The balance of power in the recruiting war to win Crespi High's Russell White might have shifted permanently last spring when a late model foreign car pulled into the school parking lot in Encino.
Out of its doors bounded a Los Angeles football hero, a running back in the National Football League and one of USC's four Heisman Trophy winners. But, more importantly, Charles White, the NFL's 1987 rushing leader and star of two Rose Bowl victories a decade ago, is Russell's uncle.
"When he came out to Crespi it really shocked me," White said. "He just popped up one day."
The surprise was understandable. Despite the family relationship, White and his famous uncle had never been close. Charles, who played at San Fernando High, is the younger brother of Russell's father Roosevelt. But since Roosevelt's marriage to Helen White ended in divorce in 1980, Russell has had little contact with the Whites.
His life was shaped by Helen's side of the family, which boasts its own famous athlete. Kermit Alexander, Helen's cousin, starred at UCLA and later in the NFL with the Rams and 49ers. He advised Helen to send her son to Crespi, where he serves as an assistant coach.
While Alexander coached White through his first two years as the star running back on the Crespi varsity, Russell strived to divorce himself from the Charles White connection. Before he reached Crespi, he had stopped wearing No. 12, Charles' number at USC, and he stressed to anyone who asked that he had little contact with his uncle.
As recently as a year ago, Helen said about their relationship: "There's no calling of each other, no communication. Our biggest frustration is that people will identify him with Charles. Our biggest fear is that people will ask about that latest episode."
That episode occurred last summer when Charles White was arrested in Brea in a drug-related incident that indicated White had hit bottom in his battle with cocaine abuse. The last thing Russell wanted was comparisons with that. Given the Alexander connection and his aversion to Charles White, Russell seemed destined to play at UCLA.
But much has changed in one year. Charles White has passed every drug test this past year. And after the Rams traded Eric Dickerson, White turned a disappointing professional career into a success story by rushing for 1,374 yards, only four fewer than he gained in his six previous NFL seasons.
White duly noted his uncle's transformation.
"Before, I didn't want any comparisons with him because of his problems," White said. "But now that he's got his life together I'm proud of him. He came to a few games last year and started calling me on the phone. Then when he came out to Crespi I really enjoyed it."
Charles voiced similar feelings, saying family ties drew him back to the Valley.
"Our blood is the same and that's just overwhelming," he said. "When he's playing I'm out there with him. Whatever mood he's in during a game, I can picture myself in the same mood because I've been there."
The bonding between the two has continued through periodic phone calls, and Charles visited White at home and watched a video of Russell's best runs.
"I was getting fired up seeing all the natural ability he has," Charles said. "He's got all those things you can't teach. I'm really proud of him."
Those words gratify Helen's side of the family, which has softened toward Charles. Helen has lost contact with her former husband but encourages her son's involvement with her former in-laws.
"I feel good about it for both of them," she said. "It was needed. Now Russell's got two sides, not just my side."
Alexander agreed, saying, "There were a lot of times in Pop Warner football where a pat on the head from his Uncle Charles would have helped Russell. Now that Charles has rectified his life, it's nice to see the two of them get together."
The reconciliation comes at a perfect time for the Trojans. As White enters his senior year, only Notre Dame rivals USC as his top college choice. And UCLA has been dropped from the picture.
White has been ranked by most recruiting services as the No. 1 high school prospect in the nation. Until he signs a letter of intent in February he will never be lonely. College recruiters keep the phone lines busy and the daily mail brings a steady stream of college literature.
Among the most persistent schools are each Pacific 10 Conference member, Notre Dame, Penn State, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas A&M, Alabama and Florida. White said he will narrow his list to 10 schools before the Sept. 9 start of the season and prune the list to five at the conclusion of the season. Absent from both lists will be UCLA, which White says he eliminated for three reasons.