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Original Issue


It has been nearly 25 years since Charlie Justice played his last game at tailback for North Carolina. He was a folk hero at the time—and he still is

He rose at five because it was Saturday and he could sleep no longer. Sarah, her dark hair spilling over the pillow, stirred restlessly, reaching out to touch where he had been. "Up so soon, Charlie...?" But she knew, even in her drowsiness, that on these days he would always be up so soon.

It was a brisk, brightening day, and a gentle wind stirred the southern pines. Charlie tried to keep busy. He talked to himself and he talked to the boxer dog. He switched on the radio, but found nothing worth listening to. He put on some coffee for Sarah. He dressed with studied casualness, wearing the letter sweater like a uniform. Then, hunching his shoulders against the wind and cocking his head in that curiously apologetic attitude, he set off for the pregame meal at the Monogram Club, crossing East Franklin street with its hodgepodge of clothing stores, pharmacies, ice cream parlors and movie houses. Life With Father, starring William Powell, Irene Dunne and the teen-ager, Elizabeth Taylor, was at the Varsity. Sarah and he would probably catch it tomorrow. They seldom missed a new movie in town.

The walk across campus never failed to stir Charlie. With the rolling green lawns, the dogwood, wistaria and cherry trees, it was like a beautiful farm, and Charlie was a country boy. He was not tall, barely 5'10", but even he had to duck the overhanging vines as he cut through the archways of the Coker Arboretum. The Monogram Club, in a fine Georgian building, was just ahead, on Country Club Road.

Charlie was the first player to arrive. He always was. Normally a compulsive talker, he ate in silence, too naggingly aware of his responsibilities to banter with his teammates. But they were all his friends. Chan Highsmith, the big tackle and center, once kidded Charlie about his unflagging affability. "If you spent as much time practicing football as you do trying to ingratiate yourself with your teammates," he said, "you'd be the best that ever played this game."

Having eaten, Charlie walked alone to the field house next to Kenan Stadium. He passed through the tennis courts and the graveyard and the pine forest where the stadium was nestled. Morris Mason, a black man who had already been field-house custodian for 20 years, was sorting through the hip and shoulder pads. "How ya doin', Mr. Justice?" he said to Charlie, his favorite player. "And how's Mrs. Justice?" "Fine, Morris, just fine. How y'all? I think I'll just sit around for a while until it's time."

Charlie put on only part of his uniform. Then, carrying his white helmet, he took a seat under the field-house stairway, there to join the battle with his nerves. After a half hour he was ready. "We're gonna lose!" he called out to his teammates in a voice nearly falsetto. "We're gonna lose if y'all don't start thinkin' 'bout foo'ball. 'Bout playin' a game of foo'ball for Carolina!"

The others were neither surprised nor annoyed by this eruption. They knew Charlie was merely preparing himself for a job he did surpassingly well—playing a game of football for the University of North Carolina.

Dressed now in the powder-blue uniform, the pads lending an illusion of size to his slight frame, Charlie rushed taut as a wire onto the field at the head of his team. At the sight of his No. 22, of the familiar head-bobbing, galloping stride, the 43,000 spectators began shouting almost in unison, "Choo Choo! Choo Choo! All the way Choo Choo!" It was a profession of love. "Choo Choo! Choo Choo!" Charlie was enthralled, exhilarated. The cheers washed over him like cold spring water on a summer day. He bathed in the affection.

He had for years practiced being a hero. As a boy in Asheville he had run through a broken field of women grocery shoppers, farmers' trucks and sidewalk cracks. He announced his own imagined triumphs in the hysterical style of a radio sportscaster. He had wanted nothing more than to be an All-America halfback, a football hero. And now he was one. He was Charlie (Choo Choo) Justice, the biggest hero of them all....

He is now a plump, gray, balding, jaunty man of 49. The voice is softer, but only slightly lower, and he talked happily as he drove his gold Cadillac around the changed but still familiar campus.

"Everybody else can grow old," Charlie said, laughing. "Everybody else can get bald and fat. But we're not supposed to. We're not supposed to lose our hair and put on weight. We're supposed to look the same, to be little boys all our lives."

