It may be the greatest family football legacy in the San Fernando Valley.
Nine of the 10 men in the family photo above are related by blood as brothers, sons, or nephews. (The exception is Terrance Smith, a family friend who’s in the back row, far left.) All nine went to San Fernando Valley high schools. And thanks to their exceptional aptitude for the game, all nine went to college and most graduated.
Three of them made it to the NFL.
The most recognizable names are Charles White and his nephew Russell White — local legends at San Fernando and Crespi High schools and All-Americans at USC and California Berkeley. Both signed with the NFL.
Others who excelled on the field and achieved in the classroom include Roosevelt White, Terry Anderson, James Gordon, Leonice Brown, Jason Anderson, Jerry Brown and Tony Brown.
Gordon and Russell White spoke with the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol about their family history, saying they all saw football as their way to rise above “humble beginnings.”
“Most of us grew up in the old Van Nuys Housing projects in Pacoima,” Gordon said. “We all saw college — and pro football — as a way out. My mother had no money to send us to college, and we knew it at a young age. I can say that from as early as the fifth grade, I knew sports was my way to get to college.”
Added Russell White, “For me, coming out of Pacoima, [playing sports] was our ‘means to the ends’ for the most part. Going back to my father, Roosevelt — who played with Anthony Davis at San Fernando, although dad did more track than football — when I was coming up, that was your ticket out.”
Reaching Their Goals
Neither Gordon nor Russell White is exactly sure how so much talent manifested itself into one family’s DNA.
Gordon said neither his mother, the late Hattie Mae White — who came to California from Mississippi — nor their fathers were particularly athletic.
But the kids, Gordon noted, had more than enough athleticism to go around. Everyone was fast. Everyone was strong. And everyone was committed to the game.
“When I look back at [that picture] now, I see…a family and talent — a lot of talent,” said Gordon, who today writes software programming for healthcare providers like Providence, Kaiser Permanente and Cedars-Sinai.
Besides Charles and Roosevelt White, Gordon and Tony Brown went to San Fernando High. So did Leonice Brown (although he also attended Crespi with Russell White). Jerry Brown went to Taft. Jason Anderson went to Monroe.
For college, Roosevelt White and Jerry Brown went to Oregon; Gordon went to Western Michigan; Leonice Brown went to Colorado State; Terry Anderson attended Arizona State; Tony Brown went to Humbolt State; and Jason Anderson went to South Dakota.
Besides Charles White and Russell White, Jason Anderson — Terry’s son and Gordon’s’ nephew — reached the NFL as a running back with the Houston Texans.
“My goodness…you can only give that [credit] to our parents and grandparents,” Russell White said. “Being able to produce all that talent from primarily one gene pool — and we’re all linked.”
The Standard Bearer
Charles White’s success opened the eyes and minds of others to the possibilities. Packing good speed and surprising strength into a 5-feet-10-inch frame that maxed out at a playing weight of 190 pounds, Charles White (who turns 64 on Jan. 22), was both a trailblazer and standard of athletic excellence.
He was a star in both football and track at San Fernando High, and went on to further glory at USC. Charles White won the Heisman Trophy, emblematic of college football’s most outstanding player, in his senior year on the Trojans’ 1979 national championship team.
“[Other family members] all wore his number ’12’ when we played, except for Russell,” Gordon recalled. “Charles was such a talented and popular person; he was even on TV shows — ‘White Shadow,’ ‘Wonder Woman’ — in the 1970s.”
Cleveland selected him with the 27th pick in the 1980 NFL draft, and Charles White played nine years in the NFL with the Browns and Rams. He had a good pro football career that might have been better had he not also battled an addiction to cocaine. (He eventually overcame his dependency.) Charles White had other off-the-field problems, in fact selling his Heisman trophy in 2008 to help settle tax debts.
But those personal struggles didn’t discourage the other family members from wanting to follow him in their pursuit of a better life.
“We came from humble beginnings. And I’ll be candid and honest, that didn’t really change when Charles made it,” Gordon said. “He signed a five-year pro contract for like $2.6 million; it doesn’t sound like a lot today, but in 1980 it was a lot. But it wasn’t like he came back and did certain things to ‘uplift’ (the rest of) the family; he kept [his money] with his own family.
“As young guys, even when Charles was in the pros, we continued to live in the projects. We had an opportunity to move, but it was better that we stayed where we stayed. And Charles had some troubles as he got older. But that, too, is a part of life. The good thing is he is not [troubled] by that anymore.”
The Heisman in the Valley
When Charles White won the Heisman, he didn’t keep his replica trophy in the off-campus apartment he rented in Los Angeles. He brought it back to the Valley. It stayed in the San Fernando home of his grandmother, Bertha Leggett, for more than a year.
When Gordon first saw it, he thought it was ugly.
“I was used to those trophies in gold, regular trophies. This was a man on the trophy wearing a uniform from like the 30s or 40s, and a helmet with no face mask. And it was so heavy you couldn’t just pick it up,” Gordon said.
“But to have it [in Leggett’s] house was amazing, and something that any child would remember for the rest of their lives.”
And any neighborhood child then could come over, see it, and touch it. Gordon said Leggett had “an open-door policy” about viewing the trophy.
“[The idea of someone stealing it] never crossed my grandmother’s mind,” Gordon said. “Because there was a ‘respect’ thing for Charles. Everybody knew where Charles lived at when he lived in San Fernando. Everybody knew he went to San Fernando High School.
“All the local kids who were playing football knew he had won the Heisman, so when the word went through the neighborhood that it was over at my grandmother’s house, it was like a revolving door. She never turned anybody away.”
Another Family Legend
Russell White finished his Crespi High career as the state CIF’s all-time leader in rushing yards, touchdowns and points. He ended his college career as Cal Berkeley’s all-time leading rusher. He played one season with the Rams in 1993, but injuries had slowed him. He signed with Green Bay in 1995 but did not play in any regular season games.
At present, Russell White is the football coach, track coach and assistant athletic director at Flintridge Prep in La Cañada. He doesn’t live in the Northeast Valley anymore but said he loved growing up there.
“For me, growing up in Pacoima was beautiful,” Russell said. “You’d walk the streets, you had cousins hanging out every 3-4 houses. You’d hang out at Hansen Dam on Sundays. I’m not in Pacoima now so I don’t know how it is. But back then, it was beautiful.”
There may be another legacy. Russell White’s son, Russell White, Jr., is showing promise and prowess in football at St. Genevieve High.
If the son wants to try and make it in football, the father promises to help in any way he can. But Russell White, Jr., also has more options on what the course of his life will be. Pro football does not have to be the singular aspiration as it was for his father and other relatives.
And even if not all of them reached to the highest level of the game, they went further than most people.
“Some of us didn’t get [to the NFL] but guess what? We landed in some good spots,” Russell White said. “We’re all accomplished. And that’s the great thing; we’re all good dudes, and we had a great run in the sport of football.
“For me, that picture says it all.”