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Trophy Hunting

L-E grad Chuck White continues on his football junkies’ bucket list journey

Posted: September 4, 2018 11:25 a.m.
Updated: September 4, 2018 11:19 a.m.
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CHUCK WHITE CLUTCHES to what is believed to be the first Heisman Trophy won by Jay Berwanger in 1935 at Berwanger’s high school alma mater, Dubuque Senior High in Iowa. Berwanger’s college alma mater, the University of Chicago, claims its has the original Heisman Trophy in its trophy case.

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Like all great ideas, this one was hatched over a few adult beverages at a tailgate party before a college football game.

While getting ready in the parking lot for a University of South Carolina football game in 2005 or ‘06, lifelong friends and former Lugoff-Elgin basketball and track teammates Chuck White and Brian Hawkey got to discussing all the different stadiums and places which they had visited while attending football games. The conversation delved into schools which had won national football championships and/or produced Heisman Trophy winners. Before long, White, who was then a Liutenant Coloonel in the United States Army, came up with a marvelously splendid or --- depending on your point of view --- wildly harebrained idea.

White, a 1986 L-E graduate who was the school’s student body president his senior year, committed himself to a college football fanatic’s ultimate road trip. His plan was to visit every school --- 45 in all --- whose trophy cases housed a national championship or, Heisman Trophy. By the fall of 2016, it was mission accomplished for the now-retired serviceman.

His completed journey took him from the Los Angeles Coliseum to Yale University in New Haven, Ct. While in Texas, he took in parts of three college football games on the same Saturday. White also made a side road trip to Dubuque, Iowa, to visit the high school alma mater of Jay Berwanger, who, in 1935, was the first recipient of the Heisman Trophy while playing at the University of Chicago and where a statue in his honor was erected inside the high school’s football stadium. In 2016, he traveled from Los Angeles to Pasadena to take in a USC-UCLA day/nighter.

Call him crazy. Call him obsessed but deep down, you know if given the opportunity, you would have loved to join White on his still-continuing journey.

By 2009, White was on his way to his coast-to-coast, and all places in-between, tour of football landmarks. Three sites, The University of South Carolina, White’s favorite Big 10 school and six-time national champion, Michigan State, and Notre Dame already had been crossed off the list as schools which White had already seen games inside their respective stadiums.

“After that, it took off,” said White, who now calls Atlanta home. “There is a trend between the cool places that you hear about and see on TV that have good traditions; the common theme is that they’ve won national championships, had someone win the Heisman Trophy or, both.”

White’s fascination with college football was not something which came to him just when he got to high school or, was something which bit him while a student and, later, graduate from South Carolina State University. It started well before that and his interest was piqued not by the Gamecocks or Tigers but rather, by one of most dominating college football programs in history which White could only watch from the comfort of his family’s living room on Saturday afternoons in the fall.

“As a kid, I was a sports fanatic. College football and college basketball were my two favorite sports,” said the 1990 S.C. State grad. 

“Growing up in the ‘70s, I was a die-hard Oklahoma Sooner fan, even though I grew up in South Carolina. I was kind of fascinated with them running that wishbone and their always being on TV.  The Sooners have always been my team. I just loved college football.”

What Chuck White calls love some might term over-the-top fanaticism. If you are in that party, you might be right. But, guess what, White does not care. He just goes about doing what he loves when he can find a few spare weekends.

For the time being retired, White worked for the Office of Military Cooperation at the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait from May of 2014 until October 2015. He also served as Battalion Recruiting Commander at Fort Jackson. In that capacity, he was responsible for recruiting of all enlisted soldiers in South Carolina, western North Carolina and a slice of eastern Georgia. “My role was more meeting with superintendents, principals and elected officials who would help our recruiting operation,” he said.

Those were just some of his official positions. Unofficially, he was and remains a college football junkie. Don’t believe it? Try this one on for size. On Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, White undertook a one-day journey which he calls “The religious triangle.” On that day, he attended portions of three college football games in the same day in the state of Texas.

“I was out in Texas and it was, Texas Christian (TCU), Southern Methodist (SMU) and Baylor,” he said of the three church-affiliated schools he visited in a span of some 10 hours. “TCU had a game (versus Southeast Louisiana) that kicked off at 11 a.m. and I went to the first half of that game. I then drove about 85 to 95 miles down the West branch of I-35 to Waco and watched the first half of Baylor and the University of Buffalo that kicked off at 2:30. 