The "we" would be those magical old football heroes of the late '40s, heroes like himself. He was merely amused by this aberrant bestowal of eternal youth. Charlie and the still lovely Sarah have grown older comfortably. After a brief but reasonably successful professional career with the Washington Redskins and a largely unsuccessful venture into the oil business back in North Carolina, Charlie is doing well in his own insurance agency—"Charlie Choo Choo Justice and Associates"—in Greensboro, only an hour's drive from Kenan Stadium.

Charlie was driving by Kenan now. "I don't know how to describe the feeling," he said, "but I just loved it all. I loved Carolina, the people here, and I loved football. It was right after the war and folks had been penned up so long, they just had to let go. But everybody was respectful of one another here. It was a good time.

"I suppose I could have been a lot of things. A musician, maybe, or even an artist, but what I was was a football player, and that's all I ever wanted to be. I didn't even mind practice. Heck, I would've stayed out there all night if they'd let me."

He still cocks his head in self-deprecation, and he is still affable. He is still Charlie. He laughed at his own timeless enthusiasm, then turned the Cadillac away from the stadium and up into the hilly, wooded section of Chapel Hill where the university administrators and ranking faculty members live.

"Now over there, through those trees is where old W. D. Carmichael used to live. He's gone now. He was a wonderful man. Treated me just like a son. He was a big businessman in New York, you know, a stockbroker on Wall Street. But he loved Carolina so much, he just came on back and took a job as comptroller here at the university. He was a very smart man, but he knew sports had a place."

The animated face froze for a moment. "I tell you, if there's anything that makes me mad—and not much does—it's people saying football players are dumb. They are lazy sometimes, maybe, but not dumb. Can't be. About, oh, a dozen years ago somebody wrote in The Daily Tar Heel, the campus newspaper, that Carolina was all through having football bums on campus, like the ones they had back in the late '40s. Now that really got me, so I just sat right down and wrote a letter to that paper. 'Bums!' I wrote 'em. 'Who are you callin' bums? Why, you should have so many bums like that," I said. Then I went right down the roster of our team: 10 master's degrees, eight lawyers, seven dentists, four presidents of big corporations. I gave it to "em position by position. Look at old Art Weiner, an All-America end. Now he's an executive vice-president at Burlington Industries. Is that a bum? Then I got to tailback. 'Here,' I said, 'maybe you got a point after all. This is the only failure on the whole damn team.' "

Charlie slapped the steering wheel of the car in glee. He looked around for some appreciation of the line joke he had told on himself. Sarah, her dark hair turned gray now, smiled affectionately.

They seem like phantoms, these All-America football heroes of nearly 25 years ago. If we do not condemn them to a lifetime of boyhood, we speak, of them as if they were long dead. "Say, whatever did happen to old Choo Choo Justice?" Choo Choo thrives, of course, and so do his contemporary deities.

Georgia's Charley Trippi, after a football career that earned him enshrinement in both the college and professional halls of fame, has returned to Athens, Ga., where he has real estate holdings that include two liquor stores. It is but a 10-minute drive from his handsome brick house to the University of Georgia campus. He is 50 years old.

Johnny Lujack, once nearly as celebrated as the Four Horsemen at Notre Dame, operates the largest Chevrolet dealership in Davenport, Iowa. At 48 he can pore over his scrapbooks and say, ' "That character in there looks a little like me, but I can't believe it really is." Lujack has season tickets to all Notre Dame games.

Southern Methodist's Doak Walker is 46 and a vice-president of Fischbach and Moore Inc., a large New York-based electrical-contracting corporation. Although he is still a legend in Texas, he rarely goes there anymore. He lives both in Detroit and Steamboat Springs, Colo., where the family of his second wife, former Olympic skier Gladys (Skeeter) Werner, has business interests. Skiing is his consuming passion. "If I'd taken it up earlier," he says, "I might never have played football." He goes to only a few games now, and his 1948 Heisman Trophy is kept by a friend who has it on display in a Denver bar-restaurant.

They are very much alive, these phantoms, but they survive in times that must seem strange to them. College football today has no heroes, only superstars, and superstars are fallible; the heroes of the postwar '40s were not. They appeared at a time when a nation weary of war and depression wanted escapist entertainment. The people had had their fill of the heroes in foxholes and the command post; they wanted them now in the back-field or the outfield.

