At halftime of California's game against UCLA last Saturday, Golden Bears tailback Russell White had a needle in each arm and a simple request: He wanted his mommy. Despite having rushed for 72 yards and a touchdown before intermission, White wasn't feeling so hot. That much was clear from the way he lunged for the oxygen tank whenever he stepped off the field. The air over the Rose Bowl was the color of Grey Poupon, and White, having been plagued for two weeks by an upper-respiratory infection, couldn't take deep breaths. Further, after 30 minutes of play he was so dehydrated that team doctors stuck two glucose-solution IVs in him.
With the score tied 14-14, White, who's a junior, could not decide whether to play the second half. But he knew of someone who could decide. A student trainer was sent into the stands to get Helen White. "O.K.," she said upon greeting her son in the dressing room, "what's the matter?"
"I get tired," White told her. "I can carry two or three times, then I have to rest."
"Go in and give them what you can give them," said Helen.
October 13, 1991
"Don't be a superhero," said Tovi Scruggs, White's girlfriend, who had tagged along with Helen.
Scruggs need not have worried. White's second-half contributions were a mortal but important 49 yards rushing—he finished with 121 on 25 carries—and a second touchdown, which tied the score at 24-24 with 4:18 to play. Then, with 30 seconds remaining, Doug Brien's 47-yard field goal tumbled through the uprights to give Cal a 27-24 victory.
But by no means did the roll call of Bears heroes begin and end with White:
•Quarterback Mike Pawlawski completed 27 of 39 passes for 292 yards and succeeded in doing what his more renowned counterpart, Bruin signal-caller Tommy Maddox, could not—move the chains when the game was on the line.
•Brien, Cal's preternaturally calm walk-on sophomore kicker, made only four field goals in high school. He has now won two of the Bears' games this fall with last-minute field goals.
•The defense had sand kicked in its face for three quarters, but in the final 10 minutes it forced a punt, caused a fumble that led to White's tying touchdown, forced another punt and then stopped the Bruins on their final possession.
"These are not the old Cal teams," said UCLA coach Terry Donahue, whose Bruins have lost two straight games to the Bears. Indeed, Cal is 4-0, ranked 13th and headed for an Oct. 19 Pac-10 showdown with third-ranked Washington.
Asked to assess White's performance against his team, Donahue chose instead to refer to White's having been a Prop 48 athlete (for failing to score at least 700 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test) and also remarked five times on the Bears' new "commitment to winning." What a shame, Donahue intimated to reporters, that Berkeley, of all places, had accepted such a poor student.
Donahue, who is not permitted, by school policy, to sign Prop 48 athletes, did not mention that White is thriving academically at Berkeley. But it is the jabs that have been launched at him closer to home that have most embittered White. He says, "When I'm ready to leave Berkeley, maybe I'll say, 'To all of you who didn't want me here, well, here's my degree, so kiss my ass.' "
White was the biggest football recruiting coup in the history of Berkeley—and one of its most controversial admissions decisions. Students, professors and the press demanded to know how the school—home to 15 Nobel Prize winners—could have room for this...this dolt. "What price glory?" wrote the Riverside (Calif.) Press-Enterprise, pointing out that 41% of White's fellow freshmen had 4.0 averages in high school and that the university had rejected another 2,500 applicants with perfect grades.
By White's senior season at Crespi Carmelite High in Encino, Calif., his difficulties with the SAT—he took it five times—had become public knowledge. "It was hell," says White. "I'd sit there thinking, What if I don't pass this time? What are people going to think?"
That question was easy: They thought he was a dunce. "I walked around like this," says White, nearly touching his chin to his sternum. "It was like I had IDIOT written on my forehead."
Even with his afternoons free that first autumn at Cal—as a Prop 48, White was ineligible even to practice his freshman year—he found himself in academic free-fall. One day in October 1989, White mentioned to Jo Baker, one of his academic advisers, that numbers and letters sometimes appeared backward to him. He had mentioned this to teachers in his elementary and high schools, but, says White, "They'd say things like, 'Well, maybe it's because you're lefthanded.' "
Baker's reaction was different. She had White take a battery of tests. The results were at once gloomy and wonderful: He wasn't dumb, he was dyslexic. "It felt like this incredible weight was lifted," White says. "All my life I'd wondered what was wrong with me. I'd actually gone through life thinking I was on the lame side."
