Don’t you hate missing birthdays? I missed one yesterday.
If former Tar Heel football star Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice had been alive, he would have turned 87 on May 18th.
Justice, who died in 2003, played for the Tar Heels in the late 1940s and caught the nation’s imagination. He ran, passed and kicked the ball – did just about everything, really, except play defense. Justice told me once that was because he couldn’t play defense worth a darn.
So the 5-foot-9, 165-pound jitterbug from Asheville stayed on offense, making sure the trains ran on time. The Tar Heels went 32-7-2 during Choo Choo’s four years there.
I interviewed Justice in 2000 at his home – it was one of the last times he talked with a reporter at any length. He was a sweet, humble man, married to a fine woman (Sarah) for over 50 years. Although his mind had grown foggy by then, I caught him on a good day, and he happily recalled his time as a Tar Heel.
“Carolina needed a star, " he said. “Everyone had been through a war. Confined. There had been gas rations. The war was over, and people wanted to turn it loose a little. You couldn't get 'em out of the stadium when we played at home.”
Choo Choo’s appeal wasn’t just regional. He nearly won the Heisman Trophy twice - instead finishing second in both 1948 and 1949. He was the the subject of a Benny Goodman song called "All the Way Choo Choo.” Life magazine put Choo Choo on the cover for a 1949 issue and wrote that Justice was “Rudolph Valentino made up as Superman.”
A few other quotes from Choo Choo that came from my interview with him 11 years ago:
On Sammy Baugh, the Hall of Fame quarterback Justice played with in Washington: "He could knock you down with a football. He'd tell you to go down there and do a little buttonhook and you better be protecting yourself because he was going to throw it right at your nose. And if you didn't catch it, you had your head torn off."
On money: "I played for $1,200 a game and played 10 games. Nowadays, they won't even look at you for $12,000."
On golf: "If I had a son today, I believe I'd give him a set of clubs and say, 'Get out there.' In football or baseball, you really can't play that long."
On today's NFL: "It's a different world. Pro ball has just gone completely crazy. It's not a sport anymore, it's entertainment. And it's damn good entertainment."
On why he wore No. 22 in Chapel Hill: "They threw it to me the first day, so I put it on."
Toward the end of our interview, Choo Choo paused in the middle of a story to say something else.
“I’ve had quite a life, I guess,” Choo Choo said.
Then his wife gently patted his shoulder.
(Kudos to my former colleague Lew Powell for reminding me of Choo Choo’s birthday through the following well-written blog item, which shows a number of vintage photos of Choo Choo from the wonderful photographer and humanitarian Hugh Morton).