College football would prosper in this atmosphere. It would be the game's finest hour and its last alone on the stage, for in the next decade the professionals—with their ally, television—would start to dominate. But in the years immediately following the war, the college game and the college football hero fired the public's imagination. And with rosters swollen with returning servicemen who were older, larger and more experienced than their prewar predecessors, the game had never been played better.

This period would also be the last fling of the triple-threat man, the versatile player, usually a single-wing tailback, who ran, passed and kicked. The increasing sophistication of the T formation, with its emphasis on specialization, would soon render him obsolete. Justice, Walker, Trippi, even the T quarterback Lujack—were all practitioners of versatility. They could dominate a game in a way no longer possible. In separate games in 1945, for example, Trippi set Southeast Conference records in rushing and passing. The triple-threater was truly responsible for his team's entire offense and was thus the object of unusual exposure. Furthermore, the four great All-Americas of this period also could play defense—and did. It was not hard to find them on a football field.

And so they were honored in their time as few athletes before or since have been. Reflecting on this, Doak Walker has said, "I suppose Charlie Justice and 1 got about as much publicity as any two men who ever lived." It was not an outlandish boast.

Even in this atmosphere, Charlie Justice was unique. The state of Texas had produced football heroes by the score before Walker, Lujack merely entered the Notre Dame pantheon, and before Trippi at Georgia there had been Frankie Sinkwich. But North Carolina had never had anyone quite like the man who, in the words of a Navy officer who saw him go wild in a service game at the Bain-bridge Naval Training Center, ""runs just like a little old choochoo train."

Charlie stood on the sidelines, hands stuffed into the pockets of his blue parka, shoulders hunched. It was February 1946. Coach Carl Snavely's first postwar winter drills would conclude with a game-type scrimmage against Guilford College, a small Quaker school near Greensboro. Charlie had yet to carry the ball against an outside opponent, and 1,000 Carolina students, driven by curiosity, appeared to watch a mere scrimmage. Charlie was already famous. He had been a high school sensation in Asheville—he averaged 25 yards a carry his senior year—and he had been the star of a Bainbridge team that had in its lineup experienced former college and professional players. Maybe hundreds of schools had offered him scholarships after the war, but Charlie had chosen to stay home in North Carolina.

He did not start in the scrimmage, and there was some speculation among the crowd that he would not live up to his reputation. He weighed barely 165 pounds, tiny for a single-wing tailback, and it was just possible his size was too much of a handicap. Now, with the ball on the Carolina 35-yard line, Coach Snavely finally called for him.

They called his signal on the first play. Charlie swung wide to his right, cantering, searching for an opening. Then he cut back with astonishing swiftness against the grain of tacklers and was suddenly in the secondary. Everything—head, shoulders, legs—seemed to move at once, and in different directions. Free now of the safetyman, he was running alone down the sidelines, his head thrown back triumphantly as he approached the goal line. There was a shocked silence at first. Then the cheering began....

They sold 900 "Choo Choo Justice" T shirts in one hour at Meyers' Department Store in Greensboro in 1950. Three persons were injured in the crush.

The bridal party at the wedding of a friend of Charlie's arrived at the church to find that almost every seat had been occupied by small boys. They had heard Charlie would be there.

Mail was sent to Charlie's house addressed simply to "Number 22, Chapel Hill" or "Choo Choo, North Carolina."

Orville Campbell, a Chapel Hill publisher, and Hank Beebe, then a graduate student in music, wrote a song about Charlie, All the Way Choo Choo.

At the football games he does all the stunts; he runs or passes, fakes or punts.

Between the halves he leads the band; then sells peanuts, in the stands....

All the way Choo Choo, all the way;

A chug, chug, chugga with a hip hooray.

Bing, bat, boot that ball around;

Open that throttle and cover around.

It was recorded by bandleader Johnny Long and played on the air by Benny Goodman. In North Carolina 32,000 records were sold.

The Rev. Dr. Samuel Tilden Habel of the Baptist Church on Columbia Street in Chapel Hill delivered a sermon one Sunday morning that he titled, All the Way, Choo Choo. The Rev. Dr. Habel advised his congregation that, "When we call on Charlie Justice to go all the way, we are placing a great responsibility on his shoulders—asking him to give everything, all his mind, his body, in going all the way...." Then the message: "Go all the way in your work or profession, and above all else go all the way in Christian living." Charlie was on the covers of LIFE, Collier's. Pic and numberless football and sports periodicals of the time.