“I left there, right before halftime, got back in the rental car I got in Dallas and drove up the east leg of I-35 and went to the entire SMU game. They had a night game (versus Montana State) that kicked off at 8 p.m.”

It was at SMU, in Dallas, where White made friends with a couple he met while passing their tailgate space to catch a few minutes of --- what else? --- a college football game on one of the large screen television sets which were set up at the party.

“When I went to the SMU game,” he said, “I passed a really nice tailgate tent that had two flat screen TVs in there and had two games with ranked teams going on. I was kind of mooching off their TVs and I peered in and the co-host came up and asked me, ‘Who are you and what are you doing here? If you’re watching my TV, at least let me know who you are.’”

Following an exchange of pleasantries and information, White was invited to a traveling tailgate party which continues to this day.

“We have become really great friends; he and his wife,” he said of that meeting in Dallas. “When I told them what I was doing, he thought it was pretty cool and interesting. His wife is a graduate of Arkansas and the very next month, Arkansas had a home game against the Gamecocks and they invited me to spend the weekend for the game in Fayetteville, Ark. Her parents had a retirement home which was about a half-mile from the (UA) campus. 

“Then, we traveled together to the University of Washington the next year. She had a college classmate who lived out there and we said, ‘Hey, do you mind if we tag along?’ And, we did the game in Seattle.”

Trying to pair his wardrobe with the colors of the schools he was visiting so that he could blend in, White found most college football fans inviting. One place which he did not find the most accommodating group came on his journey to Baton Rouge, La., to take in an LSU game. The friendliest tailgaters, hands down, he said were those fans who gather at The Grove at Ole Miss.

“I had some really cool experiences tailgating,” White said. “The best tailgating was at the Grove at Ole Miss. They had the best tailgating setup and the best and liveliest tailgate area. They had tables covered in white linen table cloth. They had chandeliers hanging from inside tents. They had chandeliers hanging from tree limbs. They had cotton and red roses combined on tables. They dressed up like it was a (Kentucky) Derby event.

“Ole Miss was really cool.”

Not all his stops were merely to say that he had been to such and such a school. Some visits were more important and interesting than others and, for different reasons.

As a history buff and former track athlete, the entire scene inside and outside a Southern California football game made for a special memory in 2011.

“There was something really cool about the L.A. Coliseum and watching the USC Trojans because of all the history with the (1932 and 1984) Olympics having been in that stadium, the architecture of it and Traveler, the magnificent big white stallion that comes out on the field after they score. There was something kind of neat about that stadium that felt really cool about it,” he said.

“When you watch a game from there on TV, you don’t get an appreciation for just how massive that stadium is, even though it doesn’t have the largest seating capacity. When you’re in that stadium with that crowd and the band plays that fight song (Fight On) and they play ‘Conquest’ you don’t hear it as well on TV. When they play ‘Conquest’ and the crowd starts going, it just sounds so cool in that stadium.

“You have to experience it. It doesn’t come across on TV the same way.”

As an African-American, White strayed from his original intent to visit schools which won national titles or had Heisman Trophy winners when he made a side trip to Ames, Iowa to take in an Iowa State football game. The Cyclones play their games inside Jack Trice Stadium, the only stadium in the United States other than those which are home to Historically Black Colleges and University teams, named after someone of African-American descent.

Trice was Iowa State’s first African-American student-athlete. In the first half of a 1923 game at the University of Minnesota, Trice sustained what was later diagnosed as a broken collarbone. He remained in the game in spite of the injury. Following the contest, he was admitted to the hospital and was later released as doctors deemed Trice physically able to travel back on the train from Minneapolis to Ames with his teammates. Two days later, Trice passed away from internal bleeding.

Another trip to a school which never won a national crown or, had a Heisman winner on the sidelines which White visited was the Air Force Academy. “It’s a military school,” he said of a nod to his service to our country. The Falcons joined Iowa State and later, Harvard, as while in Boston to go to a Boston College game on a Saturday, the Crimson were playing Dartmouth in a Friday night game just a few minutes from the hotel where White was staying. Naturally, he took in that evening’s Ivy League pairing.

Some visits were done in advance of a postseason honor as was the case in 2016 when White packed the car and headed northwest to Louisville for a regular season game at the formerly named Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, aka, The Oven.

