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.

18 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.

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

  10. As a Tar Heel fan since I was six, the positive headlines in Sunday’s (11/16/14) papers proclaiming Carolina’s win over Pittsburgh on Saturday were welcomed, following many days of the not-so-positive headlines about the football program.
    UNC’s junior quarterback Marquise Williams rushed for three scores and threw for one, giving him 53 career touchdowns for which he is responsible. That ties him with UNC Legend Charlie Justice for the third most in school history.

    Justice never played against Pittsburgh while he was at Carolina, but Saturday, as I set in chilly Kenan Stadium, I remembered how he figured into two of the nine games played in the UNC – Pitt series.

    On September 9, 1982, when Carolina went into Pittsburgh for just the second meeting on the road with the Panthers, the game was featured on a Thursday night on CBS-TV. (32 years before CBS began its series of NFL Thursday Night games). The game saw #1 Pittsburgh beat #5 Carolina 7 to 6, but what I remember most about that night was a CBS feature presented at halftime. In one of the first in the series they called “In Their Own Words,” they featured Charlie Justice. I remember calling Charlie on the morning after at his Cherryville office. When his secretary answered the phone, she said, “You’ll have to hold, Charlie’s on the other line. He’s been taking calls all morning from his fans who saw the CBS broadcast last night.”
    Eight years earlier, on October 5, 1974, Carolina and Pittsburgh met for the first time on the gridiron. This time, Carolina won by a score of 45 to 29 in Kenan Stadium.
    Justice, in a 1995 interview with biographer Bob Terrell, remembered being there that day when Carolina trailed 21 to 20 late in the second quarter. As Carolina senior quarterback Chris Kupec threw for a critical first down, Charlie jumped to his feet. “My chest began to hurt like crazy and they rushed me to the hospital where I was diagnosed as having had a mild heart attack.” In a 1984 interview Charlie told me, “I couldn’t have had a heart attack in a better place…in the shadow of a world class hospital.” He of course was speaking of North Carolina Memorial Hospital…a facility he helped raise the money to complete in 1951 when he was working for the North Carolina Medical Foundation in Chapel Hill.
    Over the next 29 years, Justice would have another major heart complication in 1978 and a second heart attack in 1994. He would also have three open-heart surgeries during that time.
    A Twist of Fate
    On September 27, 1997, during the second quarter of the UNC vs. Virginia game, referee James Knight collapsed on the field…he had a massive heart attack and he too was rushed to North Carolina Memorial. And, like Justice, he also survived. Ironically, in the UNC – UVA game program on that September Saturday, Rick Brewer, UNC’s Assistant Athletic Director for Sports Information at the time, had written a feature article titled, “Great Kenan Games: Pitt, 1974.”

  11. I used to summer in Asheville as a boy. In 1949 and 1950, in the month of September before returning home to Florida, i attended Paxton (i can never remember if it was maybe Claxton?) Junior High School. This was said to be Choo Choo’s school prior to Lee Edwards high. He was bigger than life and always mentioned with Doak Walker of SMU.

  12. When Asheville’s Lee H. Edwards High defeated Tech High of Atlanta at Asheville’s historic McCormick Field on September 18, 1942 by a score of 34 to 0, the Lee Edwards Moroons were paced by Charlie Justice’s three touchdowns. According to the school newspaper, “Sky High” issue of October 2, 1942, Justice indicated that he did so well in the game because Sarah Alice Hunter (his future wife) was at the game cheering him on.
    Fast forward 46 years to November 13, 1988…Charlie and Sarah Justice were just 10 days away from celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary. They were at their home on West Ballard Street in Cherryville watching on NBC-TV the NFL game from Mile-High Stadium in Denver between the Denver Broncos and the Cleveland Browns. A player made a fantastic zigzagging run, when out of the blue, play-by-play announcer Dick Enberg said to the millions of viewers watching the game, “that play reminded me of Charlie Choo Choo Justice.”

