Column: ‘He was a Trojan until his dying breath.’ How Charles White reconnected with USC
Bill Plaschke (LA Times) — Nurses removed his USC jersey, unclasped his USC watch, slipped off his USC shoes.
Charles White was seemingly ending his tumultuous 64-year journey through life with no visible connection to the school that was his soul.
But as the Trojans’ Heisman Trophy winner was taking his last breaths in a Newport Beach hospital, his ex-wife and his daughter pulled out a phone.
One of the last senses to leave the body at the end of life is hearing, and they wanted him to hear how much he had accomplished, how much he had impacted, how much he was loved.
They carefully nestled the phone on the pillow next to his ear and played, “Conquest!”
When Charles White expired on Jan. 11 at 3:21 p.m., he did so while accompanied by the USC marching band, its familiar strains sending him off to fight on through eternity.
“Go now,” his ex-wife, Judi White-Basch, whispered through the music. “Run free.”
He broke tackles until the end. He was forever a Trojan. He was forever Charles White.
The final weeks in the life of USC’s most prolific running back were a compelling testament to a man who turned a troubled life into triumph.
The college football star who flattened defenders while rushing for the most yards in USC history battled the horrors of esophageal cancer without a word of complaint.
“He had to be in agony, but he never showed it, never talked about it, never even grimaced,” White-Basch said. “Until his last breath, he was a true Trojan.”
The human steamroller who spent his last few years suffering from dementia likely caused by a traumatic brain injury summoned his faculties to honor one of his successors.
“We were watching the Heisman Trophy ceremony and he pointed to the TV and said one word,” recalled White-Basch. “He said, ‘Caleb.’”
A key member on the 1978 USC national championship team who had been estranged from the school for several years because of a drug addiction was reunited with the Trojans when the school arranged for him to be treated by the physicians from Keck Medicine of USC.
“Our doctors understand the power of the Trojan family,” athletic director Mike Bohn said.
It is a power that not only coursed through Charles White in life, but carried him home in death.
This wasn’t the ending anyone expected.
Last summer this column featured the tale of White’s decline into dementia and his solitary existence in a Laguna Beach assisted living facility. He had seemingly been forgotten by all but his closest family members. USC had not spoken to him in years. He wandered the halls wearing Trojans gear and loving a school that seemingly no longer loved him back.
But then in October he fell ill, and USC showed up, and his devotion to the Trojans grew even stronger, and in the end, White was back in the cardinal-and-gold huddle, filled with forgiveness, resting in peace.
“Forget about his legend on the field, how he handled himself in his last days was something I didn’t think was humanly possible,” White-Basch said. “No pain, no fear, no boundaries, pure love.”
The day before his death, he was wearing a USC jersey and USC sweatpants tucked under a USC blanket.
Hours before his death, Keck doctors were at his side and Bohn was texting his family.
“He had to be in agony, but he never showed it, never talked about it, never even grimaced. Until his last breath, he was a true Trojan.”
— Judi White-Basch, ex-wife of Charles White
Minutes before his death, White-Basch and daughter Tara stood in front of his bed, flashing the Trojans trademark two fingers, rocking back and forth in tears.
“He was a Trojan until his dying breath,” White-Basch said. “And that was the literal truth.”
A public memorial service will be held Feb. 11 at 11 a.m. at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest. His remains are being cremated with the ashes to be kept in a USC-adorned urn.
Bohn said the school plans to honor White during a game next season. He is the first of their record eight Heisman Trophy winners to die. A CW jersey patch might be nice.
“We’re going to honor him in the fall when fans can join the salute,” Bohn said. “Charles was a great Trojan who left us too soon, and we’ll make sure his legacy and contributions on and off the field will be remembered forever.”
The greatest contribution from White actually might occur after his death. The White family has arranged for his brain to be donated to Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center for study. CTE is a degenerative, progressive brain disease that has been diagnosed in former football players who were subject to repeated hits to the head.
The family believes CTE could have led to White’s drug addiction and ensuing dementia. They cringe at the idea that the very thing that so endeared White to Trojans fans — his willingness to run over people — could have been the thing that eventually caused the school to divorce him.
“It all makes sense that the brain injury led to everything else,” White-Basch said. “We just want everyone to know the truth.”
