Charles white, Heisman Trophy Winner, broke for daylight, fending off murderers with a metal trash can lid, sprinting down the sidewalk in a black leather jacket. It was 100° in Brea, Calif., 10 minutes after noon, Aug. 21, 1987, and he was tripped out of his mind.
The Los Angeles Rams were flying to San Diego that afternoon for an exhibition game, but White was going to miss the flight. You talk about in the grasp? White had spent the last nine hours—from 3 a.m. to noon—smoking cocaine through a pipe in an unlit, abandoned warehouse. And though he and his friend were alone, White now felt that many were trying to kill him. Suddenly he jumped up and burst out of the warehouse door. He grabbed the lid and held it in front of him like a warrior. Tommy Trojan meets Charlie Crack.
White high-stepped it down Lambert Street, swiveling his neck to see who would charge him next. Seeking refuge, he ran inside the American Quality Dry Cleaners and began screaming, "Somebody's after me! Somebody's trying to kill me!"
Day manager Barbara Hughes and her counter assistant backed slowly to the wall. After about 30 seconds, White decided they were after him too, so he bolted out the door and jogged to a vacant lot near the corner of Lambert and Brea. He began circling in a half step, first forward, then backpedaling, rambling on about people trying to get him, holding his shield in front of him as he went. Out of the corner of his eye he saw two police cars. He whirled the other way and saw three more. Five officers emerged, guns drawn.
August 28, 1988
"Don't hurt me!" he screamed. "Don't kill me!"
They closed in on him in an ever-decreasing circle until they could make a grab for him. White, a running back, broke a few tackles before the cops finally laid him out on the gravel face down, spread-eagled. White fought so hard that both his wrists were permanently scarred by the handcuffs.
Four and a half months later, he was in the Pro Bowl.
Charles White, Heisman Trophy winner, broke for daylight, fending off dream-killers with a stiff left arm. It was two days after Christmas 1987, and this last run against the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick gave him 1,374 yards for the season and the NFL rushing title.
Can you imagine it? The NFL rushing title? To the guy who had sat on the pine behind the greatest runner in the game, Eric Dickerson? The same Dickerson who had never missed a game because of an injury in his pro career? To the guy who had spent five years in Cleveland playing musical chairs between the bench and drug rehabs? The same guy who had cleared waivers? It had taken White six seasons to get only four more yards than he got last season alone.
White got his break in '87 when Dickerson vamoosed to Indianapolis on Halloween eve. Talk about scary. The Rams were 1-5 with Dickerson. What would they be with White?
Try 5-4. In the space of five months, White traded his handcuffs for a gold Pro Bowl watch and became the Football News Comeback Player of the Year. Heck, make that the decade. Who came from further back than White? And if you give an award to Charles, what do you give to his wife, Judi?
One thing about the 30-year-old White, he's abundantly human, huge in both glory and shame, greatness and darkness. Raised in the San Fernando ghetto north of Los Angeles, he was a record-setting high school hurdler. He was so strong as a high schooler that he was banned from playing baseball because he broke up a double play once by knocking the second baseman out cold. His body fat was once measured at USC as 1.94%, lowest in school history. USC coach John Robinson called him "the toughest man I ever knew" and "the only college back I've ever seen who could play doubleheaders."
White not only won the Heisman, but he also won a national championship for USC in 1978 and three Rose Bowls. He is universally loved by teammates. Judi, his wife of eight years, calls him the kindest man she has ever known. At home in El Toro, Calif., White always has one of his five kids—ages one to seven—in his arms, sometimes playing the blues on the piano to lull them to sleep.
But then there is the other side. "Whatever happiness Charles brings you," says Judi, "he also brings you the pain. The greatness within him goes along with the depth of his darkness."
If that sounds like she has thought a lot about her husband, she has, mostly at 4 a.m. while lying in bed, wondering if he would come home in their car or a squad car. Or at all.
"I went through hell for him," she says. "I gave up my life for him." But where could she go? She had a bad habit. She loved him: "I saw goodness in this dark man."
White smoked his first joint at 15, in the rest room of a pizza parlor. He smoked marijuana "almost daily" at USC. He did his first line of cocaine a few weeks before the 1977 Rose Bowl.
It was around then that he met Judi McGovern, a USC student and an Ann-Margret ringer, with long auburn hair and oversized eyes. Her friends think of her as either divine, crazy or both. She came from a nonghetto, Mission Viejo, Calif., and her mother hoped she would be a lawyer. But when chance introduced her to White, they fell in love. Still. Judi winces. "I knew I'd have to pay a price," she says.