    “I looked at Sarah, she looked at me,” Charlie recalled in a 1988 Greensboro “News & Record” interview. It had been 34 years since Charlie Justice played his final game with the Washington Redskins and 38 years since his final game as a UNC Tar Heel.

    So, on this day, November 23, 2015, I choose to believe Charlie and Sarah Justice are celebrating yet another special day together… their 72nd wedding anniversary.

  13. December 11, 1924, was a very special day in Buncombe County, North Carolina…Sarah Alice Hunter was born on that day. She grew up in Asheville and attend Lee H. Edwards High School where she met her future husband Charles Justice. The two were married on November 23, 1943.

    Although her husband became a world-class athlete and was lovingly called “Choo Choo” by his legions of fans, Sarah was never called “Mrs. Choo Choo.” Sarah Justice stayed out of the spotlight, but was always there when a worthy cause needed attention… offering her famous Justice name, her time, and her talent.

    Longtime Justice family friend Jane Browne said in an interview with Gerry Hostetler published in “The Charlotte Observer” issue of February 18, 2004:
    “She was the epitome of a lady, always a gleam in her eye, and she never raised her voice. She was an angel on this earth.”

    Sarah Alice (Hunter) Justice would have turned 91 on this day and I choose to believe that on this special day, Sarah and the love of her life are celebrating yet another day together in a very special place.

  14. Seventy years ago today, Carolina met Duke for the 33rd time. It was November 23, 1946 and the Tar Heels beat the Blue Devils that day in Kenan Memorial Stadium by a score of 22 to 7. Carolina was led by freshman Charlie Justice. In the student section was his wife, Sarah Alice, cheering him on. It was their third wedding anniversary.

    Over the next 56 seasons, the two teams would meet on November 23rd seven times with Carolina winning six of those meetings. The only loss came on November 23, 1985.

    Although the 1993 game (which Carolina also won) was played on November 26th, Charlie and Sarah celebrated their 50th anniversary with a special after-game-party at the Carolina Inn. As we have to come to expect, Hugh Morton was there that day to document the special anniversary just as he did on most of those other anniversary game days.

    So, on this day, November 23, 2016, I choose to believe Charlie and Sarah are celebrating yet another special anniversary together…their 73rd and I suspect Hugh is there camera in hand.

  15. -When UNC’s great All-America football star, Charlie Justice, signed his letter of intent to play for Carolina, on Valentine Day, 1946, his wife of almost three years, Sarah Alice, was at his side.

    -When “The State” magazine introduced Justice in its March 2, 1946 issue, Publisher Carl Goerch used a picture of Charlie and Sarah.

    -When the “Greensboro Daily News” featured a UNC/Duke game story on November 20, 1946, three days before the big Game, they used an Orville Campbell picture of Charlie and Sarah.

    -When “PIC” magazine did a cover-story-Justice-profile in the October, 1947 issue, they featured 6 Justice pictures to support the piece. Sarah is included in 3 of them.

    -When “Charlotte Observer” Sports Editor Wilton Garrison wrote a Justice feature for the October, 1947 issue of “Sport” magazine, he included a picture of Charlie and Sarah on the UNC campus.

    -When son Ronnie was born on August 23, 1948, the Justice family picture was included in newspapers across the state of North Carolina.

    -When “Varsity” magazine selected its “Greatest Sports Stars of the Year” in the December, 1948 issue, they included a picture of Charlie and Sarah.

    -When the UNC campus newspaper “The Daily Tar Heel” did a full-page-picture-feature of Charlie on January 7, 1950, they included an image of Charlie, Sarah, and son Ronnie.

    -When Justice was selected North Carolina Man of the Year in the January 28, 1950 issue of “The State” magazine, he was pictured on the front cover with his family…Sarah and Ronnie.

    -When Justice was profiled in the winter 1949-50 issue of “Sports Album” magazine, again, the Dell Publishing editors chose 6 pictures to support the article… and again. Sarah is in 3 of them.