After a historic four-year career at USC, White spent nine years absorbing hits in the NFL for the Cleveland Browns and the Rams. Since his death, his family has watched his highlight videos with a tinge of sadness.
“Instead of seeing every big hit and going, ‘Yeah, that’s great!,’ you’re like, ‘Oh no!,’” his daughter Tara said. “You realize, with every big hit, he’s suffering. These older guys put their life on the line with no protection. They didn’t know, we didn’t know, and now everybody trying to sweep them under the rug and hope it goes away.”
USC had seemingly swept away White, but after they learned of his dementia last summer, officials reached out and there was an attempt to bring White back to campus. But then he was stricken with massive dental problems, and by the time his mouth was fixed, he had stopped eating. Esophageal cancer was diagnosed, and it was the beginning of the end.
“He went downhill so quick,” Tara said. “But every time doctors asked how he was feeling, he would just say, ‘Fine, thank you very much.’”
His family said he never grimaced, never even flinched, the same thing his teammates always said about him after 10-yard plows up the middle.
“He was so strong for all of us,” Tara said. “It was so scary, yet he never showed any signs of fear.”
There was chemotherapy, radiation, a loss of 20 pounds, a feeding tube, pneumonia, a transfer from his assisted living home to a skilled-nursing center to the hospital and back to the skilled nursing center, a dizzying fall into desperate morass.
From late October until his death, nearly every day brought a new trauma. Before Bohn arranged for Keck doctors to become involved, the family mourned the unfairness of his previous two years of virtual isolation from USC friends and fans. Once they finally knew his story, he was too sick to receive visitors.
“We know he belongs to the world, but the world had nothing to do with him, the world cast him aside,” White-Basch said. “But he never lost his spirit.”
When his ex-wife and daughter asked White how he was doing, he would snap his fingers, shake his body up and down as if eluding a tackle, move his arms as if he was sprinting to glory.
Yet the dementia compounded his medical issues, and he was soon on an inexorable downhill slide. His other children Nicole, Julian, Ashton and Sophia, with granddaughter Giovanna Hemmen, had spent time with him throughout his illness and had said their goodbyes. The end was approaching fast.
“Charles was a great Trojan who left us too soon, and we’ll make sure his legacy and contributions on and off the field will be remembered forever.”
— USC athletic director Mike Bohn
“He was so weak, he didn’t have a fighting chance,” White-Basch said. “He was only alive because he was Charles White.”
But goodness, he never stopped being Charles White. He wore USC gear every day until it was pulled off his back. And then, he insisted that his USC sneakers and cap and watch be placed by the bed so he could see them.
That’s how he died, with Tara lying next to him and Judi holding his hand and “Conquest!” filling the heart of this fallen, risen and greatest of Trojans.
“He lived that song,” Judi said. “And now he’ll hear it forever.”
Lincoln Riley’s assessment of incoming playmaker/OLB Jamil Muhammad LR — “Jamil (6-2, 245) kind of jumped off the tape for us. Just a really explosive player defensively. One that we thought brought some versatility, the ability to win in pass rush really showed up right off the top. Just an explosive athlete. The playmaking skills really shot off the tape. When we met him and got to get around him, there was no question he was the right fit. So, I think his ability to make plays and not just win when he’s free or a stunt hits perfect, or,… Read more »
USC Mailbag: Best Player Not Named Caleb
Antonio Morales (The Athletic) — “This took me longer to think about than I expected. Calen Bullock is the only returner outside of Williams who was first- or second-team All-Pac-12, but the final couple of games showed where he’s still limited.
“I think it’s Jonah Monheim (79; 6-5, 295; Moorpark, CA) right now though. He took a real step forward this past season, and I expect him to take another leap in 2023 when he has a full spring and training camp at guard under his belt.”
Hard to Believe
The Jets are hiring just-fired Broncos HC Nathaniel Hackett as their new OC.
