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USC Heisman Trophy Winner Charles White Dies at 64

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Charles White, the 1979 Heisman Trophy winner and one of a string of running backs who led to the University of Southern California’s great reputation as “Tailback U,” died Wednesday at age 64, the school announced.

White, who remains the Trojans’ career leader with 6,245 yards, died of cancer in Newport Beach, Calif., the school said.

“He was the toughest player I ever coached,” said John Robinson, who was the head coach when White played for USC and the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, in the USC statement announcing White’s death. “He was really unusual in that regard. He was a great player and loved to play. Those are the things I remember most. He was a very tough guy and an extremely talented athlete. But the hardness… wow!”

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White was twice named an All-American and played for USC’s national championship team as a junior in 1978 before his winning senior Heisman season in which he led the nation with 2,050 rushing yards. He led USC in rushing in each of its last three seasons and was named Rose Bowl Most Valuable Player after games in the 1978 and 1979 seasons. He was third of USC’s record eight Heisman winners and is among a list of great USC backs that includes Marcus Allen, OJ Simpson, Mike Garrett and Reggie Bush.

“Charles White was one of the greatest Trojans of all time,” USC athletic director Mike Bohn said in the school’s statement. “A Rose Bowl legend, two-time unanimous All-American, and an NCAA record holder, he did USC proud by wearing both Cardinal and Gold.”

The same success eluded White during a nine-year NFL career that began when he was the 27th pick in the 1980 draft by the Cleveland Browns. He spent five seasons with Cleveland, battling addiction and missing the 1983 season with an ankle injury. He joined Robinson with the Rams in 1985 and played four more seasons. He was a first-team pro in 1987, when he led the NFL with 1,374 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, but never had more than 342 rushing yards in any other season.

After his playing career ended after the 1988 season, White coached USC’s running backs from 1993 to 1997 for Robinson and held administrative positions in the school’s athletic department. In 2012, a disoriented White was found outside his building and shortly after was diagnosed with dementia.

“Everyone thought their problems were strictly drug-related. Now we find out that it could be directly related to the traumatic brain injury,” Judi White-Basch, White’s ex-wife, told the Los Angeles Times last summer. “For so many years it made no sense; now it makes sense.”

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White was known for his toughness and took a beating during his career.

“Pound for pound, he was one of the toughest guys to ever play on the program,” Paul McDonald, one of White’s quarterbacks during his four years at USC, told the Times. “He wasn’t super fast, but he got stronger as the game went on. He would make things happen. Tough as nails, not soft as silk, but just as hard to take down.

While Simpson and Allen had a fast-running style, “Charles wasn’t afraid to just run over someone,” McDonald said. “He was shot in the head several times, but he just went and went and went.”

White spent his final years in a nursing home, according to the Times. In his room at the facility, a list of his accomplishments and photos surrounded him, and he expressed awareness of his accomplishments. “I know I once did something good, something great, something fantastic for USC,” White said last year.

He is survived by White-Basch, five children and one granddaughter.