SI Vault
Ron Fimrite
October 15, 1973
It has been nearly 25 years since Charlie Justice played his last game at tailback for North Carolina. He was a folk hero at the time—and he still is
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October 15, 1973

A Long Locomotive For Choo Choo

It has been nearly 25 years since Charlie Justice played his last game at tailback for North Carolina. He was a folk hero at the time—and he still is

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He rose at five because it was Saturday and he could sleep no longer. Sarah, her dark hair spilling over the pillow, stirred restlessly, reaching out to touch where he had been. "Up so soon, Charlie...?" But she knew, even in her drowsiness, that on these days he would always be up so soon.

It was a brisk, brightening day, and a gentle wind stirred the southern pines. Charlie tried to keep busy. He talked to himself and he talked to the boxer dog. He switched on the radio, but found nothing worth listening to. He put on some coffee for Sarah. He dressed with studied casualness, wearing the letter sweater like a uniform. Then, hunching his shoulders against the wind and cocking his head in that curiously apologetic attitude, he set off for the pregame meal at the Monogram Club, crossing East Franklin street with its hodgepodge of clothing stores, pharmacies, ice cream parlors and movie houses. Life With Father, starring William Powell, Irene Dunne and the teen-ager, Elizabeth Taylor, was at the Varsity. Sarah and he would probably catch it tomorrow. They seldom missed a new movie in town.

The walk across campus never failed to stir Charlie. With the rolling green lawns, the dogwood, wistaria and cherry trees, it was like a beautiful farm, and Charlie was a country boy. He was not tall, barely 5'10", but even he had to duck the overhanging vines as he cut through the archways of the Coker Arboretum. The Monogram Club, in a fine Georgian building, was just ahead, on Country Club Road.

Charlie was the first player to arrive. He always was. Normally a compulsive talker, he ate in silence, too naggingly aware of his responsibilities to banter with his teammates. But they were all his friends. Chan Highsmith, the big tackle and center, once kidded Charlie about his unflagging affability. "If you spent as much time practicing football as you do trying to ingratiate yourself with your teammates," he said, "you'd be the best that ever played this game."

Having eaten, Charlie walked alone to the field house next to Kenan Stadium. He passed through the tennis courts and the graveyard and the pine forest where the stadium was nestled. Morris Mason, a black man who had already been field-house custodian for 20 years, was sorting through the hip and shoulder pads. "How ya doin', Mr. Justice?" he said to Charlie, his favorite player. "And how's Mrs. Justice?" "Fine, Morris, just fine. How y'all? I think I'll just sit around for a while until it's time."

Charlie put on only part of his uniform. Then, carrying his white helmet, he took a seat under the field-house stairway, there to join the battle with his nerves. After a half hour he was ready. "We're gonna lose!" he called out to his teammates in a voice nearly falsetto. "We're gonna lose if y'all don't start thinkin' 'bout foo'ball. 'Bout playin' a game of foo'ball for Carolina!"

The others were neither surprised nor annoyed by this eruption. They knew Charlie was merely preparing himself for a job he did surpassingly well—playing a game of football for the University of North Carolina.

Dressed now in the powder-blue uniform, the pads lending an illusion of size to his slight frame, Charlie rushed taut as a wire onto the field at the head of his team. At the sight of his No. 22, of the familiar head-bobbing, galloping stride, the 43,000 spectators began shouting almost in unison, " Choo Choo! Choo Choo! All the way Choo Choo!" It was a profession of love. " Choo Choo! Choo Choo!" Charlie was enthralled, exhilarated. The cheers washed over him like cold spring water on a summer day. He bathed in the affection.

He had for years practiced being a hero. As a boy in Asheville he had run through a broken field of women grocery shoppers, farmers' trucks and sidewalk cracks. He announced his own imagined triumphs in the hysterical style of a radio sportscaster. He had wanted nothing more than to be an All-America halfback, a football hero. And now he was one. He was Charlie ( Choo Choo) Justice, the biggest hero of them all....

He is now a plump, gray, balding, jaunty man of 49. The voice is softer, but only slightly lower, and he talked happily as he drove his gold Cadillac around the changed but still familiar campus.

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