Who’s joining USC from the Portal (1 RB, 1 WR, 3 OL, 3 DL, 2 LB, 1 CB, 1 P)? 1 DL Kyon Barrs (6-3, 270, GT, one year) — The Murrieta native returns to Southern California after a four-year career at ARIZ. He started 12 games with a career-high 39 tackles last year and earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2021. After entering the transfer portal, Barrs received interest from LSU, TENN, MIA and AUB, among others. 2 LB Mason Cobb (6-1, 220, SR, two years) — Cobb broke out during his JR year at OKS with 96 tackles and 13 TFL, both… Read more »
I compared TD to Charles during their years of playing. Charles would bash into defenders if he had to but TD liked to skirt around them more. TD got robbed by East Coast bias winning the Heisman Trophy giving Archie Griffin a 2nd trophy. TD had a better year and a superior game to Griffin in the 1973 Rose Bowl. That was a crime! Both Davis & White were great runners and were just as strong running in the 4th quarter as in the 1st.
USC’s Vince Iwuchukwu continues to make strides in his comeback from cardiac arrest
“Iwuchukwu is playing six months after suffering cardiac arrest. ‘They are a different team now with Vince,’ UCLA coach Mick Cronin said.
“The Trojans will have the chance to prove as much Thursday, when they welcome No. 8 UCLA to Galen Center, three weeks after their last meeting at Pauley Pavilion went down to the wire…”
Ryan Kartje (LA Times)
From what I have been reading, Lane really wants to be a Trojan, but there is a glitch. Probably academics. ASU seems like a likely landing spot. Haven’t heard of off field issues, but if he is knucklehead, SC should pass. There are plenty of high quality skilled receivers we can get. Just my two cents.
247 crystal ball says Oregon even with a hard commit to USC. Agree PN4SC, if he has issues off the field, take a pass, SC has the best WR room in the country. Save his spot for the defense.
Four-star WR Ja’Kobi Lane (6-5, 180; Mesa Red Mountain, AZ) easily palms his helmet with those huge hands. 56 catches/748 yds and nine TDs in 2022. Lane apparently remains committed to USC (since Aug) but not much else leads me to believe this uniquely tall red zone killer will sign with the Trojans who are already loaded with receivers and sitting with too many on scholarship as it is. Anyone else hear whether he is USC-bound or not? Or is ORE or ASU now his most likely choice? Rumors persist USC may not be happy with Lane’s off-the-field approach, but… Read more »
The next USC QB to win the Heisman? He will have a lot of games in the upper midwest when he is a starter. Tough venues but plenty of media coverage if he does well.
This kid is going to be great. What excites me about going into the B1G is that they don’t get the kind of offense USC brings. B1G is used to grinding it out. Now here comes USC with a group of receivers they cannot keep up with and a Qb able to get the ball to them. What gives me such confidence is the growth in the USC offensive line.
Now that Nick Saban has lost Bill O’Brien to his good friend Bill Belichick, I wonder if Garrett Riley wishes he had waited and not taken the CLEM OC job? Doubt it. Working for Saban must be a killer.
Remarkable how great Saban is. He has lost so many coordinators, almost yearly, and still remains at or near the top. That’s a killer for most coaches but not Saban.
I agree Chris. PC’s program started to show signs of drop off as his original assistants started leaving. Saban showed he could reload on coaches longer without any noticeable drop off.
I Had No Idea
Last May, Fox signed Tom Brady to a 10-year, $375 mil contract to serve as the network’s lead game analyst “immediately following his playing career.”
Dane Brugler’s 2023 NFL Draft rankings: Top 15 players at each position
1. Jordan Addison
14. Tuli Tuipultou
The final All-American Game for 2023, the Polynesian Bowl, took place over the weekend Greg Biggins (247Sports.com) — “We liked USC signee Micah Banuelos (Burien, WA) quite a bit and especially in the game. He had the unenviable task of going up against A&M signee David Hicks, who might be the nation’s best interior lineman and more than held his own. “Banuelos is another player we saw at the UA Game and he has shined in every setting we’ve seen him in. No one plays angrier or with more of an edge than Banuelos but he plays with controlled aggression and his game reminds… Read more »
USC football lands commitment from UF IOL Ethan White (6-4, 331; 2022 AP second-team All-SEC; one year eligbility)
White, a running game road grader, is USC’s third high-profile OL pickup out of the portal and the second former Gator, reuniting with his former UF teammate Michael Tarquin.
That is now 90 scholarships. Let’s see who we sign in two weeks in the 2nd round of high school signings. We are going to lost between 5 and 10 kids off the present roster. Transfers have completely changed the recruiting world. SC will now have a solid OL for Caleb. It is probably one of the deepest positions on the team. The 2023 O looks to be one of the best in SC history, only the Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush teams compare. The D has upgrading still needed. Really could use another ILB, another OLB and 2 DL.
