Virginia Remembers Choo Choo

Ram note: I mentioned this article in a previous post. It is by one of my favorite writers, Jennings Culley, and appeared in the Richmond Times Dispatch.


A half century ago, Charlie "Choo Choo" Justice was a triple-threat tailback with such dash and flash that rival football fans often cheered him while he tore their hearts out. He was a hero, an enduring legend in North Carolina--and a beloved villain elsewhere. In Virginia, especially, Charlie Justice left a trail of disappointment so broad you could only shake your head in despair and grudgingly applaud his heroics. This was in a time (1946-1949) when William and Mary and the University of Virginia were the state powers. But Justice reigned. In eight games against the two teams, Justice and his North Carolina Tar Heels never lost. A 7-7 tie with W and M was the only smudge. Justice died recently in Cherokee, N.C. at 79. His exploits, forever colored by a flair for the big play, live in the memory of those who watched. When defeat seemed knocking on the Tar Heel door, Justice had a knack for saving the homestead. With a football in his hand, anything was possible. Fans sat on the edge of their seats, waiting for the big run or the long pass he'd always produce. By today's standards, he was not fast. His size (165 pounds) was not commanding. But he was quick, elusive, shifty. The cliché swivel-hipped was coined for him. Blessed with excellent peripheral vision, he could sense movement around him and find daylight and wiggle out. Long open field runs were his specialty. Statistics reflect the depth of his talent. Operating from the single wing formation, Justice rushed for 2,634 yards (5.2 yard average) and scored 28 times. He hit 159 of 321 passes for 2249 yards and 25 touchdowns. He returned 68 punts for 966 yards and 31 kickoffs for a 26.6 average. He punted 231 times for a 42.6 average. His total offense record (4883 yards) stood until 1994 when Jason Stanicek topped it. But figures are only cold reminders. You had to see him to appreciate his skill and marvel at the full glory of the man. In time, Old Dominion fans got their fill. In his senior season (1949) Justice was slowed by a series of ankle twists, muscle pulls, deep bruises. His numbers were down. W and M and UVA figured that would be the autumn of revenge. Early that November, the Heels came to Williamsburg. The 7-7 tie a year earlier had been produced by a unique game plan devised to keep Justice backed deep in his territory. Time after time, the Tribe quick kicked, often punting on first or second down. This time, the Tribe has a deft air game. At halftime, they were up 7-0 and were in control. But in a three minute span of the third quarter, Justice took over. He hit a 21 yard touchdown pass. He then fielded a punt, faked a reverse and raced 75 yards for another score. Almost singlehandedly, he changed the complexion of the game the Tar Heels eventually won 20-14. For four years, Virginia's Cavaliers suffered unmercifully at the hands of Justice. As a freshman, he scored three times on runs of 54, 45 and 18 yards. He scored twice as a sophomore. As a junior, he ran 80 and 47 yards for touchdowns and passed for two more scores. But the '49 Cavs had upset Pennsylvania and were 7-1 when they showed up for Justice's final game in Chapel Hill. Justice was gimpy that day and was used sparingly. But early in the second quarter, he broke off tackle and ran 14 yards for a touchdown. In the closing minutes of the quarter, he hit Art Weiner on a 67 yard pass. Nothing spectacular by Justice standards. But it was enough to seal a 14-7 win---and to perpetuate forever the mystique of Charlie "Choo Choo" Justice.