“Not only was he a great athlete, but he has been an absolute gentleman in his behavior since, a characteristic not always found in sports heroes after a big fuss has been made of them.” Hugh Morton
Franklin, NC -- (ReleaseWire) -- 04/02/2012 --We were in Chapel Hill for the ‘cousin’s dinner,’ a family event taking place every year at a local restaurant near Marcia’s family farm. Her uncle, Larry Cheek, a former sports writer for the “Greensboro Record” and “The Roanoke times” and columnist for 27 years with the “Fayetteville Times” was chatting with Gordon and reflecting on the Charlie Justice era of football at the University of North Carolina. All-American tailback Justice, Larry and Gordon agreed, put University of North Carolina athletics on the map and gave it a national reputation.
“His style was captivating,” Larry asserted. “He could pass, run, kick and fake his opponents and if he could get any running room, he was gone for a touchdown. The nation was ready for a hero.” Gordon remembered as a boy his neighborhood friends gathering around the radio to listen to the UNC football games. The boys were all secretly Charlie Justice as they played back-yard football. While at UNC, Justice did his teaching internship at Chapel Hill High School. Larry was in Justice’s class and remembers the students being electrified as they recognized their new student teacher.
As football tailback for UNC from 1946 to 1949, Justice came in second for the Heisman Trophy two years in a row, was named All-American and broke the school record for offense with 4,883 total yards. Coach Carl Snavely and the Tar Heels attained national prominence and rank and invitations to the Cotton Bowl and two Sugar Bowls. “The Baltimore Sun” gave Charlie the nickname, “Choo Choo,” while he played for the U. S. Navy at Bainbridge Naval Center. Like a train he was characterized by brilliant open field running unmatched in football history.
Football, however, was not all there was to Charlie Justice. Justice became a legend because of talent but also because of character and sportsmanship. Bob Terrell, the late writer and columnist for the “Asheville Citizen Times,” captures this in his book, “All Aboard: The Fantastic Story of Charlie ‘Choo Choo’ Justice,” which includes highlights of Justice’s time as a football star at Asheville High as well as his time with the Washington Redskins.
The Junior Women’s Club encouraged him to speak to schools on sportsmanship. Terrell’s coverage of these speeches and our own study of Justice led us to some findings we wanted to share. Charlie Justice lived and taught rules of sportsmanship relevant to life as well as athletics and these are as follows:
Have confidence in yourself. Remember you are learning how to think on your feet, compete, win, deal with defeat and then immediately pick yourself up for the next play.
Have respect for linemen and other players. You will not get anywhere without them.
Do all you can to build up the team. Sports and life are about teamwork.
Academics and education come first. (Justice turned down a professional football contract with the Chicago Bears to go to college.)
Take practice seriously. Develop a serious work ethic. Set high standards for yourself and other players and do not break rules.
Work hard to gain the respect of your teammates.
Never, ever let fame go to your head.
Get along with and be considerate of others.
Taking what you learned in athletics into other professional careers will help you succeed in life. Life is about sportsmanship, fairness and treating others with respect.
The next day, we drove across UNC campus in search of the statue of Charlie Justice at Kenan Memorial Stadium. Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice’s statue stood tall at Kenan Memorial stadium. The wall behind the statue held several plaques devoted to him. We silently remembered his love of the mountains at Lee Edwards High (now Asheville High); where as a high school football player he began to teach sportsmanship on and off the playing field.
Charlie Justice died in 2003. He often said he wanted to be remembered for more than athletics. Justice was a hero both on and off the field, and an example to others. We think his wish was granted.
Gordon Mercer is past president of Pi Gamma Mu International Honor Society and a professor emeritus at Western Carolina University. Marcia Gaines Mercer is a children’s book writer and columnist. Her new children’s book, “When I Woke up the World Was Yellow” came out recently.