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Bear On the Loose
Austin Murphy
October 14, 1991
Once an object of derision at Berkeley, Russell White has led surprising Cal to a 4-0 record
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October 14, 1991

Bear On The Loose

Once an object of derision at Berkeley, Russell White has led surprising Cal to a 4-0 record

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"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."

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