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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.
Come again, coach?