Although copies are rare, there are still requests made to Orville Campbell for the biography Choo Choo written 15 years ago by Bob Quincy and Julian Scheer.

No publicity file on any other North Carolina athlete in the university's sports-information department is larger than one or two envelopes. Charlie's file fills an entire drawer.

North Carolina had never been asked to a football bowl game before the arrival of Charlie Justice. In his four years there (freshmen were eligible then as now), the team went to three bowls and rejected an invitation to a fourth.

Justice gained 5,176 yards rushing and passing from 1946 through 1949. He scored 39 touchdowns and passed for 26 more. He averaged 42.5 yards on 251 punts and he returned 74 punts for an average of 16.2 yards per return. He was a first-team All-America in both 1948 and 1949. He still holds school records in total yardage, scoring and punting. But statistics cannot measure his magnetism.

"Charlie came along at a time when every little kid wanted to grow up to be somebody else, a football hero or even President," says Campbell, now 53 and still a close friend of Charlie's. "You don't hear college kids talking that way anymore. I imagine if Charlie were to come to Carolina now and have four years like he had back then, there wouldn't be the same great love for him. But I tell you, nobody captured the imagination of the American public the way Charlie captured the imagination of the people of North Carolina. It was unbelievable, so fantastic that I wrote myself a letter then saying that sometime, 25 years from now, if you see an athlete as popular as Charlie Justice, you had better reevaluate your thinking. I have never had cause to do any reevaluating."

"Charlie Justice was the classic campus hero," says Irwin Smallwood, managing editor of the Greensboro Daily News. "Wherever he went there was an entourage. It was the times, I guess. Now we're fed up to here with superstars. We see them on television every day and twice on Sundays. Down here then, Charlie was the superstar."

W.D. Carmichael Jr. had been Charlie's friend and spiritual mentor. His son Billy Carmichael III was Charlie's classmate and, as sports editor of The Daily Tar Heel, his Boswell. Today he is a successful Durham advertising executive, long-haired, smartly dressed.

"Remember," he says, recalling the time, "we're talking about the era of the hero, not the anti-hero. And Charlie was every mother's dream—clean-cut, modest, generous, didn't drink or smoke, small, boyish. He was like a second son in our family. My father would talk to him on nights before a game, nights when he was too nervous to talk to anybody else except Sarah. Charlie was a rare one. He always gave generously of his time and he was always appreciative of what athletics had done for him. He's one of the few who gave as much as he got."

Just before the start of Charlie's final season in 1949, Sports Editor Carmichael wrote an open letter to Justice's one-year-old son Ronnie:

"You see, Ronnie, though you have been born into the Hall of Justice, there is one privilege you probably never can be afforded—that of seeing your father play football at Carolina.

"Your father became more than a football player, Ronnie. He was a fable, a legend and a reality all rolled into one...."

Charlie was thumbing through an immense scrapbook in the den of his brick house near the Forest Oak Country Club when he came across the clipping. He read no farther than "Dear Ronnie."

"As much as I enjoyed all that attention," he said softly, "I'd have given it all up if it would have helped my son, given him more confidence. Lord knows the boy wanted to be an athlete. It got so he began thinking he was a big disappointment to me. He got so worried and upset about it that he couldn't perform at all. He'd be the first kid picked in games because of his name. But he just couldn't play up to it. Then it got so I'd try to protect him from this kind of embarrassment. I did a lot of coaching in the midget leagues in those days. Well, it turns out that protecting him was the wrong thing to do, too. The psychiatrists told me 1 should let Ronnie lead his own life. The poor kid was confused. He had two nervous breakdowns. It was just too much for him to live with. But he's stabilized now. Works right here in town. He's gonna be fine. Just fine...."

There were 6,500 students at North Carolina when Charlie was there—about a third as many as there are now. Most of the male students were returning servicemen attending college on the GI Bill, eager to get a degree but just as eager to make up the lime lost to them. There were long evenings then at Jeff's or the new place in "Amber Alley," the Rathskeller, where an undergraduate named Andy Griffith played the guitar and sang country songs.

