Heisman Trophy recipient and Hall of Famer, Charles White, 64, passed away of esophageal cancer on Jan. 11. Raised in the Northeast San Fernando Valley, he left the community with a proud unparalleled football legacy.
White’s rise to public prominence began as a Tiger at San Fernando High School, where he was a tough running back referred to as the “star among stars,” on the school’s football team. It would be the team’s golden years, which included White along with Kevin Williams and Kenny Moore that won back-to-back CIF Los Angeles City championships in 1974 and 1975, and — in the latter year — White with his two teammates were named LA City Section Players of the Year. Prior to the 1975 season, White’s team was ranked #1 in the country. His high school football jersey, #12, was officially retired in 2015.
White was an extremely gifted athlete and was also a star on the San Fernando High school track team, winning the 330-yard low hurdles event at the CIF California State Meet in 1976 beating future Olympic track and field gold medalist Andre Phillips.
Following high school White played for the Trojans at USC, becoming a two-time All-American, leading his team to a 1978 national championship and during his senior year in 1979 he was deemed the most outstanding player in college football in the country, winning a Heisman Trophy. The legendary tailback was the third of USC’s eight Heisman winners. A two-time unanimous All-American and an NCAA record-setter. He is still the Trojans’ career rushing leader with 5,245 yards.
He was inducted in 1996 into the College football Hall of Fame.
White was also named the Rose Bowl’s most valuable player in 1979 and 1980.
White was the 27th pick in the 1980 NFL draft, playing as a tough competitor for nine seasons for the Cleveland Browns and the Los Angeles Rams. After retiring, he coached USC’s running backs from 1993-97, and later held administrative jobs in the Trojan’s athletic department.
White was part of a family of brothers, cousins and nephews who all had an exceptional aptitude for football. Nine members, including White, all played the sport and went to college.
Two of those relatives, Russell White — Charles’ nephew — and Jason Anderson, also played in the NFL. Five members of the family, including White, attended San Fernando High School.
“Most of us grew up in the old Van Nuys Housing projects in Pacoima,” said James Gordon, a relative of White, during a previous interview with the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol. “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.”
“My goodness … you can only give that [credit] to our parents and grandparents,” Russell said. “Being able to produce all that talent from primarily one gene pool — and we’re all linked.”
Gordon told the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol how White kept his Heisman trophy in the home of his grandmother, Bertha Leggett, who lived in the City of San Fernando. Leggett had “an open-door policy” about letting neighborhood kids come over and see 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.”
White also struggled with an addiction to cocaine and other off-the-field problems. In 2008, he had to sell his Heisman trophy to settle tax debts.
“We came from humble beginnings,” said Gordon. “And I’ll be candid and honest, that didn’t really change when Charles made it. 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.”
In his final years, White was diagnosed with dementia linked to a traumatic brain injury. He was reported to still know his name and that he “did something good, something great, something fantastic for USC.” He lived in a memory care unit in an Orange County assisted living facility until his passing.
White is survived by his ex-wife, Judianne White-Basch, their five children and a granddaughter.