Since discovering his dyslexia, White's academic advisers have given him special help. Passages from some assigned texts are explained to him by tutors, and he may be excused from having to fulfill his foreign language requirement. The day he got his grades last spring, White phoned Helen and made small talk. Finally, unable to stand the suspense, she blurted, "Well, how'd you do?"
"You know, Mom," he said, milking the moment. "I did pretty damn good."
He'd pulled a 3.2. When Russell returned home to Van Nuys, Calif., for the summer, Helen, an accountant, presented him with the keys to a silver-green 1991 Toyota Tercel. "Mom," he said, his eyes misting, "it's too much! I worked hard—I didn't die."
It is difficult to comprehend how White's learning disability remained a mystery for so long. Helen had enrolled him at Crespi, a parochial school, expressly to prepare him for college. In his first varsity season the Celts went 13-1 and won the California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section Big Five Conference title. The two previous seasons they had been a combined 6-13. In three years White rushed for 5,998 yards and 94 touchdowns, both state records.
In the classroom, however, he lagged behind. Since graduating from Crespi, White has criticized his teachers for being too easy on him. "I passed some courses I know I should have flunked," he says. "They call themselves a college preparatory school. Well, they didn't prep me well enough."
According to Joel Wilker, a Crespi vice-principal and an assistant football coach, officials at the school deeply regret having missed the telltale signs of White's dyslexia. But with 98% of Crespi's graduates going to college, the school has no special education program. Wilker also points out that White probably would not have gotten into Berkeley had he not attended Crespi. Further, Wilker is of the reasonable opinion that White must bear some responsibility for his academic failures.
"I understand some of it's my fault," says White. Then, a moment later he lashes out: "I feel they exploited me. I feel they used me as a piece of meat."
When White feels he has been wronged, he files away the injury for keeps. His father, Roosevelt, left home when Russell was six, and Russell has just begun to forgive him. One of Roosevelt's 11 siblings is Charles White, who won the 1979 Heisman Trophy as a tailback at Southern Cal and spent eight seasons in the NFL. Russell dismisses the mention of his famous uncle with a disgusted wave. "As far as his involvement with me," he says, "there's not much to say."
At first White did little to justify the gamble Cal had taken on him. His dyslexia had been discovered too late in the fall semester of 1989 to prevent him from finishing with a 1.96 GPA. Over the Christmas break he told Helen that he was considering quitting Cal and attending a junior college. The suggestion was not well received. "In this family," says Helen, "you start something, you finish it."
White returned to Berkeley and, at his request, was given a tutor for each of his spring classes. The help paid dividends in the classroom, but no one knew how he would respond on the football field after having been away from the game for 16 months. Last season, the first time he touched the ball in Cal's Memorial Stadium, White returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown against Miami. All worries were laid to rest. As a backup tailback, White ended up averaging 5.6 yards per carry. He gained 1,018 yards rushing, was the country's seventh-leading all-purpose back and became the only player in Pac-10 history to be named first team all-conference without having started a game.
"Russell reminds me of a mix of a young Tony Dorsett and Groucho Marx," says Bears coach Bruce Snyder.
Come again, coach?
"Picture Groucho," says Snyder. "Russell has that same forward lean."
What the six-foot, 210-pound White has, says Snyder seriously, is a proud carriage. "I don't want my tailback to sneak onto the field," says Snyder. "I want him to march-no, gallop. I want his body language to say, Give me the ball, and I'll win the game for you."
If White does that often enough, he should command an enviable position in the NFL draft. But Helen and Russell have markedly different views on life for him after Cal. She speaks of the Plan. "I want him running a 4.2 40," says Helen. "He'll be the best back coming out of college since Gale Sayers."
White makes no mention of the Plan. Instead, he speaks passionately of how he will put his degree in social welfare to work as a counselor of junior high students. "Too many of them want to be Magic or Michael," he says. "They should come with me. I can show them a different way. I don't want them getting to 12th grade, sitting in front of some test that's going to influence the rest of their lives and drawing a blank. I can be a positive influence. I really think I can."