not long before White had earned himself a little nickname.
Leahy nicknamed Jim White, "The Irish Bone Crusher." On the field White would frequently layout his opponents with bone-jarring hits. In one post-game speech, Leahy referred to White by his nickname. From that point on, the name stuck. One man who felt the wrath of the "Bone Crusher" was Angelo Bertelli, White's teammate. Mike White shares the story of how his father used to beat up on the 1943 Heisman trophy winner:
"Leahy was concerned about Angelo Bertelli getting hurt in practice, as their drills were always full speed and full contact. The day before, my dad had put a little extra on his dear friend after breaking through the line. This particular day, there was a note attached to Bertelli's locker, asking him to see Coach Leahy. Bertelli had a bad day at practice the day before and feared that Leahy was benching him. Prepared for the worst, Bertelli entered Leahy's office. Leahy tossed a red jersey at Bertelli. He told Bertelli that he wanted to protect him from injury and had instructed the other players not to hit players wearing red jerseys. At first the team thought it was a prank. When they saw no comic relief coming from Leahy, they knew he was serious.
The squad was accustomed to full speed and contact. That day at practice, my dad broke through the line and tackled Bertelli, red jersey and all. After the offensive line received a tongue lashing from Coach Leahy, he had a few choice words for my father. Bertelli then says to the offensive line how good the offense will look now that Jim White can't touch me again. On the very next play, my dad plants Bertelli into the turf (remember these are the days of leather helmets). Laying on top of him, my father gives Bertelli a big kiss on the face and says, ‘who's looking good now Precious?' From that day on, my father would fondly refer to Bertelli as "Precious". He would love seeing Bertelli in a public setting just to be able to shout, ‘Hello Precious!' He knew this would force Bertelli to tell the story as to how he acquired the nickname, Precious. My father would call Mr. Bertelli this the rest of his life, even at Bertelli's Liquor Store back in Clifton, New Jersey. Mr. Bertelli's face would usually turn the color of the jersey whenever my dad would tell that story."
When asked who the toughest opposition White's Notre Dame teams faced, he would always point out the service academies. As if the National Championship was not proof enough, the 1943 Notre Dame team was one of the best of all-time. In the midst of WWII, the United States military academies attracted the best of the best in terms of American athletes. Their football teams were rich with talent. Leahy's men never flinched as they beat No. 3 Navy by a score of 33-6, and No. 3 Army, 26-0, in back to back weekends. In that same year they defeated No. 2 Michigan by 23 points and No. 2 Iowa Pre-Flight, 14-13. The lone blemish on Notre Dame's schedule was a 14-19 loss to the Great Lakes team. The Great Lakes team was essentially a compilation of college all-stars. It was a holding station for soldiers awaiting deployment. Apparently many schools would send their best athletes to Great Lakes, as it somehow deferred their deployment. The loss to Great Lakes had no effect on their National Championship. While Notre Dame considered it a game, the rest of the country viewed it as an exhibition. White considered the service academies his toughest opponent, and respected those teams more than any others that Notre Dame played.
While Jim White may not be a household name for Notre Dame fans of today, he was certainly known during his era. In 1942, White's defense made him the subject of a New York newspaper headline. The paper said, "It was like stealing candy from a baby." The paper read something like this:
They recaptured the game in the 3rd quarter, with Notre Dame leading 6-0. Jim White roughs the Army punter in Army's end zone. They take over on their own 22 yard line with some room to operate. On that series, "Davis is the man in motion to his right. Lombardo whips a shovel pass out to him and—at that instant White of the Irish breaks through the Army screen. White and Davis pass like trains on parallel tracks, and as they do big Jim reaches over and plucks the ball from Junior's (Glenn Davis) tight grip. The larceny is legal, the pilfer is perfect and it's Notre Dame's ball at the Army 12."
In 1943, Jim White finished ninth in the Heisman voting. He was the only lineman to make the top ten and was very proud of this accomplishment. He finished behind Heisman winner, Angelo Bertelli along with teammate Creighton Miller. Otto Graham of Northwestern finished third in the voting. White was also named to Moose Krause's All-time Notre Dame Team as a tackle.