USC OL Jason Rodriguez (6-5, 310; Hesperia Oak Hills; four-stars) announced Monday that he is ending his football career. He was the nation’s No. 301 overall prospect in the class of 2019, but played in only six games at USC, even though Rodriguez received offers as a prep from UF, ND, ORE, UCLA, UTAH, and UW, among others.
You would think we will lose a few in the OLine room. Guys like Cortland Ford, Rodriguez, Dewerk, Milek and maybe a few others will transfer out to get playing opportunities. It’s great to be deep but I don’t think we are going to consistently play any more than 7-8 guys.
I think if USC does not pick up another D lineman they may ask someone to move over from the O line. They have tremendous depth now at O line.
The Dallas Cowboys lost again in the playoffs. I thought Dallas clearly had the better team, except for the QB. The Dallas QB Dak Prescott missed open receivers all day and threw two picks. The reason I raise this is Caleb. Joe Burrow and Patrick Mahomes clearly are “winners”. They “show up” in big games and are constant in the others. Caleb is the closest in college to these two QBs. Burrow, in particular, took an also ran Cincinnati Bengals team and may well put them in back-to-back Super Bowls. It will be really interesting to see what Caleb does.… Read more »
Poor Dallas. The world’s most famous team can’t win a playoff game that matters for the life of Jerry Jones. Just three PO wins in the last 25 years, Jones pays all that money ($40 mil per year) to pick machine Dak Prescott, and he’s not even as good as Mr. Irrelevant. There’s an awful lot of Cowboys fans who must feel like they are truly jinxed. What a waste of DC Dan Quinn’s expertise. And to those of us who enjoy seeing the Cowboys lose, the Niners whooped on Dallas like we all expected, except clueless Skip Bayless. Sorry… Read more »
Jones has put together a team that should be in the Super Bowl, except for one position. Put Joe Burrow at QB on this Dallas team and it would be in the Super Bowl. Same with Patrick Mahomes at QB. Same with Jalen Hurts at QB. I think even Brock Purdy, if he reversed teams, would have won that game. I am not certain Purdy will beat Hurts, but it does make for a heck of a game. I will go a step further – I think Aaron Rodgers would have won that game. The Cowboys have a sensational D… Read more »
Jerry Jones loves to vastly overpay for what he loves, and he falls in love with players, like they are part of his “family”. It’s his schtick, even though it doesn’t work. Famous Jones Quote — “The truth is, most anything that I have been involved in that ended up being special, I overpaid for. Every time, to the end. Anytime I’ve tried to get a bargain, I got just that. It was a bargain, in a lot of ways, and not up to standard.” Who cares if your QB is “better than most”? That doesn’t cut it at the… Read more »
You nailed it. He kept Jason Garrett as the HC for pete’s sake. Garrett lasted a year at the NY Giants as the OC and failed miserably at that. Look at the Giants post Garrett! What I find fascinating is that this team is really solid at every position but the QB. There it is “better than most.” And, as you note, that gets you into the playoffs and maybe one playoff win now and again, but never two in a row. But, remember, LR has shown himself to have that same type of blind spot when it comes to… Read more »
Lincoln Riley is only 39 years old, and he’s already taken USC to 11 wins and a Cotton Bowl in year 1 after quite successfully trying to fix the disastrous Helton demoralization.
I’m sorry but I’m not about to compare the fabulous LR with Jerry Jones, whose loser Cowboys have won a measly three PO games in 25 years. LR’s only been a HC for six years. He’s just getting started. Same type of blind spot? Not buying it. ✌
To everyone: Regarding the question of QB’s who are “winners,” what do you think of Stetson Bennett? My associate (a UGA alum) thinks he hung the moon because he QB’ed two National Champs in a row (arguably two teams of All-Stars, based on Draft results). I have told him that Bennett is a future real estate lawyer (using hi UGA fame to get involved in good deals) and has no future as a pro in the NFL.
Do you think I am too hard on the Stetson?
