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"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."