It is summertime in Norman, Okla., Grapes of Wrath country. Every day the sun rises high and hot, and every day the sky goes from blue to gray to black, from cotton dry to spongy wet, in a meteorological option offense designed to confuse the few people moving around on the flat earth beneath it. Everything is terribly quiet and slow. Norman is waiting. The whole state of Oklahoma is waiting. At the Sooner Bar-B-Q and the Sooner Superette and dozens of other Sooner Thises and Sooner Thats, the message is clear: football cannot come back to Norman soon enough.
In Los Angeles the Dodgers are struggling, the governor's running, the Arabs are buying, the Rams are moving, the earth will be quaking (any day now), the Mercedes 450s are purring, and roller skaters are getting traffic tickets. They play college football there, too, starting somewhere around the time the new TV season begins.
Just a mile past Owen Field (HOME OF THE UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA SOONERS—NATIONAL FOOTBALL CHAMPIONS 1950, 1955, 1956, 1974, 1975 reads a sign on the back of the scoreboard), in a modern apartment complex that rises out of a dusty lot, a 23-year-old man lounges in front of a television set. He can wait for football. He does not like the sun or the heat or, for that matter, the insatiable football fans who demand that he be great. He prefers to stay comfortable indoors when he is not running with a football. At six feet and 210 pounds, he is built for power, for speed, for explosiveness. But now he is as quiet as the town is. Low profile. When he married in June, some of his closest friends didn't know about it until it was trumpeted in the papers.
The apartment where he keeps himself has walls he could easily walk through should he come home one night without his keys. Up there on a bookshelf above the TV set, camouflaged by trophies, plaques, photographs and souvenir game balls—you expect books, too?—sits a bronze statue of a ballplayer sidestepping and straightarming. It is, of course, the Heisman Trophy, and the man sprawled in the easy chair watching an Andy Hardy movie is Oklahoma Running Back Billy Sims.
September 10, 1979
Sims is only the sixth player—Doc Blanchard (Army), Doak Walker (SMU), Vic Janowicz (Ohio State), Roger Staubach (Navy) and Archie Griffin (Ohio State) are the others—in the 44-year history of college football's most coveted award to return for his senior year as the defending Heisman winner. Soon he will be trying to become the only one besides Griffin to win it twice. The public demand the award carries and the pressure to win it again are burdensome. Sims can wait.
"Right now I'm just laid out," he says languidly, after six months of nonstop hot-stove activity. "I don't even want to go out and go through all the hassles. I'm trying to catch up on a lot of rest. But it's not easy. People are calling me all the time. They want just about anything—speak here, speak there, get me tickets, sign autographs, do this, do that. The fans around here are something. They come into Norman for a game, drink their beer, their wine, have a good time. They don't put in all the work, suffer all the pain. You hear them: 'Oh, I can't wait for football! I just can't wait!' Well, I can wait, I can wait. I'm in no hurry to get back out there and sweat and have to whirlpool my body so it don't hurt so much. Oh, no, I can wait."
At least his celebrity has helped him become a smash success at his two summer jobs: an adman for the Oklahoma Sooner Weekly magazine—he sold a whopping $6,500 worth of space one recent afternoon—and a salesman of trinkets such as T shirts, ballpoint pens, snuff-can lids and ashtrays that fit atop beer cans, all featuring the crimson and cream OU logo.
"Here's something nice," went his pitch to a prospective customer. Sims selected a cigarette lighter from a briefcase crammed full enough to do a Fuller Brush man proud. A flick produced a nice steady flame...and a tinkly rendition of Boomer Sooner, the OU fight song.
"Or how about this one? My favorite." Another lighter, another flick, another song—Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.
More often than not, the response from the customer is, "Whatever it is you're selling, Billy, I'm buying."
As they say in Hollywood—Cut!
Cut, in fact, to Hollywood. Or, to be exact, the CBS Studio Center in Studio City, Calif. There, just a beer-bottle toss from Matt Dillon's jail and around the corner from the old Mary Tyler Moore newsroom, another young man is going to work. He is extraordinarily handsome, with chiseled features and high cheekbones suggesting a bit of American Indian, and he has a powerful but compact body. Actresses, actors, extras, prop men, script girls, carpenters, security guards, all yell to him, "Hey, Charles! What's happening? You ready for football yet?" He stops and talks to all of them—"Oh, yeah. I'm ready"—and admits his embarrassment when he cannot remember their first names.
Although he has the cocky look and pearly smile of an actor himself, most of the show-biz people know the handsome extra is Charles White, the University of Southern California running back. If you watch carefully this fall you will see him, not only devastating the defenses of UCLA, Notre Dame, et al., but also—way in the background, for the time being—on TV shows like 240-Robert, Kaz, Kojak, and in such feature films as The Champ and Raging Bull.