Tough question ATL D.D.S. Based upon Bennett’s size, I’d say he compares to a Pat Haden or Drew Brees. Whether that translates to today’s game is anyone’s guess. Both Pat and Drew were successful in the NFL with Drew being more so. I think Pat Haden held the record for consecutive completions at something like 19 before Tom Brady broke the record. Stetson seems to be a great young man with a good head on his shoulders. I’m sure he would be successful in any endeavor he undertakes such as a real estate lawyer in GA.
I say Stetson is eventually headed to the AD job in Athens, after an unremarkable and short NFL career! 😂
He beat out JT, who I hope finally puts it together at RICE. 🤔
I agree Allen. Not too many guys go to the CFL these days like Doug Flutie and Warren Moon back in the day. I’m rooting for JT at Rice. He got a raw deal at USC with Gomer and T. GA and WV didn’t pan out for him so I hope he does put it together with the Owls.
USC Women’s Basketball, Off To Its Best Start In 29 Years, Completes Washington Road Sweep With 63-54 OT Win Over The Huskies.
Destiny Littleton tallied 20 for the Trojans, now 15-4, in the comeback victory in Seattle.
Good to see women’s BBall on the rise and the #1 recruit is coming next year.
Ethan White looks like he is close to committing. Possibly today. Great OL depth now.
USC football offers 2026 Mater Dei CB Cory Lavender (5-10, 165) after unofficial visit Chris Trevino (247Sports.com) — The Trojans issued their first offer from the JR Day events of January to 2026 Mater Dei (Calif.) CB Cory Lavender on Saturday. USC CBs coach Donte Williams took Lavender into his office to give the news. “When we sat down, he let me know I had an official offer from USC,” Lavender told USCFootball.com. “Afterwards he gave us a life talk for about 30 minutes. Coach Donte had great hospitality and kept it 100 percent real and honest with us. We went on to have… Read more »
49er S Talanoa Hufanga looking good against Dallas. Ooops. He just missed a tackle.
I just read the article. Without meaning any disrespect for anyone else’s view of it, it caused me to reflect. When I read it, I put myself at my death bed. What would I music would I want to be played to me? Certainly NOT “Conquest”. I think it would be “Be Thou My Vision” or “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”. As I am retired now, where is my heart? I never won a Heisman and never had the fame White had, but I did have quite a law career. Do I want to live in my legal accomplishments… Read more »
This isn’t me, understand, but my secular parents place USC as their “church.” I don’t agree with that perspective. I would think you would find this misplaced reverence towards “alma mater” from certain alumni of any other university in the US.
I am willing to cut Charles White some slack due to his reported cognitive decline.🤔
ALT, Thanks for the post. I think everything has its place. I certainly enjoy SC Football and the music surrounding it. One can make two mistakes on this point: one is to got completely overboard and demand all music be religious (which I think is error) or one can go completely the other way and say (in part, perhaps, due to the first error) that music about the LORD should be ignored or (in some extreme cases) banned. I would expect that religious music in San Francisco, for example, would hardly be well received. So, to treat all secular music… Read more »
Very thoughtful, RJJ! And thought provoking. I am not retired yet, but if I live to get there, one exercise I would like to do is to spend the week after retirement writing a mock news story on the assumption that I died instead of retired. Using my most realistic imagination and inner honesty, summarize in that news story my life and accomplishments, and my story in a fair but critical light. Then, I want to look at that story and see what’s missing, see how I wish it could have been written differently, and figure out what I need… Read more »
Rock, Thanks for the post. Why wait? Why not write your news article now. Jordan Peterson has done a lot of research on this exercise – it shows that once you evaluate your life, set realistic goals, and then review them, then one has a much fuller life. For me, after going on a Men’s Retreat with my church where Jeff Siemon was the speaker. Siemon was an All American LB at Stanford and an All Pro Linebacker with Minnesota. His talk was on how to improve the fullness of your Christian walk. His recommendation was simple – get an… Read more »
Very insightful TrojanRJJ. I’ve come close to death twice as I nearly bled out from jaw surgery in 2015 and had open-heart surgery in 2017 to remove my pericardium. I would try to sing “Amazing Grace” or listen to a rendition of it. I don’t consider myself to be a “wretch” but I’m a sinner in God’s eyes like everyone else. Plaschke’s article made me tear up as I was a second year grad student in the USC School of Business when Charles White and the 1978 team won the National Championship according to the Coaches Poll. As for the… Read more »
rlee, Thanks for the post. Quite a story. My intent was not to degrade our love for SC Football and the experiences that if provided (and still provides). My life of much fuller (and continues to be) because of those experiences. It was simply to point out that they are not a replacement for a relationship with God and that that relationship (for me, not intending to disrespect those who do not share my faith) should be primary. I mused that I hoped that my deathbed music would express that relationship. Nothing more.
