Charlie and Sarah and Life After Football

In an interview with Tom Sieg of the Winston-Salem Journal in September 1987, UNC’s great All-America football star Charlie Justice said, “I’d like to be remembered more for what I’ve done for humanity and the state of North Carolina than for my athletic abilities.”

On this day, the day that Justice would have turned 87 years old, Morton Collection volunteer Jack Hilliard looks back at some of the many ways Charlie and wife Sarah carried out his wish.

Charlie and Sarah Justice, and Norma and Doak Walker at Airlie Gardens during the 1950 Azalea Festival The drive down Interstate 85 from Greensboro to Lexington took only about 50 minutes, but it was long enough for me to let my mind wonder back to a time in 1984 when Charlie Justice came to a sporting goods store in Winston-Salem to sign books and tapes for the Charlotte Treatment Center.  Many of the folks who came to greet the UNC football legend brought treasured souvenirs for him to sign.  One man brought a newspaper from Bainbridge Maryland when Charlie was playing service ball.  Another brought a 1948 issue of Varsity magazine, an issue that featured a Hugh Morton photograph on the cover.  The man opened the magazine and pointed to a picture of Charlie standing on a street corner in Chapel Hill talking with two young boys.  “Do you remember that,” he said to Justice, “that’s me.”  The parade of admirers and memories continued for a couple of hours.

I was brought back to reality by the announcer on the radio saying, “go out and see UNC football great Charlie ‘Choo Choo’ Justice this afternoon at Frazier’s Bookstore.  He’ll be there all afternoon.”

When I arrived at Frazier’s in downtown Lexington, the line snaked all the way through the store.  Seated at a table in the back were Justice, author Bob Terrell, and Sarah Justice, Charlie’s wife of 53 years.  It was not unusual for Sarah to be there.  She had been there for him since their high school days at Lee Edwards High in Asheville.  In the stands at Kenan, Sarah could be seen in her special good-luck hat during the late 1940s.  She was among the 88,885 fans at Soldier Field in Chicago on the night of August 11, 1950 to see her husband’s MVP performance in the College All-Star game.  She could often be spotted in old Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. at Redskins’ games during the early 1950s.  UNC Athletics Director Dick Baddour said at the dedication of the Justice statue in 2004, “I always thought of them as a team.”

It had been forty-six years since Charlie played his final varsity game for UNC, but the front page headline in the Lexington paper on April 19, 1996 read, “Choo Choo Justice Comes To Lexington.”

His name was, and still is, magic to many North Carolinians.

On the football field, Charlie Justice was a hero of epic proportions.  After football, his legendary status grew even more.  Said Dr. William Friday, President Emeritus of the University of North Carolina in Hugh Morton’s 1988 book, Making A Difference In North Carolina:  “The Charlie Justice I knew best is the civic leader, the great humanitarian, the great giver of himself.  I have never seen anybody that did as much as he did for causes from the American Heart Association to Crippled Children to Christmas Seals to the University itself.”

You didn’t need to be around Charlie for more than a couple of minutes, before you became aware of the importance of his storybook marriage to Sarah Alice.  Charlie Justice and Sarah Alice Hunter were married on November 23, 1943 . . . a time when the rest of the world was at war.  How miraculous it must have seemed then to find a reason for happiness and hope for the future.

Jane Browne, a Justice family friend, described Sarah this way:  “She was definitely a person in her own right, but she was always thought of as Charlie’s wife.  She was always in the background, not in the spotlight, but was always there, so dependable. . . .  She was an angel on this earth.”

So together Charlie and Sarah offered their name, their time, their talent, and their money to just about every cause in the Tar Heel state.

In 1989, when the Charlotte Treatment Center named a wing of its facility for Charlie, he said, “I had one goal in life set way back in high school . . . to win the Heisman Trophy.  Well, I came close twice.  But this honor makes up for the Heisman I never won.”  The Center also named a wing of the facility for Sarah Justice as well.

Justice was named general chairman for the American Heart Association in Greensboro and he made numerous appearances to help them raise money.  He had a special connection with this group.  In the twenty years between 1974 and 1994, Justice had three heart attacks and three open heart surgeries.