This day White is working in what looks from the outside like an old airplane hangar, but inside there is a fake high school chopped up in pieces and put back together in no particular order. There is half a corridor over there, a part of a classroom here, a locker room, a coach's office and a complete gymnasium with bleachers. It is Carver High, and White is part of the "atmosphere" in an episode of The White Shadow. His part is to walk down a staircase with a girl while a bunch of Carver's basketball players once again conspire to do no good. More than half a dozen takes are required for the three-minute scene. Each time, White and the girl walk down the stairs to start the action. It is a tedious business, not unlike football practice.
When the scene is finished, a visitor asks the director how he likes working with Charles White.
"Charles White?" says the director. "Charles White? From Southern Cal? He's here?"
"He just walked out of math class and down those stairs nine times in front of your face," says the visitor.
"That was Charles White? I'll be damned. I guess I didn't recognize him without the number 11 on his back."
Charles White wears number 12. And he, not Billy Sims, is considered to be the favorite to win this year's Heisman Trophy. And what this little story illustrates is that in L.A. college football is just another pastime, like est or disco sail-surfing. In Norman, football isn't the only thing, it's only everything.
Outside of the Southwest not too many people had heard of Billy Sims before the middle of last season. After all, it had been three years since "Simbo" had become the second-greatest high school rusher ever, and injuries during his first three years at Oklahoma had caused him to disappear. At tiny Hooks (Texas) High School, he had scored 516 points and gained 7,738 yards in three years. He never gained fewer than 123 yards in a game, and twice he topped 300. He had the kind of talent that prompted a coach to say after he first saw Sims run the ball as an eighth-grader, "I have just seen one of the greatest backfield runners ever." And it took just one look at a Hooks Hornets game film to set Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer's mouth watering.
"It was a playoff game," Switzer recalls. "I think Billy went for 300 yards in this one. I knew Hooks had to be small because I had never heard of it before. So I called up his coach. Jack Coleman, right then, and said I wondered what the possibility would be of my talking to Billy. 'Well,' he said, 'I think it would be pretty good. He's sitting right here.' " Switzer began recruiting Sims. Hard. Which means that he sent an assistant coach, Bill Shimek, to Hooks and strongly suggested that he take up residence there until Sims was signed.
"The first time I saw Billy he was carrying two big buckets of cow feed like they were water glasses," says Shimek. "From the waist up he looked like a Greek god. He weighed 179 pounds. I thought, 'Lordy, he's something.' "
Switzer acquired the habit of phoning Sims on Saturday mornings at Pat James' Conoco service station in Hooks, where Sims worked. Switzer's neighborly calls, which came before each of Oklahoma's games, were just to assure Sims that Switzer was thinking about him.
"One day," says Switzer, "we were playing Colorado in Boulder, and we were on the way to beating them 49-14, and it was about 28 or 35 to nothing at the half. We came in; there wasn't much to do, and I looked over on the wall and saw a pay phone. I said to myself, 'Why I just think I'll call Billy.' So I spent halftime of the Colorado game talking to Billy Sims."
"Well, I knew if he was talking to me," says Sims, "he couldn't be talking to anybody else." And that was pretty much that.
Sims had a quiet freshman year at Norman, and then, as a sophomore, he injured his right shoulder in the third game, missed the rest of the season and was granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA. The following year he injured his right ankle, also in the third game, and saw limited action thereafter. But last year....
"Last year was, you know, kind of like a survival year," says Sims. "I just tried to come out walking." He did considerably better than that. Running out of the right halfback position in the Oklahoma wishbone, Sims gained more than 100 yards in each of his first two games, against Stanford and West Virginia. Then the Sooners blasted Rice 66-7, and Sims played less than one quarter and gained 33 yards, his only sub-100-yard game of the season. In the Texas game, on national television, Sims rushed for 131 yards and two touchdowns, and his Heisman campaign was off the ground. He added to his credentials by rattling off three straight 200-yard games, the only Big Eight player ever to accomplish that feat. Sims finished the regular season with 1,762 yards, led the nation with a 160.2 per-game average, scored 20 touchdowns and averaged an NCAA-record 7.6 yards each time he carried the ball.
Still, Sims, a modest man, did not believe he had a shot at the Heisman. He thought Rick Leach, the Michigan senior, would win it, or, if the trophy was to go to a junior, White would be the recipient. "I had no preseason buildup," he says. "Everybody was saying, 'Who's Billy Sims?' I had seen a film on TV of Charles White. USC was promoting him for the Heisman, spending all this money. I never thought I would get it for nothing." Sims also thought his great gaffe—a nationally televised fumble on Nebraska's three-yard line with 3:27 left in the Sooners' only defeat of the year, a boner that probably cost Oklahoma its sixth national championship—would lose him votes.
