We take a look back at the high school career of San Fernando High School great Charles White, who died this week at age 64 from liver cancer. White was a legend in the San Fernando Valley, and reached iconic status around the state when he captured the 1979 Heisman Trophy at USC as part of the Trojans’ great tailback tradition. In addition to his exploits on the football field, White was also a state champion hurdler and city and state champ on both the gridiron and track.
The late Bill Frazer dedicated most of his life to San Fernando High School football and to the Red Cross after witnessing first-hand the 1957 aviation disaster that took place right over the playground at Pacoima Junior High that millions learned about watching the 1987 film “La Bamba”. In the late 2000s before his passing in 2010, Frazer remembers taking a young Charles White down to the field to meet his idol, Tigers’ star quarterback Anthony Davis.
“Charlie’s eyes lit up like silver dollar bills,” Frazer told Cal-Hi Sports. “He was in awe.”
As White was preparing to follow in Davis’ footsteps and enroll at San Fernando, Davis was becoming a household name playing tailback at USC, particularly for his exploits against Notre Dame, between 1972-74. Legend has it if Heisman voters would have waited until after the USC-Notre Dame game in 1974 to cast their ballots, Davis likely wins the prestigious award. That same season, White was a bit crushed he had to play BEE football because he was 14 years old, while some of his tenth-grade friends played on the Tigers’ varsity.
White more than made up for lost time the next two years and went from a local legend to college football legend when he captured the 1979 Heisman Trophy. At the time he was a 1980 first round NFL Draft choice, he was college football’s second all-time leading rusher behind Pitt’s Tony Dorsett. With White’s trophy proudly displayed at the home of his grandmother Bertha Leggett, Charles was to many kids in Pacoima in the 1980s what Davis was to him years earlier: an icon and beacon of hope. Despite an up-and-down NFL career and publicized off-the-field troubles, Charles White retained his iconic status in the San Fernando Valley until his death earlier this week from liver cancer at age 64.
— InsideUSC (@InsideUSC) January 12, 2023
One constant in White’s life was the football talent of his brothers and teammates at San Fernando. Talent that the group knew at a young age was a ticket to a college education. Incredibly, many of them were nearly as gifted as White was. When White moved up to the varsity for the 1974 season, he moved from wishbone BEE quarterback to fullback and also played in the defensive secondary with the same three players that made up the Tigers’ “Dream Backfield” on offense: QB Kenny Moore, HB Kevin Williams and HB Ray Williams (no relation). White rushed for 1,160 yards on 118 carries as a junior, but his most memorable high school play came on defense. In the 1974 L.A. City title game against Palisades, the Dolphins took a 13-12 lead on a field goal, but decided to take the points off the board and go for a touchdown when the Tigers jumped off sides. On the next play, White laid out a fullback in the backfield to preserve the 12-10 victory and first of consecutive L.A. City titles with a 12-1 mark.
Moore was named L.A. City Section Player of the Year, while fellow junior Kevin Williams (876 yards on 122 carries) was the CIF state champ in the 100-yard dash (9.4). The next season, the Tigers were the toast of the city and were getting preseason national acclaim as the nation’s top team. Perhaps the preseason headlines and press-clippings were a bit too much, as San Fernando lost its opener to Gardena, 40-0. The Tigers eventually rebounded after another loss and were back-to-back L.A. City 4A champs, as Cal-Hi Sports founder Nelson Tennis rated the 11-2 Tigers No. 7 in his first ever Large School state rankings at the end of the 1975 season.
White, Williams and Moore were named tri-L.A. City Section Players of the Year in 1975. Moore accounted for 4,103 yards in his three-year career at quarterback, while Williams was the city’s leading rusher (1,402 yards) and scorer (151 points). White was named state player of the year by Cal-Hi Sports after rushing for 1,155 yards on 121 carries, including a game against Van Nuys where he rushed for 215 yards and three touchdowns on only five carries. The “dive” play to White in the vaunted wishbone attack was nearly unstoppable, as the Tigers had speed and talent all over the field.
Later that spring, White won the individual state title in the 330-Yard Low Hurdles with a time of 36.7 seconds. San Fernando tied for the team championship with L.A. Hamilton at the ’76 CIF state track meet. Had Williams, the two-time L.A. City 100-yard dash king and defending state champ, not false started in his best event, the Tigers probably win the team title outright.
Had White concentrated on track, he might have been an Olympic hurdler. Kevin Williams, who caught 71 passes at USC with 25 of them going for touchdowns, was an Olympic caliber sprinter who missed a golden opportunity when the U.S. boycotted the 1980 games in Moscow.
White was joined at USC by Moore (who passed in 2020) and Williams (who passed in a railroad accident in the Cajon Pass in 1996). Despite the backfield talent that included eventual 1977 No. 1 NFL Draft pick Ricky Bell (L.A. Fremont), White rushed for 858 yards and 10 touchdowns as a true freshman. When Bell, the Heisman runner-up to Dorsett in 1976, left the 1977 Rose Bowl with a concussion in the first quarter, White stepped up to rush for 114 yards and a touchdowns. He went on to lead the Pac-8 in rushing as a sophomore (1,478) and the entire NCAA in both 1978 (1,859) and 1979 (2,050).
To get an idea of just how much talent there was in Pacoima in the late 1970s, White played with five former San Fernando players during his Heisman Trophy winning season as a senior: Moore, Williams and three freshman off San Fernando’s 1978 10-1 club: tailback Anthony Gibson, fullback Robert McClanahan and wide receiver Malcolm Moore, Kenny’s Moore’s younger brother and the third of the Moore brothers to play for USC (running back Manfred was part of USC’s 1972 national title team).
Amazingly, two of White’s San Fernando teammates who did not go to USC eventually were drafted in the NFL: backfield mate Ray Williams (Washington St.) and flanker DeWayne “Pretty Boy” Jett (Hawaii).
White’s younger brother also played on that 1978 San Fernando team that lost a heartbreaker in the L.A. City 4A semifinals to Banning of Wilmington: back-up RB and CB Terry Anderson, who went on to Arizona St. Oldest brother Roosevelt White played with Davis at San Fernando and went on to play RB and run track at Oregon. Roosevelt’s son and Charles’ nephew, Russell White, bucked the tradition of attending San Fernando and enrolled at Crespi of Encino. There he earned state Mr. Football honors as a sophomore in 1986 and graduated as the state’s all-time leading rusher. Another nephew, Jason Anderson (Terry’s son), played at Monroe of Sepulveda and Palmdale, and like Russell White, eventually made it to the NFL.
Charles White had four more younger brothers that played college football: James Gordon (Western Michigan), Leonice Brown (Colorado St.), Jerry Brown (Oregon) and Tony Brown (Humboldt St.). All played at San Fernando except Jerry and all but Gordon were college running backs. When he finished up at Taft of Woodland Hills in 1994, Jerry was the L.A. City Section’s all-time leading rusher (5,387 yards) and remained the rushing king until his mark fell to another Pacoima native, Van Nuys Birmingham’s Milton Knox, in 2007.
Gordon, Leonice, Jerry and Tony all wore No. 12. They all looked up to their older brother Charles. We’ll all look up to him for a long time as well.