Be it a fundraiser for Special Olympics in Cherryville, celebrity roasts for Multiple Sclerosis in Greensboro and Juvenile Diabetes in Charlotte, or a March of Dimes Event in Winston-Salem, Charlie and Sarah were always ready to lend a hand.

Hugh Morton's last photograph of Charlie Justice

Sarah and Charlie Justice.

Made on an unknown date at the Justices’ home sometime around Christmas, the above photograph is the first of three similar exposures—likely Hugh Morton’s final portraits of Charlie Justice.

In September of 2000, Charlie Justice granted his final interview. . . it was with Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer.  Fowler describes his day in Cherryville with Charlie and Sarah Justice this way.  “Gosh, it was fun.”  Toward the end of the day, Justice was relating the story of his famous jersey #22, when he suddenly paused in mid story.  He had thought of something extremely important.

“I’ve had quite a life, I guess,” said Charlie.

Sarah gently patted his shoulder.

So, eleven football seasons have come and gone since that special fall day in Cherryville in 2000 . . . a lot has happened.  Charlie and Sarah Justice are no longer with us but I choose to believe that:

Somewhere in a Carolina Blue Heaven,
The Spirit of #22 is once again running free.
And so it is, as it has been for almost 70 years now,
His Special Angel Sarah continues watching over him
just outside the spotlight.

10 thoughts on “Charlie and Sarah and Life After Football

  1. A reader shares a memory in response to Scott’s column:
    “We as kids challenged him to a race in downtown Cherryville. He was in his 50s. He ripped off his work loafers and ran down the street in socks, and all I could see was his backside…”

  2. The couple with the Justices in front of the Airlie Oak is Doak and Norma Walker. The Walkers were in Wilmington for the Azalea festival. Hugh and I really tried to be good hosts and took the famous foursome to an oyster roast Wilmingtonians think oyster roasts are unique and special, Norma, we were told later, thought we must be ashamed of them to take them to a smelly outdoor “pit” back in the woods where they ate just-shucked oysters at a plank table.

  3. That’s a terrific story, Julia. I can still remember the first time I ate oysters outside on planks in Savannah at the 2003 Daguerreian Society meeting. I thought I was in heaven!

  4. It was good to see Charlie Justice running on the big video screen in Kenan Stadium yesterday during the Carolina – Virginia game…62 years after he played his final varsity game in that storied facility on November 26, 1949. Ironically that final game was against Virginia also. Yesterday’s replay of his 84 yard punt return touchdown against Georgia from 1948 was part of the Verizon Football Vault series, where fans in the stadium can vote via their smart phones for a play from the past.

    Charlie Justice is an enduring legend for Tar Heels and a beloved villain elsewhere…evidenced by an event that occurred on November 10, 1962 when Carolina went up to Scott Stadium for a meeting with the Cavaliers. In a ceremony that day, the University of Virginia presented Justice with an award saluting him as their “all time opponent.” The inscription on the plaque presented to Justice that day reads in part as follows:

    “The University of Virginia presents to Charles Justice, UNC ’50, on the occasion of the 67th renewal, 1962, of the University of Virginia vs. the University of North Carolina football game, the oldest continuous series in the South, for the greatest single performance by a UNC player in this series. In 1948 at Scott Stadium you finished the greatest season of your college career in the following manner: Rushing – 167 yards on 15 carries; Passing – 87 yards on 4 completions of 6 attempts; Punting – 5 times for 40.1 average; Touchdowns – 2 on runs of 80 and 50 yards; TD Passes – 2 on passes of 40 and 31 yards. Score – UNC 34 – UVA 12…In four UVA-UNC games you gained 727 yards and scored on passes for 11 touchdowns. The University of Virginia salutes the Carolina Choo Choo, our all-time opponent.”

    I think I can safely say an award such as this had not been given before nor has it been given since

  5. What a classy tribute from UVa — in this era of overwrought fan hostility, would be nice to see the idea revived and spread….