Looking through the scrapbook his wife, Brenda, put together this summer, Sims brightened after he turned the page that held the picture of the fumble. There, in a 10-year-old's scrawl, was a note, "Dear Billy Sims. Even though we lost to Nebraska you are still the greatest back in America. Love, Greg Switzer. Vote Billy for Hisman [sic]."
It was not long after he brought the trophy from New York to Norman that Sims met White for the first time, at a dinner thrown by the Columbus (Ohio) Touchdown Club. From the podium Sims spoke of his myriad achievements. He said he was happy about winning the Heisman, but admitted there was something his rival had done that he had not yet accomplished. "I wish I could score like he did," said Sims, nodding toward White, "without the football."
White broke up.
It is something that Charlie White will always live with, like Wrong Way Riegels and his run. Despite a season that was practically indistinguishable from Sims' for brilliance, White is probably best known for a touchdown he did not really score—the one that beat Michigan 17-10 in the '79 Rose Bowl. It was second and goal at the Michigan three when White flew into the end zone and fumbled the football. Or, gave up the football and flew into the end zone. In either case, it was ruled a touchdown.
"Is it really going to be a big issue?" White asked a writer somewhat defensively one morning on the way to the CBS lot. "I mean, a really big issue?"
Oh, no, he was assured. This was for history.
"O.K. then," he said, resignedly. "I gave it up."
There it is. No big thing. There have been plenty of other touchdowns—29, in fact—that White has scored for real since 1976, when he became heir to USC's tradition of the Great Tailback. Recruiting him was no problem for Coach John Robinson. White's choice was USC all the way after he had watched another San Fernando High graduate, Anthony Davis, star as a Trojan tailback. And White's phantom touchdown in no way diminishes his performance. Last year he led the nation in all-purpose running (rushing, receiving and kick returning) with an average of 174.7 yards per game. He rushed for 1,859 yards, 37 fewer than Sims (including bowl games), but he played in one more game and had 374 carries to Sims' 256.
His average of 28 carries per game underscores White's tremendous durability and effort. While Sims runs out of the wishbone, an option offense that is designed to get the ball to any back once the play begins, White is USC's I-back.
That means two things: 1) opponents know for certain that White will carry the ball 28 times a game and 2) often they know where he will carry it, because many of the plays in USC's running playbook have not changed since former Coach John McKay invented the power-I offense in 1961—22 Blast, 25 Power, 28 Pitch. No USC player will ever be suspended for passing those non-secrets to the enemy.
Thus, when it is noted that in his junior season Charles White blew right on by Mike Garrett, O. J. Simpson, Anthony Davis and Ricky Bell to become the most productive runner in USC history, and that he needs just 1,383 yards this year to surpass Archie Griffin and become the second most productive career runner in college football—it would take 2,288 to beat Tony Dorsett's record 6,082—Sims' chief rival is quite obviously not just a publicity man's idea of a Heisman Trophy candidate.
But that was what White was to the cameras of NBC's Weekend show last October, and it was that segment that Sims and many Oklahoma people remember. Switzer certainly does. He calls it "a national TV thing that USC did to hype White for the Heisman." In truth, parts of the segment made the USC people cringe.
"It started out to be a piece on how a big-time sports information office functions," says USC publicist Jim Perry. "But by the time it was finished much of it was 'How to buy a guy the Heisman Trophy.' We just could not convince NBC that that was not what we were up to. I don't blame the Oklahoma people for being upset about it."
White has none of Sims' patient reserve. He knows just where to go to find his own personal highlights film, and likes to show it to friends, but he does not have the big head that Anthony Davis was known for when he was at USC. His teammates love him and, in return. White is lavish in praise of them, to the point of reciting ad nauseam the names of all his offensive linemen after every 150-yard game.
"The toughest thing when you get talking about a guy like Charlie is not to get caught up in superlatives," says Coach Robinson. "You want to say 'He's the best' or 'He's the greatest.' 'Better than O. J. Simpson' or 'Better than God.' So I try not to deal in those kinds of terms. My best belief about Charlie White is that he's the toughest—here I go, right away—but he is the toughest player I've ever been around. He is so strong, with great endurance. You very seldom see him tired or standing around in practice with a towel over his head. I remember Bo Schembechler saying to me after the Rose Bowl, 'I've never seen a guy get hit so often and just keep coming back and coming and coming.' But that's Charlie."
Taking his summer easy, Billy Sims runs a couple of miles early in the morning with teammate David Overstreet some days, and most evenings he pumps a little iron—he bench-presses 380 pounds. He is not overzealous about selling ad space or the musical lighters or the beer-can ashtrays. Mostly he is just laying out. "When I first came here," he says, "man, I worked. But now it ain't nothing. It's like it was in high school, when I might miss practice all week, come to the game Friday and run for 200 yards. I've made this team. I've paid my dues."