They lived together for three years at USC before they got married and Judi gave birth to a daughter, Nicole. But two years before that, soon after the Heisman season, things had started to go bad. Charles was sleeping too often, getting too skinny, ignoring Judi too much and staying on road trips too long. White was into cocaine, most of which he says he got from a USC alumnus.
But even with half his body, White was a great athlete. That spring of 1980 he went to the Bahamas and won the Superstars competition and $36,000. Within months, he had spent it all up his nose.
Cleveland took him in the first round of the draft that year, but White was a bust. The Browns blame White, and White blames the Browns' fullback-oriented system. "I still don't know why they took me," White would tell friends. "I was a wasted pick."
The cycle was simple: Drugs brought football failure, and football failure brought more drugs. A lot of his salary those first years was spent between midnight and 4 a.m. Judi would go to the bank to draw out money only to find none there. Disappointments? White missed Nicole's first birthday party—and two teammates were there—because he was out partying.
The man with the remarkable body now became renowned around the NFL for how much cocaine he could put into it. Judi had never so much as lit up a joint, but friends told her that when it came to drugs, White was "a Superman. They'd never seen anybody do so much in their lives," she recalls.
But it was tightrope-walking without a net. Every time White was out late, "I thought he was dead," says Judi. She dreaded hearing the door close every time he left the house.
In July 1982, White agreed to check into a drug-rehab clinic in Orange, Calif. When he came back to Cleveland that summer, he enrolled in the Browns' drug counseling group, the Inner Circle. But even as he sat in those meetings and pledged to stay clean, White would sometimes hold a bottle of clean urine in his pants—between his legs to keep the sample warm—for the drug tests.
Eventually the doctors got smart and White was bent straight. He went almost three years without alcohol or cocaine. "The happiest years of our lives," says Judi. Even so, White was miserable on the field. In 1985, one week after Browns coach Marty Schottenheimer told White he was "too good a player to let go," Schottenheimer let him go. "I'll never forget that," White remembers. "Thanks, Marty." He was cut and for one month stayed cut. Finally the phone rang and it was Robinson, now head coach of the L.A. Rams. Care to play special teams?
White would have poured Gatorade. Still, something about being in California again set him back. Could it be not wanting to return to L.A. as anything but a star? The checking account started to fund brain-frying sessions again. At one time the Whites were so broke they couldn't pay the light bill. Judi found her husband's relapse so vile that every time she smelled the aroma of cocaine or marijuana on his clothes, she would throw up. "I was like Pavlov's dog," she remembers. "If I smelled it, I lost it."
The tightrope was fraying. Both Judi and Charles now call it "our lost year." White was in so deep that he would check himself into hotels and smoke crack alone, peering out from under the corner of the drapes to see who might be coming to get him. Judi wouldn't be able to stand it, waiting for him to return, so she would take herself and the kids to another hotel. But in the morning, Charles would be outside the house, waiting.
Finally, one night in 1985, White got home in the skinny hours of the morning. Some screaming and crying and ranting later, Judi did something strange. She threw her husband down and lay on top of him. She put her palms on his and spread his arms out as though he were on a crucifix. And she screamed into his face, "Look! I'm going to love you no matter what you do to me or to you! I'm going to love you and I don't care what you do to either of us! I'm not going anywhere! I'm staying right here, through this, no matter what!"
Talk about a dirty trick. You treat someone as lousy as you can and they come back and love you more.
"After that, something changed in him," she says. "I think love won him over. He stopped doing cocaine, because a person can't walk away from true love. It's the only changing force in life."
Says White, "She could've left a long time ago. To still be there, I mean, that said a lot."
White was again out of the shadows. And he stayed out until the evening of Aug. 20, 1987. After a two-year layoff, for reasons unknown to White, he suddenly had a "serious need" for cocaine. He called an old partying buddy. They met in a nearby bar, drank until closing time and then headed for the warehouse, "where the stuff was," says White.
Hello, Superman. "At first I thought I could do a little bit," White remembers. "Then I thought I could do as much as I used to do.... After a while, I was going a million miles an hour. I just got paranoid. I broke out and started running. I thought somebody was chasing me.... My body was giving me something to think about."
