Still Alone at the Top

This post comes from regular contributor Jack Hilliard, who takes another look at the man “Still Alone at the Top” because today, May 18th, marks a special day for long time Tar Heels like Jack.
On this day, in 1924, a boy was born in the Emma community of Asheville. He would grow up to be the greatest athlete to ever play sports at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

UNC tailback Charlie Justice (#22 with ball) and UNC blocking back Danny Logue (#66) during the 1949 Blue-White intrasquad game played at Kenan Stadium. Until researching this blog post, the online Morton collection of Morton images had this image incorrectly dated as 1946—Justice's freshman year when he played on the White team.
UNC tailback Charlie Justice (#22 with ball) and UNC blocking back Danny Logue (#66) during the 1949 Blue-White intrasquad game played at Kenan Stadium. Until researching this blog post, the online Morton collection of Morton images had this image incorrectly dated as 1946—Justice’s freshman year when he played on the White team. [Click on the photograph to see the full negative without cropping.]
UNC’s Michael Jordan was one of the most effectively marketed athletes of all time, and thanks to the emergence of the 24/7 cable sports channels, and in the latter part of his playing career the internet, Jordan’s heroics became all access, all the time. His image has been on the cover of Sports Illustrated more than sixty times . . . so far. And it’s no surprise that he also has seventy-eight mentions on the TV quiz show Jeopardy.
In the fall of 1999 when UNC’s campus newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel selected a panel of Tar Heel sports experts to determine the ten greatest UNC athletes of all time, many long-time Tar Heels, like me, thought Michael would be the top vote getter. Each week the paper listed one of the top ten athletes, and as expected, Jordan beat out Phil Ford, Mia Hamm, Lawrence Taylor, Lennie Rosenbluth, B. J. Surhoff, and Sue Walsh. In fact, Jordan beat out every other Tar Heel athlete, except one. He finished second to Charlie Justice.
Justice never had his picture on a Sports Illustrated cover and was never mentioned on Jeopardy.  When Justice played for Carolina during the seasons between 1946 and 1949, there were no 24/7 cable sports channels. In fact there was no TV in North Carolina at that time and the Internet was decades away.
I once asked Justice, “How did you become so famous without TV or the Internet.” Said Justice, “I didn’t need ‘em, I had Jake Wade writing stories and Hugh Morton taking pictures.” (Jake Wade was the award-winning Sports Information Director for UNC from 1945 until 1962).
I remember getting up early on the morning of Monday, November 29, 1999 and driving from Greensboro to Chapel Hill. I wanted to make sure that I got a copy of The Daily Tar Heel. It didn’t take me long to find that collector edition of the paper with the Section B headline that said “The Making of a Legend,” with Charlie’s life story filling the page. To support the DTH story, there were three Justice pictures, two of which were taken by Hugh Morton: the photograph above that opens this post, and the one that follows (but cropped to include only Justice).
UNC fullback Walt Pupa (L) and UNC Tailback Charlie Justice in the locker room at Griffith Stadium, Washington DC.
UNC fullback Walt Pupa (L) and UNC Tailback Charlie Justice in the locker room at Griffith Stadium, Washington DC prior to the 1947 game versus the University of Maryland.

In an interview on October 18, 2003, Hugh Morton had this to say about his dear friend: “Clearly the most exciting football player I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen a lot of them.” And as for Justice’s life after football, Morton added this: “There was not a worthy cause in this state he didn’t support. He used his fame to do good things. He wasn’t charging for it, he just wanted to do it.”
So, on this day, May 18, 2019, a tip-of-the-hat to Tar Heel Legend Charlie “Choo Choo Justice” who would have turned 95.  If a survey were taken on the UNC-CH campus all these years later, I don’t believe there would be many, if any, students who knew him or ever saw him play. That is their loss, because it’s doubtful we’ll ever see the likes of Charlie Justice again.

8 thoughts on “Still Alone at the Top”

  1. A friend of Charley’s had played ball in High School and gone to college with Charley. Unfortunately he had been struck with Polio and was confined to a wheelchair.
    Afterl a Social event Charley came over to his friend, gave him a big hug and whispered in his ear, “if it hadn’t been for that darn Polio you would have been a better player tha me!” Made the guy feel so good for someone as great as “choo-choo” to recognize home in such a nice way. Great man!

    1. Mr. Ware: I am sorry I overlooked approving your comment when you posted it. I was away on vacation and kept tabs on the site via my cell phone, which is a bit trickier than a desktop or laptop computer.

  2. I was a student at UNC 1948-52…saw him play many times. He was triple threat,could run, pass and punt. Was runner-up for Heisman twice (Doak Walker and Leon Hart)…was on the edge of my seat whenever he touched the ball. Made a fool of myself gawking at him on campus. If he had great open field speed he would have been the best.

  3. In 1949, I got down on my knees every night and asked God for me to be 5’11, weigh 165 lbs., wear jersey nbr. 22 and play tailback for Carolina. I absolutely loved the guy.

  4. In 1949 my brother and I wrote Charlie Justice saying all we want for Christmas is your autograph. The only address we had was Chapel Hill, N, C. Two weeks went by and a letter and picture arrived. The glossy picture and autograph saying “To my pals Charlie and Clayton from Charlie Choo Choo Justice. We were in the fourth grade and must have showed this to every person in Wadesboro, N. C. I think to this day it was the greatest gift we ever received. Also went to the Notre Dame game that year and can still hear the crowd yelling in unison,”All the way Choo Choo–All the Way.

  5. Thank you very much Wally, Charlie, and Clayton, for sharing your Charlie Justice stories with us. I can certainly identify with your being Charlie Justice fans. I grew up in Asheboro in the late 1940s and early 1950s and like you, Charlie was my hero. When he moved to Greensboro in 1966, we became friends and remained so for the next 37 years. He is still my hero.
    Clayton, your autograph story is typical. I remember Charlie telling me, “I have no problem when kids ask for an autograph. The problem,” said Justice, “will come when they stop asking.”
    Many of today’s all-star, high-dollar athletes sign on with agents and when they get booked for card shows and the like, an autograph comes with a fee. Charlie Justice would have no part of anything like that.
    I recall during his final visit to Kenan Stadium in late November, 2001, he was seated along with his family high up in the Kenan Football Center. When the game ended, my wife Marla and I hurried down to the Football Center lobby to get a word with Charlie and his wife Sarah. When we arrived, the lobby was filled with well-wishers and Charlie was in the middle of it all greeting and signing autographs. For the next hour he spoke and shook hands with everyone in the room, and signed an autograph for all who asked. Fifty-two football seasons had come and gone since Justice played his final varsity game with Carolina, but those in the crowd that day remembered.
    After Charlie and family left, I asked one of the young women who had gotten an autograph if I could see what Charlie had written. It simply said, “Thanks for asking…you made an old man’s day, Charlie Choo Choo Justice.”
    So, Charlie never had that autograph problem…they never stopped asking.

  6. 17 years ago on this day, the state of North Carolina lost a treasure, and UNC lost a legend and hero. In the early morning hours of October 17, 2003, Charlie Justice lost his 6-year-battle with Alzheimer’s.

    At 7:30 this evening, Coach Mack Brown will lead his Tar Heels into a game at Florida State. It is just the third time Carolina has played a Saturday game on October 17th since Justice passed away. The other two games were October 17, 2013…a home loss to Miami, 23 to 27…and a 50 to 14 home win against Wake Forest on October 17, 2015.

    I choose to believe that Charlie and Sarah will be watching tonight.

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