In the long line of dynamic ballcarriers to don the cardinal and gold of USC, none over the past half century have proven quite as prolific as Charles White.
A bruising, battering ram of a tailback, White barreled his way to one of the most decorated careers, not just in USC history, but the history of college football. The Los Angeles native helped lift USC to a national championship in 1978, won the Heisman Trophy in 1979 and set 22 school, Pac-12, NCAA and Rose Bowl records over a storied four-year run that still ranks atop the record books for career rushing yards at USC.
But the reckless abandon with which White played and the ferociousness for which he’d forever be remembered would also exact a price, one that loomed over the rest of his life.
White died in Newport Beach on Wednesday from cancer. He was 64. He’d spent the last several years of his life in an assisted living facility, his mind diminishing from the effects of dementia, almost certainly caused by the years of collisions he endured as a player.
It was that physical style that first made White a star at San Fernando High and caught the attention of John Robinson, the Trojans coach.
“He was the toughest player I’ve ever coached,” said Robinson, who also coached White with the Rams. “He was really unusual in that regard. He was a great player and just loved playing the game.”
White would rush for 6,245 yards during his four-year career at USC, a record that has never been eclipsed at the school and ranks fifth in NCAA history. In his final season, White rushed for 2,050 yards, the second-most by a Trojans running back, on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy, the third up to that time by a USC player.
White was drafted in the first round by the Cleveland Browns and later went on to lead the NFL in rushing with the Rams during the 1987 season. But his spiral into drug and alcohol addiction had already begun before he embarked on his pro career. It worsened with the Browns, where he entered into several drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs.
Even as he continued to struggle with addiction, White received a second chance from his former coach, Robinson, to play with the Rams. But after reemerging as one of the NFL’s most productive backs, White washed out of the league after the 1988 season.
USC offered the legend a landing spot, handing him a role in 1990 as special assistant to the athletic director. He later became the Trojans running backs coach from 1993 to ’97. But the return to his alma mater couldn’t stem the tide of his addiction. As White continued to spiral, the relationship with USC deteriorated.
About a year after the school cut ties, White was discovered outside his apartment building, disoriented and unaware of his surroundings. Soon after, following years of erratic behavior, White was diagnosed with dementia.
“Everybody thought his problems were strictly drug-related, now we find out that it could have been directly related to the traumatic brain injury,” Judi White-Basch, White’s ex-wife, told The Times in July. “For so many years it didn’t make sense; now it makes sense.”
White spent the last two years of his life in an assisted living facility, where a list of his accomplishments sat on a lampshade next to his bed and photos of his glory days at USC adorned the walls. When The Times visited White in July, he was still well aware of what he’d accomplished for the university he still loved, even if it had been years since the university had connected with the legendary back.
“I know I once did something good, something great, something fantastic for USC,” White told The Times.
His family had hoped the relationship with USC might be mended. After years of separation, the school recently reconnected with White and his family prior to his death, doing what it could for the legendary running back in his final days.
On Wednesday, in the wake of his death, USC athletic director Mike Bohn called White “one of the all-time great Trojans.”
“He will always be remembered by the Trojan Family for the history he made on the football field and the legacy he left at Troy,” Bohn said.
In addition to White-Basch, White is survived by their children Nicole White, Julian White, Tara White, Ashton White, Sophia White and granddaughter Giovanna Hemmen.