“In the fall of 2016, I had never been to The Oven,” he said. “That was the year Lamar Jackson was already leading in the (Heisman) polls and it was a slam-dunk that he would win it. So, I went ahead and went to a game at the end of October under the heavy assumption that he was going to win this thing. I had a free weekend so I made a quick weekend road trip from Atlanta to Louisville and saw a game there.”

Chuck White would start mapping out his visits to schools in early July. He would also check out to see if there was an NFL or Major League Baseball game in the area, which he would attend, if time permitted.

He did not tell schools of his visits, rather showing up with no fanfare and seeing how things operated for a regular Saturday home game. In some instances, he combined work and pleasure as he did while stationed in Colorado with the Army.

“I went to the University of Colorado,” he said of taking in a Buffaloes’ game. “At the time, I was still in active duty in the Army and I had an office in Colorado Springs that I was required to work out of one week out of the month. (Colorado) had a Thursday night game one of those weeks I was required to work in Colorado Springs office so, I drove to Boulder and went there to see a Thursday night game.

“There were some situations like that when I was in the area to see if there was a school that was on the list that was within a reasonable drive and, I would go from there.”

As someone who has a passion for football and the Heisman Trophy itself, one of White’s most memorable journeys came when he sought out the original trophy which was won by Jay Berwanger from the University of Chicago in 1935. At the time, the honor was not called the Heisman Trophy but rather the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy. The honor, at the time, was accorded to the most valuable football player east of the Mississippi River.

White got more than he bargained for in search of the man who is credited with being presented with the inaugural Heisman Trophy sculpture in New York.

“(Berwanger) played at the University of Chicago so, when I went there to knock that stadium off the list in October of 2016, they had what they claimed was the original Heisman Trophy on display in the athletic department,” White said. 

“I ran into an athletic department employee who just happened to come through and I asked him if there might be an actual statue of (Berwanger) on the campus or, by the stadium He said, ‘Oh, no. You have to go out to his hometown, Dubuque, Iowa, because they erected a statue of him outside the high school stadium.’

“I figured that this guy was the first winner of the Heisman so I’ll plan a trip, at some point, to go out to Dubuque to see it.”

It was about that time in which White stumbled upon the story of Jack Trice and the ISU stadium which is named in his memory. Why not knock out two birds with one trip, so to speak? He made the 2 ½-hour drive from Ames to Dubuque and to Dubuque Senior High School, Berwanger’s high school alma mater.

The story might have had a sour ending had it not been for the kindness extended to him by schools officials at Dubuque Senior High.

“Because the statue of Jay Berwanger was on the school grounds and was inside of a fence inside the school stadium, that was the only time I ever contacted anyone ahead of time,” White said. “I contacted the school and the school’s athletic director to get permission to come on the school grounds because the school was only open on weekdays. I had to plan my trip to get to Dubuque and to that school on a Friday during school hours. 

“The athletic director and his secretary met me at the stadium, let me in and brought me to the statue. While I was there, they took me inside the school. They said, ‘This is the actual, original Heisman Trophy which is in our trophy case.’ They opened it, handed it to me and they took pictures of me with it.”

While in Dubuque, Chuck White found himself not knowing whether or not he held the trophy which was presented to Berwanger in New York City. He learned of an ongoing battle as to which school and what city was home to the first Heisman Trophy.

“They claim they have the original Heisman Trophy but, the University of Chicago claims that they have the original,” he said of the stand taken by Dubuque Senior High School. “Either way, I held the one in Dubuque because you weren’t allowed to touch the one at the University of Chicago; it’s behind a plexiglass box.”

You might think that having held (or, not held) the original Heisman Trophy would be the ultimate thrill for a football junkie. That, some would say, might be the end of the road. You don’t know Chuck White, though, who is planning on making stops at more schools as Heisman Trophy winners and national champions are crowned.

White, who retired from the Army in 2016, said he is “chillin’ like a villain,” while traveling and reconnecting with family and friends, criss-crossing America every other week by plane or car. He anticipated starting a job search in the late summer or early fall. 

When he does find a new gig, he hopes he will find a like-minded, football-loving boss who will be liberal in allowing Chuck White some extra days off in the fall.

 “I might have to ask them that,” he said with a laugh. “I may have to tell them, ‘On such and such a day, I need to go to Norman, Oklahoma, or, to Oxford, Mississippi.”

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