  6. This morning there is yet another lost link to the Golden Era of Carolina Football. We lost legendary sportswriter Furman Bisher on Sunday. Bisher covered many Tar Heel wins during the 1946-1949 era and was often a guest at the Justice Era reunions.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/18/furman-bisher-dies-sportswriter-obit-93_n_1359841.html?ref=sports

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Furman_Bisher

    He is pictured in three Morton images in the online collection:

    http://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm4/results.php?CISOOP1=all&CISOFIELD1=CISOSEARCHALL&CISORESTMP=results.php&CISOVIEWTMP=item_viewer.php&CISOMODE=grid&CISOGRID=thumbnail%2CA%2C1%3Btitle%2CA%2C1%3Bdescri%2CA%2C0%3Bdata%2C200%2C0%3Bnone%2CA%2C0%3B20%3Btitle%2Cnone%2Cnone%2Cnone%2Cnone&CISOBIB=title%2CA%2C1%2CN%3Bdescri%2CA%2C0%2CN%3Bdata%2C200%2C0%2CN%3Bnone%2CA%2C0%2CN%3Bnone%2CA%2C0%2CN%3B20%3Btitle%2Cnone%2Cnone%2Cnone%2Cnone&CISOTHUMB=20+%284×5%29%3Btitle%2Cnone%2Cnone%2Cnone%2Cnone&CISOTITLE=20%3Btitle%2Cnone%2Cnone%2Cnone%2Cnone&CISOHIERA=20%3Bdescri%2Ctitle%2Cnone%2Cnone%2Cnone&CISOSUPPRESS=0&CISOBOX1=Furman+Bisher&CISOROOT=%2Fmorton_highlights

    On October 22, 2003, Bisher wrote a classic column in the “Atlanta Journal-Constitution” about his friend Charlie Justice. A column that included this now-famous quote:

    “An e-mail correspondent the other day said, ‘He was the Herschel Walker of his time.’ Sorry, Herschel never passed, never punted, never played defense.”

    Furman Bisher was 93 years old.

  7. On this day 24 years ago, Saturday September 24, 1988, Carolina was in the midst of celebrating its 100 years of gridiron greatest, hosting a game with Louisville. It was Lettermen’s Day and the University’s Golden Era teams of 1946 to 1949 were holding one of their reunions as well.

    Chapel Hill Mayor Jonathan Howes proclaimed the day “Charlie Justice Day.”

    Also, on this day, the lettermen’s lounge, part of a $7.1 million Kenan Stadium expansion project, was named for Justice and was opened for the first time.

    And of course, Hugh Morton was there with camera. The game day ticket carried a Morton-Justice photograph as did the game program front cover and inside story.

    Said UNC Athletic Director John Swofford, “Charlie Justice is the one Carolina football player who transcends the sport at the University. He has done so much for football at Carolina that we felt naming the lounge for him would be an appropriate way of honoring him. Charlie enjoys a very special place in our history. Carolina football fans, young and old, relate to him more than any other Tar Heel player.”

  8. Ten days after he led Bainbridge Naval Training Station’s football team to a 46 to 0 win over the University of Maryland, Charlie Justice went on a well deserved leave.

    At the same time, Sarah Alice Hunter took a brief leave from her job at the Naval Observatory in Washington, DC.

    The two headed to Asheville, North Carolina where they were married at Trinity Episcopal Church on November 23, 1943…Sixty-nine years ago today.

  9. Following Carolina’s win over Duke 38 to 24 on November 26, 1993, a special celebration was held in the Carolina Inn on the UNC campus. While the win was celebrated, the real reason for the celebration was to offer sincere congratulations to Charlie and Sarah Justice on their 50th wedding anniversary, which was actually on November 23rd but game day three days later gave everybody a good reason for a party.

    There were family members, team mates, friends, fans, and just plain folks in attendance. Following a family toast by Barbara (Justice) Crews, Tar Heel Head Coach Mack Brown offered congratulations and spoke about the importance of Carolina’s football heritage. And throughout the ceremony, Hugh Morton was there with camera in hand documenting every phase of the event.

    The reason I’m looking back 20 years to Charlie and Sarah’s 50th is a simple one, because on this day 70 years ago, November 23, 1943, Sarah Alice Hunter married Charles Justice at Trinity Episcopal Church in Asheville.

    You didn’t need to be around Charlie Justice for more than a couple of minutes, before it became obvious that marrying Sarah was the single most important event in his life.

    So on this their 70th anniversary, I choose to believe that their storybook marriage continues in a very special place.

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