Fraternities were popular, almost socially obligatory. Men who had spent the last four years in barracks or worse craved the relative luxury, the social prestige of exclusive clubs. Service expressions—"Roger," "Snafu"—blended into the college jargon. The men generally dressed well. Sports coats on campus were not uncommon.

"We dressed up a lot," recalls Kelly Bowles, a Beta Theta Pi fraternity brother of Charlie's, now a successful Greensboro real estate man. "We wanted to. Most of us had been in uniforms for so long that dressing up was a kind of freedom. And we loved parties. I don't guess I've ever partied as much as I did back then."

Charlie and Sarah were not party types. Not only did he not drink, he also did not dance, but he was a loyal fraternity man. He played on all the intramural teams, dined at the house and at least went to the parties. His name alone was worth scores of pledges during rushing. After all, how many fraternity brothers could be found on national magazine covers?

Charlie's personal popularity on campus extended well beyond the fraternity house. His natural friendliness made him a favorite with all the students. "Heck," he says now, "I'd just walk along the campus, messin' around and sayin', 'Hi,' to everybody I saw. You do that now and they'd think you were plumb crazy."

A football game, or particularly the Duke game, was the occasion for a week-long celebration. In '48 Charlie Spivak's band played at the "Yackety Yack Beauty Queen Dance" in Woollen Gym on the eve of the Duke game. Bandleader Kay Kyser, who as yell leader in the late '20s had introduced the "Yackety Yack" yell, was also there, along with his wife, Singer Georgia Carroll. Another North Carolinian, Ava Gardner, said she wanted to be there but she just couldn't make it out from Hollywood.

That week four persons—two white, two black—were arrested on a bus in Chapel Hill for violating a law "regulating the seating of white and Negro passengers."

The mayor of Chapel Hill today, Howard N. Lee, is black, and the city, because of the university, is considered the most liberal community in the South, "The Capital of the Southern Mind." The university and the city are inseparable, and it is common for the school to be called, simply, "Chapel Hill." The oldest state university in the nation, it has had an honored history of intellectual freedom and has attracted such creative spirits as Thomas Wolfe who, like Charlie Justice, was born in Asheville. In Look Homeward, Angel, Wolfe writes of his alma mater, "The university was a charming, an unforgettable place...buried in a pastoral wilderness...."

It remains that today. John Fischer, writing in Harper's, describes Chapel Hill as the loveliest of all colleges. "Its 500-acre campus, where live oaks shade the classrooms and camellias bloom in December, makes the Harvard Yard look squalid...."

Sunbathers and dogs still lounge on the lawns in front of the old library. Rock music is piped out onto the streets now from the dormitories, and there are concerts at noon. The Rathskeller remains a hangout, but Andy Griffith is only a fading national celebrity, not a promising local one. Black Caesar plays at the Varsity theater. There are no laws about where you sit on buses.

The university has prospered athletically. Its basketball teams are consistently ranked in the Top 20, and under Coach Bill Dooley the football teams have played in three consecutive bowl games. "The game is still a rallying point here," Athletic Director Homer Rice insists. But is it?

"Football players just aren't mythic heroes anymore," says a journalism student. "I can't help but think of them as semipros who are here only to work at playing games. You never seem to see them around."

Sammy Johnson is four inches taller and 50 pounds heavier than Charlie Justice was. He is probably faster. He is a tailback in Dooley's I formation, a senior who may be expected to carry the ball from 20 to 30 times a game this season. He has wild bushy black hair which, though he is white, he wears Afro-style. He is very much a model of the modern football player.

"I suppose when I was in high school, I thought all football players were looked up to," he says, finishing lunch at the training table. "But that's not the way it is. I think we're regarded as just ordinary guys. I guess I like it better that way, just being a part of the student body. But then again, maybe deep down I'd like to see what it would be like being a hero, a hero like, say, old Choo Choo. You know, I don't suppose I ever really had a hero when I was a kid. I was a fan c f Don McCauley's, but he wasn't really a hero to me."

McCauley was an All-America halfback at North Carolina three years ago. He scored 21 touchdowns in the 1970 season, five against Duke. He broke several of Justice's school rushing records.

"But when McCauley walked off campus for the last time," says Jack Williams, the university's sports information director, "nobody knew he was gone. When Charlie left, everyone was in a state of mourning."

