It was Friday, March 9, 2012 during the Atlantic Coast Conference Men’s Basketball Tournament in Atlanta that UNC’s starting forward John Henson injured his left wrist. Nine days later at the NCAA Tournament in Greensboro, Tar Heel point guard Kendall Marshall fractured his right wrist. Carolina’s March Madness had suddenly turned to March Sadness, but media coverage for the Tar Heel stars continued through the NCAA Tournament with lots of ink and airtime. This, however, was not the first time a Tar Heel star had been the subject of a “wrist watch.” Morton collection volunteer Jack Hilliard takes a look back at another “watch” from the 1950s.
It had been four years and two days since the University of Texas had played a game in Kenan Stadium, when the they came to Chapel Hill on September 27, 1952. Many Tar Heel fans still remembered that day in 1948 when Charlie Justice and Art Weiner led the Heels over the Longhorns 34 to 7, so when Justice and his friend Orville Campbell entered the Carolina Section of Kenan on this day, he was mobbed by still-adoring fans. They immediately noticed the cast on Justice’s left wrist and wanted to know the story behind it. Justice and Campbell were finally able to get to their seats, where Hugh Morton came up from his sideline position to photograph his two friends. As the Justice fans settled down and returned to their seats, the wrist injury was still a topic of conversation.
Charlie Justice’s 1952 season with the Washington Redskins, according to most media outlets, was to be his breakout season. He had played in eight games during his 1950 rookie season without the benefit of training camp, and had averaged 4.8 yards per carry. Still, Sundays in Washington were nothing like Saturdays had been in Chapel Hill. For the 1951 season, Justice came back to Chapel Hill to assist his former coach Carl Snavely.
In an interview with Howard Criswell, Jr. of The Rocky Mount Sunday Telegram on June 22, 1952, Justice said, “When I was with the Redskins before, there were 18 rookies on the team. But this will be the third year for most of them. We ought to have a good team.” So ’52 was to be “the one.”
On July 21st Charlie departed for training camp at Occidental College in Los Angeles. An early report in the Washington Post said that on his third play from scrimmage in practice on day one, he scored on an 80-yard touchdown run. It looked like the pundits were right—’52 would be the year.
The first preseason game against the San Francisco 49’ers proved to be an all San Francisco show with Joe Perry scoring four 49’ers touchdowns in a 35-0 rout.
Then came the 8th Annual Los Angeles Times Charity game with the Rams before 87,582 fans in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on August 21, 1952—a game Charlie Justice fans will forever remember. On that Thursday night, Charlie Justice had runs of 49, 53, and 63 yards. He gained a total of 199 yards in 11 carries, a Coliseum record. But on the final run, Rams’ defensive safety Herb Rich threw Charlie out of bounds and broke his left wrist. The Redskins lost 45 to 23.
In an interview following the game, Justice said: “I tried to straight-arm Rich and I never should have done it. It was the first time I ever tried to do it in my whole football career.” Redskins’ owner George Preston Marshall was irate. Following the game he rushed into the dressing room and headed straight for Charlie.
“I’ve told you a thousand times,” Marshall railed, “if you see you’re cornered, if you see you’re gonna be hit, get out of bounds. Don’t take the punishment. You’re worth too much money to me . . . why didn’t you get out of bounds?”
Justice in pain and without thinking answered, “Mr. Marshall, the backfield coach [Jerry Neri] told me to stiff-arm him and push him off.”
Marshall’s quick reply: “ Who the h— pays your salary?”
“You do, Mr. Marshall,” said Justice.
“Well, you listen to me.”
Three days later, Backfield Coach Jerry Neri, had taken another job with another team. Paul Zimmerman, Sports Editor of the Los Angeles Times, wrote in his column following the game:
As long as football lives—and if the college presidents let it alone that will be forever—Los Angeles fans will never forget the exhibition of ball carrying by Charlie (Choo Choo) Justice. It was tragic indeed that he should suffer a broken wrist, after one of the most remarkable running performances ever displayed in major league competition.