Robinson bailed him out of jail. They went to the coach's home and called Judi from there; White got on the phone. Her first thought was not rage or resentment or. Here we go again or, I'm leaving for good this time. Her first thought was, Well, we'll sell the house if we have to.
"I wanted to take care of him," she says. "I knew right then it was going to be me and Charles against the world. As usual. Like it's always been."
But that's where she was wrong. She didn't count on Robinson. The next day Robinson called her and said, "Don't worry about his job; let's just try to get him healthy." Robinson had decided to keep him, no matter what. One last time.
"He's my friend," Robinson explains. "I would have felt awful if I had turned away from him."
"I realized I was being given a second chance," White recalls. "I could've been dead, man! And John Robinson was willing to take a chance on me. And [Rams owner] Georgia [Frontiere]! Georgia could've said no, but she didn't. If I could've kissed her feet, I'd have kissed her feet."
Compared with Len Bias and Don Rogers, White figured he had hit the lottery. He had life. He even had work. But as the strike grew near, he got itchy. How could he make it with nothing to do? How could he keep his mind clean? He crossed the picket lines. "I didn't do it for the money," he says. "I did it to save my life."
In the three strike games, White, running tirelessly, fattened up with 339 yards, more than he gained in four of his five seasons in Cleveland. When Dickerson fled to Indianapolis, White was back in business. He got 213 yards against St. Louis and four more 100-plus games after that. A career that should have been over was suddenly just beginning. Charles White had been saved by true love and true friendship.
Of course, since then, White's impossible season has been called everything but an optical illusion. Critics say it could have only happened in a strike season. White beat Dickerson by 86 yards, but White started one more game than Dickerson. "I'm happy for Charlie," Dickerson told a reporter, "Charlie's a good back, but he's not in my caliber."
White's reaction? "When someone's insecure, they start boasting off at the mouth," he says. "That's all he's doing." Besides, when you have just survived an airplane crash, you don't care if someone says your tie is crooked.
Still, when the rookie running backs showed up to play a scrimmage in Thousand Oaks in July this year, there stood White. Asked by a reporter what he was doing there, White said, "I'm here because I want to prove to all you guys that last year was real."
One day during the off-season, Judi overheard one agent tell another what he thought of Charles White's season. "A once-in-a-lifetime year," the agent said.
Judi told Charles and saw that look in his eye. "He said to himself, I'll show them.' And he will," she says. "At the end of this season he'll be able to walk up to that guy and say, 'So, how do you like me now?' "
Charles White, Heisman Trophy winner, broke for daylight, running with a bursting heart. It was 97° in Fullerton, Calif., the Ram camp '88, yet White was taking ordinary two-hand-touch handoffs 35 yards farther than he had to, an activity peculiar to him. "Got to think fourth quarter," he says.
He is a regular Whizzer White now, what with his thrice-weekly urine tests, and he loves it. He's clean, he's playing and he's alive.
"I feel like I'm 24 again," he says. "I feel like a fresh kid. I've been in the league all these years, but I haven't been pounded all these years. I can play another six seasons."
This might come as a surprise to the Rams, who used their No. 1 draft choice this year to take Gaston Green, the dazzling running back from UCLA. Of course, after what the Whites have been through, Green is just the Crisis of the Week. "We're war-wounded soldiers," Judi says. "We've been through it all. We've had it all before and we've lost it all before and now we have it again. God has moved mountains for us. You think we're worried about Gaston Green?"
For the first time as a pro, White is wearing his USC national championship ring. And farther down his left hand, hanging just below one of his handcuff scars ("My beauty marks," he calls them), is a bracelet Judi had made up for him, which is inscribed: CHARLES: NFL LEADING RUSHER, 1987.
The only people they have to answer to now are their children, and White can't wait. "When they ask me what happened that day, they can hear it from a living legend," he says.
It has been a year since White broke for daylight, bursting from the darkness of that warehouse into the squinting high noon. He has not been back to the darkness since. He feels like running forever, and Judi thinks he can. "I'm just glad he's not a boxer," she says. "He'd die before he'd go down. He's like a great racehorse who dies running. Maybe that's what will happen to Charles. I can't ever see him stopping."
But can he? Green is young and White's legs are mortal. After the Brea incident, Robinson said, "One more, Charlie, and it's over." He means it. Only so many times a guy can swim into a riptide to save a friend and not be pulled down himself.
So be careful, Charlie. Daylight fades. Careers end and night falls. How will you like yourself in the darkness when there's nowhere else to run?