For his part, White can't find enough hours in the day. On a typical one he is up at 6, on the set by 8, doing his little bits for the cameras all day long. "There's a lot of sitting around," he says. Then he reads, or raps with the various TV and movie people. He likes working on The White Shadow because during down time he can hit the basketball floor, where he does all sorts of running, flying, dunking numbers over Carver High's finest. If he gets through by 3 or 4, he drives the 21 miles to USC. He might take a few reps on the weight machine, run several sprints on the track—in 1976 he was the fastest prep 330-hurdler in the U.S.—or throw a football around with Quarterback Paul MacDonald, but mostly he stays in shape playing basketball.
One afternoon he got on the court at USC's phys ed building and played full-court, full-speed in the steamy heat for two solid hours with some of his football teammates. By the end of that time, all the others were dragging up and down the court. White was still a dervish. Fast and frisky as a colt, he was the first man up and the first man back on every trip across the floor, leading fast breaks, making steals, blocking shots. "C.W., slow down!" shouted Linebacker Dennis Johnson. Shirtless and gleaming with sweat, with a chest that looks like two bowling balls strapped together and shoulder blades that seem to connect directly to his hips, White had, at six feet and 185 pounds, the most awesome physique among the 25 or 30 linebackers, tackles and tight ends in the gym. No wonder that Robinson truly believes White could be the light-heavyweight boxing champion of the world. When the USC players were examined to ascertain what percentage of their weight was body fat. White tested out at 1.94%. Average well-conditioned athletes test at 7% to 10%. "He's a real machine," says Robinson, "one of those guys who can come through the gates to the practice field and just start running. He doesn't need to loosen up. Lynn Swann was that way. Just run and run and run and run—and then just run off the field when it's over, like a happy puppy."
Like White, Sims has ghosts of players past hovering over him. Billy Vessels was Oklahoma's first Heisman winner, in 1952. And then there were Steve Owens (Heisman 1969), Greg Pruitt and Joe Washington. "Sims is faster than Washington," says Switzer, "probably just as fast as Pruitt, but much bigger. He's not a splatterer like Owens, he's a slitherer. That's it. He's a snaky runner. He snakes and slithers through people and yet he's so strong he can break tackles."
Many people also swear that Sims can fly. Switzer hates to see him do it—"He can't stop me," says Sims slyly—for fear he might be hurt. But there have been moments when Switzer, like other witnesses, was overwhelmed. "We were getting beat by Vanderbilt in '77," he says, "and Billy did two hurdling acts that day. He got us a first down on a fourth and one when he went airborne for five yards. He also had hurdled from the seven-yard line to score a touchdown. It was about the damndest thing I'd ever seen. The seven-yard line was where his feet left the ground and he landed in the end zone. Ran wide open, full speed and just leapt. Came down for six. No one ever touched him." "In high school," says Sims, "they used to call me 'Crazy Legs.' I think I run more like a chicken with its head cut off."
"In Hollywood," says Charles White, who once got to play a TV sheriff and found that his gun was made of rubber, "everything is fake. Everyone is really someone else playing a role. So when I'm running the ball, I'm someone else. I feel like I'm in a fantasy world. I think I'm a bowling ball running through pins, only this bowling ball is able to change course as it goes along. Or I think of the football as a piece of important mail and it's got to be at a certain place at a certain time. Or I tell myself that I can vanish into thin air. You'd be surprised how that one works. You run right at a guy and he's breathing hard and foaming and thinking, 'Oh, I got him now. I got the best running back in the country coming at me and I been telling all the fellas back home that when I get the chance I'm really going to get him.' And here you come and—shoooom!—he's grabbing air and saying, 'Now where'd he go?' And after the game they ask him, 'What did you think of Charles White?' and he says, 'Well, one time I thought I had a real good shot at him and, I don't know, somehow I missed him.' That's what I like to hear most."
When White was a freshman he was found wandering around the lobby of USC's Heritage Hall, where the Heisman trophies won by Garrett (1965) and Simpson (1968) are on display. He idly remarked that he expected to win two of them. "I don't know why I said that," he says now. "It was just stupid. But I would have liked to win two. Now I would like to win one."
Back in Norman, Sims looks up at his bookshelf and laughs. "I already have mine," he says. "Only one guy has ever won it twice, Archie Griffin. Today he's got two trophies. Big deal. What's he doing besides playing football? It's O.K., I like it, but I want to be able to get off into something else. I want to enjoy life a little more, without somebody always hitting my butt."
Sims gives another laugh. "No, winning that trophy is nothing to worry about. That's what I told Charlie White. 'Don't worry about it, Charlie,' I said." He laughs harder. " ' 'Cause I'm gonna get it again!' "