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.
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.
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.