    -When Justice left for his 3rd season with the Washington Redskins, in July of 1953, a special family picture of Charlie, Sarah, Ronnie, and Barbara was featured in “The Charlotte News.” Hugh Morton contemporary Jeep Hunter was the photographer on this one.

    -When the Justice Era players held their 10th anniversary reunion in the fall of 1956, Charlie and Sarah were pictured in the “Greensboro Daily News.”
    -When the late “Sports Illustrated” writer Ron Fimrite wrote a Justice feature for the October 15, 1973 issue of the magazine, in addition to Charlie and Sarah, he interviewed famed 1940s bandleader Kay Kyser who said, “When I think of him and Sarah, I think of two people who loved each other and kept their feet on the ground.”

    -When Winston-Salem film producer David Solomon did a Justice Biography video in the fall of 1984, he did three lengthy Justice interviews…Sarah was a part of two of them.

    -When “Carolina Blue” newspaper editor John Kilgo did a look-back piece on Charlie in the August 31, 1985 issue, a full-page color photograph of Charlie and Sarah was featured on the front cover.

    -When Charlie was inducted into the Robert F. Kennedy Stadium Hall of Stars in the fall of 1985, Sarah was at his side and the two were photographed. An image appeared in a Redskins’ 50th anniversary game program on December 28, 1986 for the Rams vs. Redskins wildcard game.

    -When the Charlotte Treatment Center named a building for Charlie in April of 1989, they named a wing of that facility for Sarah.

    -When Johnpaul Harris’ magnificent Justice Statue was dedicated on the UNC campus on November 5, 2004, master of ceremonies UNC Athletic Director Dick Baddour said: “I always thought of them as a team. I choose to believe that Sarah is standing up there with Charlie.”

    Over the years, Hugh Morton photographed Charlie and Sarah often at UNC games and at the Wilmington Azalea Festival as well as numerous events at Grandfather Mountain… Highland Games, Singing on the Mountain, plus many other special celebrations.

    Soon after Sarah died on February 9, 2004, Charlie and Sarah’s daughter, Barbara (Justice) Crews, said in a “Charlotte Observer” interview on February 18, 2004, “She kept my daddy’s feet on the ground. She managed to keep him humble, and that was a very big obligation. They were so connected: it’s quite a love story.”

    74-years-ago today, on November 23, 1943, Charlie and Sarah Justice were married at Trinity Episcopal Church in Asheville. So on this day, November 23, 2017, I choose to believe Charlie and Sarah are celebrating that 74th wedding anniversary in a very special place with special friends and teammates. And, as he was twenty-four years ago at their 50th, Photographer Hugh Morton is there, documenting the celebration just as he did in 1993 at the Carolina Inn.

  16. Charlie Justice’s University of Virginia connection continued on November 2, 2019 when he was honored on the UNC video board during the 3rd quarter of the UNC vs. UVA game. It was part of the Blue Cross, Blue Shield Captain’s Corner.

  17. Yesterday, November 23, 2019, marked the 76th wedding anniversary of Charles Justice and Sarah Alice Hunter. They were married on November 23, 1943. So, as I have said many, many times over the years, I choose to believe that they were celebrating their special day together, perhaps even watching the UNC Tar Heels’ game in rainy, cold Kenan Stadium…a game the Heels won over Mercer 56 to 7.

    Now for a sports statistic that didn’t appear on the 11 o’clock news last night nor was it on those 24/7 sports channels.

    Since November 23, 1943, Charlie and Sarah’s wedding day, the UNC football team has played a game on November 23rd a total of 9 times. During those games, Carolina has lost only once…a 2-point loss to Duke in 1985. They have beaten Duke 6 times…Old Dominion once and, as we said, Mercer yesterday.

    Yesterday was a special day…a very special anniversary was celebrated, and the 2019 Tar Heels moved one game closer to 2019 bowl eligibility.

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