OCTOBER 2, 1978
Charles White's job these days puts him on the USC sideline at the Los Angeles Coliseum, only a few feet from where he ran over, around and through opponents en route to winning the Heisman Trophy in 1979. As the Trojans' running backs coach, White may have come full circle, but the circumnavigation took far longer than it needed to because of a bad trip White took into drug abuse. "It's been quite a ride, yet here I am," he says with a faint laugh. "I'm back at USC and happy to be alive."
Raised in a San Fernando ghetto north of L.A., White became a football and track star at San Fernando High and signed with Southern Cal in 76. Though not particularly big (5'11", 185 pounds) or fast (4.6 in the 40), White was a latter-day Hector—the Trojan warrior who was at his best in the biggest battles. In addition to winning the Heisman, White helped USC earn UPI's No. 1 ranking in 78 and remains Southern Cal's alltime leading rusher (6,245 yards). "Charles was the toughest, most explosive player I ever coached," his former USC mentor and current boss, John Robinson, has said. White's legs and chest were sheer muscle, and his percentage of body fat in college was as low as 1.9%.
White was weak, however, when it came to drugs. A first-round pick in the 1980 draft by the Cleveland Browns, he sleepwalked through his first few NFL seasons, the result of cocaine addiction. The Browns released White before the '85 season, but Robinson, who had become the coach of the Los Angeles Rams, offered him a second shot. During the strike-shortened '87 season, White led the NFL in rushing and was selected to the Pro Bowl. A year later he was suspended for 30 days for a second violation of the league's substance-abuse policy, returned to the Rams after missing four games but retired after the season. At that point, says White, who first entered rehab in '82 and participated in various follow-up programs, he "was clean and sober for good." He took an administrative post in the USC athletic department, while moonlighting as a celebrity combatant on American Gladiators, before hooking up once more with Robinson, who returned as the Trojans' coach in '93.
"I still get pumped for game days," says White, who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame earlier this year. "It's the same rush I got when I was playing." Otherwise, he spends time with his wife, Judi, and their five children. "I look back at everything and feel blessed," he says. "It all worked out after all."