John B. Old, writing in the Los Angeles Herald-Express on August 22nd said: “Ram rookies and veterans alike got quite a lesson in ball packing from Charlie Choo Choo Justice, the North Carolina flash. . . . Before he went out in the third quarter with a broken wrist, Justice was a one-man riot.” Rams’ head coach Joe Stydahar said in his post-game interview, “Justice was simply great. He takes off like a jack-rabbit and is very shifty, too.” And Dick Kaplan, writing in The Asheville Citizen in October of 1961, said “Charlie ran wild. He gave perhaps the greatest display of running ever seen in the West in one of the epic performances of grid annals.”
Soon after the injury, Justice temporally left the team and headed home to Charlotte, but rejoined the team in San Antonio on September 3rd. George Preston Marshall continued to pay Charlie his salary, but since he would be out of action on the field for about six weeks, he was placed in the broadcast booth with Mel Allen and Jim Gibbons starting with the game against Green Bay in Kansas City, Missouri on September 14th. It was on to Norman, Oklahoma for a game with the Lions on September 20th and then a much-needed break. Justice once again headed back to North Carolina and was thus available to visit Orville Campbell in Chapel Hill for the UNC-Texas game on the 27th. Following the game, Justice was off to Chicago for a Monday night game with the Cards, followed by a road game in Milwaukee with the Packers.
Finally on October 12, 1952, almost seven weeks after his injury, Justice was ready to return to action, but it was slow going: 23 yards on six carries and a 33 yard kickoff return that day against the Chicago Cardinals is all he was able to do.
Following the game, in an interview with Greensboro Daily News reporter Irwin Smallwood, Justice said, “I can’t rotate my wrist yet. It’s hard to clutch passes on the run. It will be all right by next week, though. Maybe I can score and be a little help to the team by then.” By November 2nd when the Pittsburgh Steelers came to Washington, Justice was back to form and caught a 13-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Eddie LeBaron.
The Redskin games with the Cleveland Browns were always special and the game on November 30th was no exception. Hugh Morton joined 22,769 fans in old Griffith Stadium for this one. Morton was able to renew old friendships with Eddie LeBaron, Otto Graham, and of course Justice. His sideline picture of Justice and LeBaron has been widely published and is on the front cover of his 1988 book, Making a Difference in North Carolina.
With two games remaining in the ’52 season, the Redskins were in last place of the NFL’s American Conference; those two games, however, could play an important role in the Conference championship. A Redskins’ win on December 7th sent the New York Giants packing. Washington play-by-play announcer Mel Allen said Justice had his best game of the season against the Giants. And then it was down to one game: the Redskins vs. the Philadelphia Eagles on December 14th. With less than a minute remaining the score was tied at 21, Redskins with the ball at the Eagle 27-yard line. With the clock running, LeBaron pitched out to Justice around the right side. As I watched on TV, the play looked just like so many I had seen in Kenan. When Justice was finally on the ground, the ball was at the one-yard line. Now there was 18 seconds left in the ’52 season . . . 22,468 fans on their feet . . . and LeBaron took the ball into the line for the 27 to 21 win. The Eagles had been eliminated from playoff competition. For Justice it was a fitting ending to a season that had started with so much promise, but fate had stepped in along the way and prevented that predicted breakout season. Once again, the writers and broadcasters said maybe 1953 will be that magic season for Charlie Justice. They were right . . . ’53 was the one.
And as for that Carolina–Texas game, sixty years ago . . . even with Justice and Campbell cheering and Art Weiner on the sidelines with Coach Snavely . . . even with the Elizabeth City High marching band joining the Marching Tar Heels . . . and even with the UNC students waving Confederate flags . . . the Tar Heels lost to the Longhorns 28 to 7 before a near-capacity shirt-sleeved Kenan Stadium crowd.