Football

A long, long time ago, before I came to Arizona (the state, not the university) on a basketball scholarship, I was playing a year of football and baseball at Cal State-Northridge. I had a part-time job at the high school from which I had graduated, doing an assortment of things in and around the gym. Through a truly odd set of circumstances, I found myself coaching the lower-level football team (it was called the B team).

Our quarterback was one of the most spectacular athletes I’ve ever known. But because the varsity team was loaded with running backs, it was decided he would play on the B team rather than ride the varsity bench. We went undefeated, and he was just ridiculously good.

After I came to Arizona, I kept up on his career. He starred on the football field and, in track and field, he once won the California state championship in the low hurdles, beating a guy who would later make the Olympic team in that event. He got a scholarship to USC and became a sensation.

His senior year, he rushed for more than 2,000 yards and won the Heisman Trophy. His name is Charles White, and not only is he still USC’s all-time leading rusher, he is still the Pac-12’s all-time rushing leader after more than 40 years. His 6,245 yards is all the more amazing because, back then, NCAA teams played 11-game regular season schedules (plus one bowl game). If he had played 14 or 15 games a year in today’s era of Conference championships and NCAA playoffs, he might have rushed for nearly 8,000 yards in his career.

To show how bad things used to be in college football, just look at White’s junior year. His USC team finished 11-1, with the only loss coming to Arizona State in the Sun Devils’ first year in the new Pac-10. Preseason No. 1 Alabama also went 11-1, so it’s a coin toss to see which team gets the “championship.” Yet, as it turns out, the two teams had played each other, with USC beating the Crimson Tide 24-14 in Alabama.

Nevertheless, the Associated Press poll of sportswriters and other nincompoops voted Alabama the national champion while the UPI poll of coaches gave it (overwhelmingly) to USC.

Charles led the Trojans to a 21-1-1 mark his final two years (a bizarre 21-21 tie with Stanford kept the Trojans from winning the national title in 1979), and he won the Heisman in a runaway.

He was drafted by the Cleveland Browns but was released after four years of subpar production. It probably had something to do with the fact that he had become a raging drug addict by that time. He had started with marijuana in high school, then moved on to cocaine near the end of his college years and then finally to crack.

He washed out of the NFL, but then, John Robinson (his coach at USC who had moved on, accepting the head coaching job with the Los Angeles Rams) offered him another chance. White blew it (no pun intended), but Robinson then gave him one last chance. White responded by leading the NFL in rushing in 1987. He even got the Comeback Player of the Year Award. After the comeback, though, he went back, and that was that.

USC — somewhat nobly, somewhat foolishly — found make-work positions for him over the next two decades but finally cut him loose. Then, things got really bad. He was in and out of rehab facilities. One time, he left and came back wearing somebody else’s shoes (no explanation). Another time, he was seen running on the interstate.

A few years back, I thought I might try to get in touch with him to see how he was doing. Then the pandemic hit and everything got shoved aside. Now, I just found out that he’s living in an assisted-living facility in Southern California. He has extreme dementia, probably from the many hits he took as a running back. The drugs didn’t help, although there are some who feel that the onset of dementia may have exacerbated his drugs situation and not the other way around.

He can remember playing in specific games 43 years ago but doesn’t know how old he is. He remembers specific college teammates but can’t tell you the name of the place where he lives.

I contacted his ex-wife, who is looking after his well-being. I’m going to go try to see him. He won’t remember me, but that won’t matter. I’ll tell him about the undefeated season and the big part he played in it. Then, I’ll thank him for all the great memories he gave me and I’ll thank God I’m able to remember everything after all these years.

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