Got it. I’m a fellow believer and appreciate your response.
I have to disagree a bit, with all due respect. If White had not made a public declaration of his faith, no song would have ushered him into the kingdom of heaven. As a music teacher I was frequently confronted with the ignorance of music. Students telling me they couldn’t play music from the Harry Potter franchise because the stories were about witchcraft. Whether you like the movies (which are not really about witchcraft, but that’s my English credential speaking) or not, there is no magic associated with playing the music. John Williams writes complex melodies, which challenge the student’s… Read more »
Rialto, Thank you for the post. I totally agree with errors are made by fundamentalists on both sides, by Christian and by atheists (or anti-Christians such as those following the LGBTQ or “woke” feminists). Please note, I am referring only to extremists and pointing out that there are extremists in “both camps.” I enjoy secular music (particularly enjoy John Williams music) and think we need to figure out how to address the fundamentalists on both sides. I had thought that freedom of speech and religion would prevail, but it appears not. My favorites are Beethoven and Mozart. Candidly, I do… Read more »
Interesting discussion above from the thoughtful TDB posters. Business as usual. God Bless y’all and Fight on!
USC freshmen continue recruiting efforts for fellow five-star Duce Robinson
Unsigned five-star TE Duce Robinson, left, talks with USC five-star freshmen WR Zachariah Branch and QB Malachi Nelson on Thursday during Polynesian Bowl practice. (Ryan Young/TrojanSports.com)
From what I have read these guys are really working to get Duce, and making great friendships along the way.
Great story about Charles White. I have been critical of Plashke in the past, but when he does human interest stories, he usually shines.
Charles White was the epitome of a ” bruin for 4 years, and a Trojan for life”. Too bad Kyle Ford didn’t get that.
Fight on and Godspeed Charles.
In defense of Kyle, poor guy, he knows (correctly I believe) that his ability to get on the field at USC just isn’t nearly as good as it will be at UCLA. Charles White never had that problem as a Trojan. Also, CFB is so much different now than in CW’s day (’76-79). Good players, both undergrads and grads, are leaving schools every hour for better NIL deals, more play time, and god knows what other reasons. It’s officially the Era of the Portal, and I find it hard to blame kids caught up in this fantastic new experiment that… Read more »
Allen, what do you think you are doing? There is no room for reason and empathy on this blog. If you can’t say something hurtful please keep your thoughts to your self.
😉 Civilized conversation on an internet sports blog? No Way!
This is probably the most civilized blog I know of. Well maintained.
The first time I had purchased my own season tickets was the first time I saw Charles White carry the ball. My parents took me to games prior to that and I had little opera glasses to view the game and we had sidelines seats. My tickets were end zone (Tunnel 15) Anyway I had never seen a game from that angle and here was this running back slicing through the holes. That’s the Charles White I will remember.
Wow, Bill Plaschke gets it. Mike Bohn gets it. What a wonderful tribute to a true Trojan who will fight on forever.
Report: Four-star Calif QB Jaden Rashada Released from Florida LOI After $13M NIL Deal Falls Through
B/R — “Pete Nakos of On3 Sports noted it “is not easy to predict” at this point even though ASU, CU, CAL and UW are all potential candidates, especially if he chooses to stay closer to home after the failed UF situation.
“There may not be a $13 million deal waiting for him whenever he makes his next decision, though, as he has an NIL valuation of $450,000 at On3 Sports…”
Coach Robinson often said Charles White was the toughest running back, pound for pound, that he ever coached. I’ll never forget the last, winning drive of the 1980 Rose Bowl. Every play was a run and Charles carried the ball on all of the plays except two. He is the epitome of Fight On. R.I.P. Charles
Wow, how do you not get misty eyed and choked up reading this. Excellent tribute Plaschke.
I always say, “I’m crying, that’s allergies.”