Some day soon, when North Carolina takes the football field at Kenan Stadium, they ought to do so on Charlie "Choo Choo" Justice Field.
Carolina has a pretty solid football tradition, certainly better than many around the nation realize. And no era was better than when Justice was leading the Heels while running the old single wing from 1946-49.
Justice earned the nickname "Choo Choo" while in the Navy during World War II prior to his college career because it was said he ran like a choo choo train.
Renowned composer Benny Goodman recorded "All The Way Choo Choo" in 1949 as a tribute to Justice's brilliance. So great was Justice's legend that award-winning sports writer and author Frank Deford based the main character in his book, "Everybody's All-American," which later became a movie, about the UNC superstar.
During the Justice years, the Heels went to three major bowls, finishing in the top 10 three times and earning the No. 1 ranking for a week in 1948 – it was the only week UNC has ever sat at the top spot in football.
"Choo Choo's" 4,883 total yards were an NCAA record at the time, and stood as the UNC mark until quarterback Jason Stanicek eclipsed it in 1994.
Justice ran 526 times for 2,634 yards (5.0 average) and 28 touchdowns. He was 159-of-321 passing with 25 TDs and 2,249 yards. He also returned 31 kicks for 826 yards (26.6 ave.) and 68 punts for 966 yards (14.2 ave.). As a punter, he booted the ball 231 times for a 42.6 average.
He was the only Tar Heel to ever seriously come close to being awarded college football's (and maybe sports') most prestigious award – Kelvin Bryant was well on his way in 1981 prior to tearing his knee – but fell short. In 1948, he was second to SMU's Doak Walker for the Heisman Trophy, and in 1949, he finished just behind winner Leon Hart of Notre Dame.
Of his greatest performances, one was when he scored all three of UNC's touchdowns, including an 84-yard punt return for a score, in a 21-14 win over Georgia in 1948, the year he won national player of the year. The Heels were 4-0 against what was then a quality Duke program with Justice leading the way.
After an excellent prep career at Asheville's Lee Edwards High School, "Choo Choo" entered the Navy during World War II where he starred on "club" teams before selecting the Tar Heels after a heated recruiting battle. Many scouts said he could have gone straight from the Navy into the pros, as Philadelphia and Washington heavily courted him, but Justice wanted an education, and wanted to be a Tar Heel.
When people think of UNC football they should always be reminded of what Justice accomplished, and what he meant as one of the most beloved athletes in the state's history. And it's time Carolina honors this legend. The fans deserve it. The program deserves it. Football deserves it. And "Choo Choo" deserves it.
This week's question is simple, should UNC name it's football field after Justice? If so, why? If not, why? Please send all replies to email@example.com. I will post some of the top responses in next week's Musings.
Last week's question was what former UNC players in football and basketball mean the most to you? What single item would you treasure the most?
Ken James, class of ‘75
My favorite Carolina player is Phil Ford. So many great memories and big wins from the years he played, and he had a big hand in every one. I should say two hands, because the ball was in his hands most of the time!
Breaking the NC State streak in '75, the '75 ACC tournament win over State, those big wins over State and Maryland in '77, the fabulous run to the National Championship Game in '77, his absolute refusal to lose to Duke in his final home game, wow, no other player was involved in so many memorable games. And he stayed four years.
Probably the only guy we ever had who could have been a lottery pick who stayed four years. My only disappointment with Roy Williams coming to Carolina is his not giving Phil a spot on the bench. I think a Roy Williams/Phil Ford coaching combination might have been the best ever.
If I could own any item of Carolina memorabilia it would probably be the game ball from the '82 National Championship game. I've been watching Carolina BB for 35 years, and that was the highlight. Having waited so long, been so close so many times, and endured so much abuse from State fans after '74 made it so sweet. I think the only way it could have been topped would have been if the '77 team could have prevailed-and then Phil would have had the Championship he deserved so much.
Brad Gray, Richmond, Va.
Watching Jimmy Black play with Worthy, Perkins, Jordan, Doherty, et al, was my favorite memory. Jimmy probably could have been a team leader on other squads, but he put his own aspirations aside to feed the ball to three of the greatest college ball players to ever suit up. In today's age of ego, me-first behavior (I can't even begin with the criminal behavior), I think it's really important to go back and look at players like Jimmy Black who sacrificed personal glory to the benefit of the team.
Dean always found a player or two like that every year...
As far as memorabilia goes, my favorite item is rather obscure and probably attainable with the right connections from ESPN...
Not long before Jimmy Valvano was diagnosed with cancer, he was co-hosting basketball on ESPN. The host turned to him during a halftime show of a UNC game and asked, "Jimmy, how long do you think Dean Smith will go?" Jimmy replied, "Dean Smith will win 1000 games, a bunch more national championships, and they'll name the entire state after him!"
Never before had I seen a man exhibit humor, humility, respect, and frustration all in one quote. Absolutely brilliant.
Andrew Prevost, Montreal, Canada
Without a doubt, my favorite Carolina player ever is one of the ones you mentioned in your list - George Lynch.
I still remember his breakout game as a freshman - it was an ACC-Big East challenge matchup against Georgetown in early December 1989. This was when Georgetown had the twin towers, Mourning and Mutombo, and those two took control of the game early on and never let go. So Dean took most of the starters out and gave this little-known, unheralded, undersized freshman post from Virginia a chance to see what he could do against the most fearsome front line in the country.
Lynch, showing the aggressiveness and fearlessness that would be his trademark the rest of his career, took it right at his bigger, more experienced opponents, and I believe he ended up with a double-double in points and rebounds, or close to it. Carolina lost that game pretty badly, but a star was born that night, and I had a new favorite player - even though I only heard Woody's call of the game on radio (I didn't have cable TV) and had no idea what the freshman even looked like.
As you said in your column, the man did more with less than any other player I've ever seen. He was short (for his position), slow, and not a great leaper, but he made up with it with an incredible court sense, intelligence, and toughness - same things that have kept him in the NBA all these years despite him never being a star there.
Carolina never ran an offensive play for him, but at the end of the game you'd be shocked to see that he had somehow managed to score 14-18 points - just on pure hustle, stickbacks, getting downcourt on the fast break. Tenacious on defense, a warrior on the boards, did all the little, fundamental things players are taught to do - a great example for any kid who wanted to see how basketball is supposed to be played. And he was more than a leader by example - he had the leader's personality, he took charge of the team his senior year, was the absolute heart and soul of the 1993 national championship team, willing them to victory.
Everyone said Carolina would have to be the odds-on favorite to win again in 1994 - after all, they were only losing one of their top 8-9 players from the championship team, while adding the incomparable freshman trio of Stackhouse, Wallace, and McInnis. But I had a funny feeling that one player would be missed more than anyone could possibly imagine - and I think what happened in 1994 proved that right. George Lynch was more valuable to Carolina than his numbers ever showed - and his numbers were pretty good! - and will, for me, always be the quintessential Carolina player.
Senior writer Andrew Jones is in his seventh year with Inside Carolina. He also covers the ACC for the Wilmington Star-News/Morning Star and can be reached via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.