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’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).
- Note: both photographs in this post have been featured in previous articles here on A View to Hugh: the upper photograph in “A Tar Heel Tradition in Blue & White” and the latter in “Home for the Holidays . . . 1947.”
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.