Kay Kysers's office is in a small house only a few blocks from the campus. He is 68 now, quiet, gentle, wholly at peace with himself. He is a Christian Science practitioner, both a minister and a doctor to those of his faith. In the late'30s and'40s he was the Dean of the Kollege of Musical Knowledge, a wise-cracking, exuberant bandleader and master of ceremonies, a consummate performer who gave the world Ish Kabibble, "Three little fishies in an itty bitty poo..."and "That's right, you're wrong."

But that was long ago, Charlie's time. Kyser quit show business 23 years ago. He and his wife Georgia came back to Chapel Hill, this time to stay. He needed peace, and in his dark, almost gloomy office, you hear only the sound of his soft Southern voice.

"It is simply a matter of thinking it through," Kyser says. "All this glamour can end quite suddenly, so you have to think where you will be when the superficialities are through. I watched Charlie when he was on top. I was up to here at the time with my own entertainment career, so I was looking to see if it was getting to him. It takes a thief to know one, you know. I tell you, when they recruited Charlie to play here, after his great football career in the Navy, it was a little like getting Clark Gable to appear in a local little-theater production. He was a star even before he got here.

"But Charlie was just the opposite of a prima donna. It never got to him, as it has to so many people in entertainment. It never devoured Charlie. When I think of him and Sarah, I think of two people who loved each other and kept their feet on the ground.

"Let me tell you a little story. 1 took Charlie to a big Hollywood party once. The Hollywood people were dying to meet him. Charlie was flabbergasted. His face must have fallen a foot when he walked into that place. He didn't act like a football hero at all. He acted like the smallest of small-town hicks. He was the one impressed with them. All those movie stars. He'd never seen anything like it. I remember he came over to me and said, in that high voice of his, 'Man, this is tall cotton.' He just kept on saying it: 'Taaa-lll cotton.' "

Charlie hefted the scrapbook. Unlike Lu-jack, he recognized the figure inside, but he seemed bemused by the sheer bulk of his press clippings.

"Fame is strange," he said finally. "Once you get it, your life is never your own. We always felt we belonged to the public, Doak and me and the rest. People need heroes. Kids, they just gotta have somebody to idolize. At least they used to. I sure did. I remember when Frankie Sinkwich won the Heisman in '42, I turned to Sarah—we were sweethearts even then—and said, 'I'm going to get me one of those.' And I should have had it in '48, too. Doak won it, but he'd had a better year in '47. Forty-eight was my year.

"Of course, in those days there were lots of heroes—Presidents, generals, movie stars, sports figures. All gone now."

Charlie set the scrapbook down and sat back heavily in his chair.

"You know, it reminds me of an old hillbilly song that went, 'Where have all our heroes gone....'

"But what the heck."

Coach Snavely almost ordered a time-out to stop the play before it started. The Duke defense had overshifted to thwart the power sweep off a single-wing right. It was early in the third quarter and there was no score. The ball was on Duke's 43-yard line, good field position, no place for a big loss.

Charlie was crouched in the Snavely stance, forearms resting on thighs, hands open to receive the ball. He could see that the play might not work. He would simply do what he could. The center snap from Joe Neikirk went directly to him. No fullback spinner on this play. Charlie started around right end, but there were Duke players everywhere. Without losing stride he veered off in the opposite direction, scampering along the line of scrimmage. Again no running room. He reversed his field once again, was tripped by an outstretched hand and stumbled. For 10 yards or more he fought to regain his balance. Then he was all right, his legs were under him and he was dodging and twisting again, leaving infuriated tacklers lying on the Kenan Stadium turf.

He cut back to his left, faking out one last defender with a hip wiggle and a shake of the head. Now he was running downfield with only a teammate, his fraternity brother, Chan Highsmith, for company. "Glad it's you," Charlie said to Highsmith as he crossed the goal line. A fan in the temporary end-zone seats was so excited by this amazing run that he fell forward onto the field. The crowd was alive, roaring, slapping each other. Coach Snavely, normally an impassive man, rushed from the bench to grab Charlie by both shoulders and shake him. "Great!" he kept shouting. "Great!" Charlie could hear only the cheers—"Choo Choo! Choo Choo!" He knew then that for him they would never really stop.

And in the recesses of his mind, where the child, ever running, ever dodging, lives, they have not stopped. They never will.