Jim White never graduated from Notre Dame. Although it broke his heart to leave Notre Dame, his family needed help with finances, and Jim went home to New Jersey. Never one to put himself ahead of his family, Jim and his brother returned home and found jobs to help the family out. Jim would go on to graduate from Columbia University in New York. He also served two years in the United States Navy. When he exited the Navy, Coach Leahy was instrumental in helping him sign a free-agent contract to play professional football with the New York Giants.
White played for six years with the New York Giants, earning the name the "Tarzan of the Polo Grounds" in the New York papers. Due to Rockne's death, White had a terrible fear of flying. Whenever the team flew, he would take the train along with an assistant coach. Since the train was so time consuming, White would sometimes have to depart to the next city immediately following the game. White was named captain of the Giants. When the Giants signed Emlen Tunnel, who would later become the first African-American inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Giants owner Wellington Mara was concerned for his safety. Mara asked White to be Tunnel's roommate, knowing full well that nobody would mess with Tunnel as long as White was nearby.
According to NFL Hall of Famer, Art Donovan, Jim White was the "meanest, nastiest, SOB that [he] ever played against." However, off of the field Donovan had a very different description of White. "Off of the field, you felt like you were with the President of the United States when you were with Jim White. He was the nastiest guy on the field and the nicest guy off it."
In his spare time, Jim White would love to visit hospitals. He especially enjoyed visiting young children that were in need of help. It was no secret that big Jim White had an even bigger heart. When Jim retired from football, after too many concussions, he opened up a bar and restaurant called "Jim White's Touchdown Club." He hired all in the neighborhood in hopes of providing them a little extra money during the difficult times. His intention was to setup a "kids club" for sick and needy children. Unfortunately his hired help robbed Jim White blind, leaving him with nothing to open his "Kids Club."
When football was all over, it was rare when the Notre Dame guys were able to get back together, but when they did they picked up right where they left off. Jim remained lifelong friends with Bertelli and Moose Krause. Whenever they got together, they would laugh and tell stories. It was always one big party.
It would not be until the Gerry Faust era that Jim would return to Notre Dame. Prior to the first spring game of the Faust era, Moose Krause called Jim up and asked him to come out to Notre Dame. Jim's son was attending Bowling Green at the time and Moose invited them to the spring game. Mike, making his first trip to Notre Dame, accompanied his dad into Moose's office. It was like a 1943 team reunion. There were at least ten members of the championship team gathered in Moose's office. They went out that night, sharing memories, and made plans to meet up for the game the following day. As ornery as Jim was on the field, he was prince off of the field. Everyone gravitated towards him as he told stories, never disappointing as the life of the party.
Jim White would pass away in 1989. Jim and his wife were visiting his daughter's home in Santa Ynez, California for the first time. Still afraid to fly, Jim had to get so drunk that he would pass out during the flight. Jim's wife agreed to this so they could avoid the cross-country car ride. Jim's daughter loved Willow trees. Always trying to please, Jim went out and purchased a huge willow tree for his daughter. The nearly full grown tree had to be delivered by a tractor-trailer, but Jim wanted his daughter to have her favorite tree right in her own backyard. While digging the hole for the tree, Jim suffered a heart attack. Santa Ynez was in such a remote location that help could not get there fast enough, and Jim passed away.
Without question, Jim White represents the ideal Notre Dame football player. Feared by his opponents and respected by his teammates, White always gave it his all. With a motor that was forever running, he always succeeded on the field. While many tried, only the multiple concussions that ended his career would ever stop Big Jim. Like a true Notre Dame man, he was well respected in his field, but never became too big to help others in need.
This one goes out to you Big Jim:
"He's a man! Who's a man? He's a Notre Dame man!" Jim White, forever a Notre Dame man.
Special Thanks to: NJIrish for the idea for the article and IrishGoBraugh (Mike White) for granting me the interview.