BERKELEY — As locker nameplates go, it isn't much. There's his jersey number, 4 , and then his last name, White . That's it. Simple. To the point.
Yet, the first time Russell White saw it above the Cal football locker-- his --he almost broke down and wept. Almost.
"It hurt," he said. "It was touching and I felt like crying. But I'm not going to cry."
Tears, it seems, don't come easily for White. If they did, he would have filled buckets by now.
No doubt a drop would have spilled each time someone snickered at his failed and much-publicized attempts at the Scholastic Aptitude Test--the dreaded SAT. White could score touchdowns, an amazing 94 of them while at Crespi High, but give him a No. 2 pencil and a test booklet and he couldn't score much more than than the 200 points the SAT awards for correctly filling in your name.
Of course, White never told anyone he suffered from dyslexia. SAT? Try TAS.
Think of the tears he might have shed had he known what he was doing to his two favorite people, his mother and grandmother. White brought them joy, but he also brought them heartaches with his laziness and stubbornness, with being, well, a teen-ager.
There's more. Over the summer, he talked to his father for the first time in 13 years. Roosevelt White left when Russell was 6.
"Are you proud of me?" Russell asked.
The answer was enough to cause an upper lip to quiver. Except Russell's.
And this was the summer he made peace with his famous and occasionally notorious uncle, Charles White, who won a Heisman Trophy and everlasting fame at USC. Somewhere along the line, though, he lost a nephew. Until now.
A tear of joy from Russell? Never.
But hardest of all was a 1989 spent in academic purgatory, a year when White proved the SATs, his critics and his Van Nuys homeboys wrong. A year when he couldn't play a down of football for Cal, couldn't walk past Memorial Stadium without feeling isolated and empty.
Those days are over now. Russell White is whole again. He knew it the moment he saw that nameplate.
LETTER SWEATER HERO
Crespi High is an all-boys Catholic prep school in Encino, enrollment about 500 students. When White arrived there in 1985, he was the only black student. His cousin, former UCLA star Kermit Alexander, had helped arrange his admittance, all with the enthusiastic approval of Russell's mother, Helen, who wanted, as mothers do, the best for her son.
It was a curious merger of student and school. White didn't want to be there. He wanted to be at public school, where his friends were.
And Crespi officials weren't quite sure what they had gotten themselves into. This is a school from which 98% of the graduates go on to college, about 75% of those to four-year universities. The average SAT score is 150-200 points higher than the national average.
And then there was White, who wasn't exactly a National Merit Scholar candidate.
"What a lot of people fail to realize about Russell is that he entered Crespi significantly behind the majority of kids on an academic level," said Bill Redell, Crespi's former football coach. "Crespi recognized that."
Joel Wilker, a history teacher at the time, was assigned to oversee the academic progress of various Crespi freshmen, among them White. Their first meeting had all the sizzle of an afternoon nap.
Wilker: "So, you're Russell White."
White, against his will, was put into an environment as foreign as Paris. He was polite, shy, conscientious and scared.
"I knew I was going to have to work with him, work to get some words out of him," said Wilker, now a vice principal at Crespi.
One thing was sure: There would be no need for an athletic adviser. White pretty much had that subject covered.
"It was like a man playing with boys," Wilker said.
The first time Redell saw White touch a football was at a freshman scrimmage between Crespi and Thousand Oaks High. As defenders zeroed in, White snatched a bouncing punt and ran 85 yards for a touchdown. Redell, a former coach in the United States Football League, turned to an assistant and said, "Hey, this guy is going to bring us a (CIF Southern Section) Big Five championship one of these days."
The legend of White grew each week. Crespi freshman games, once sparsely attended, began to attract bigger crowds. Word got out: Crespi had a player like no one else.
"Russell White was way ahead of his time," Redell said. "He's the finest high school player I've ever seen. And I said that before he played a (varsity) game at Crespi."
Of course, all of this worried Helen White. When her son was 7 and playing in a clinic league, she saw him field a punt much the same way he fielded the punt against Thousand Oaks that day. With would-be tacklers only a few feet away, he grabbed the ball and "ran through them like a pinball," Helen White said. "It made me wonder. It scared me. How does he have that instinct?"