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CROWE'S NEST

Former USC star White lives a life apart from his Heisman

November 17, 2008|JERRY CROWE

A report that the Heisman Trophy won by Charles White will be sold to the highest bidder next month comes as news to Charles White.

He hawked it years ago.

"That thing's been gone a long time," says the former USC tailback, who won college football's most coveted individual honor in 1979. "I needed some money for my five kids when I got out of football. I had to do something. . . .

"People have to do what they got to do. In my situation, hey, either I sell that trophy or my family don't eat."

White, 50, sold the trophy in 2000 to settle tax debts, he said at the time, telling the Orange County Register, "Uncle Sam . . . can make life miserable for you." It fetched $184,000 at auction, then was auctioned again in December 2006 and sold to an undisclosed West Coast collector for $293,750.

It will be up for bid again Dec. 8 at the Sports Museum of America in New York, Illinois-based Mastro Auctions announced this month.

To some, it's a painful reminder that White let it go.

"It's sad," says USC broadcaster and former Trojans quarterback Paul McDonald, whose four seasons with White netted a national championship in 1978 and three Rose Bowl victories. "He's had his challenges in life; we all have. But he deserves to have that trophy in his possession, bottom line."

Says John Robinson, who coached White at USC and with the Los Angeles Rams, "I would have loved for him to be able to give it to his grandkids, so I feel badly for him. But when you're in trouble financially, you've got to do something."

No worries, White says.

"Those days are so far behind me," says the two-time All-American. "I wouldn't have sold it if I didn't have to, but I'm always going to have the Heisman Trophy in my hands -- or in my heart, I should say.

"It ain't about a statue or a trophy."

Plus, White notes, "they also give you a ring, a nice ring. Diamonds. I'm not a jewelry person, but every now and then I'll take it out and show it off and stuff. That's like the trophy to me. I haven't got rid of that.

"When I die, it's going to my family, going to my boys."

At least six other Heisman trophies have been sold, according to Mike Hefner, president of the New York auction house Lelands.com.

Most famously, the trophy won by O.J. Simpson in 1968 was auctioned for $230,000 in 1999 after a civil trial found the former USC tailback liable in the deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman. Simpson's property was seized to help pay off a $33.5-million judgment against him.

The Heisman Trophy won by Yale end Larry Kelley in 1936 fetched $328,110 in 1999.

In 2005, the 55-pound bronze and ebony statuette awarded to Minnesota halfback Bruce Smith in 1941 brought a record $395,240.

Two other Heisman trophies have been sold privately by undisclosed former winners through Lelands.com, Hefner says, and 1956 winner Paul Hornung sold his for $250,000 in 2000 to fund scholarships at Notre Dame, his alma mater.

What is White's worth?

"It shouldn't sell for any less than what it did last time," says Hefner, whose company auctioned the trophy in 2000 but is not involved this time. "The Heisman Trophy is a very rare and coveted piece of memorabilia. Some would say that it's priceless. There are just very few of them out there."

Adding to their scarcity: Recent winners, like Oscar winners, have been required to sign a waiver saying they won't sell their valuable prize.

White, the Pacific 10 Conference's all-time rushing leader, says he kept his Heisman Trophy at his grandmother's house for years.

While he played eight star-crossed seasons in the NFL with the Rams and Cleveland Browns, White notes with a laugh, "She probably charged people to come in and look at it. She was proud of that thing."

White enjoyed one great season in the NFL, winning the league rushing title in 1987 with the Rams, but mostly he was a disappointment, his career marred by cocaine abuse.

Still, when White announced his retirement in 1989, Robinson called him "the toughest man I've ever coached," a sentiment the coach recently repeated.

"If we would have played him on defense," Robinson says, "he would have been like Troy Polamalu. He was that tough a guy -- a great, great player."

And a Heisman Trophy winner, with or without the hardware to show for it.

White, a Trojans assistant under Robinson in the 1990s, still works at USC as a computer service engineer in the school's financial and business services department. A divorced father of five -- three daughters and two sons -- the 1996 College Football Hall of Fame inductee lives in Long Beach.

"I don't think it's sad," he says of selling off his most famous award, noting that a replica is displayed in Heritage Hall. "It's not a big deal."

Still, the upcoming auction seems to intrigue him.

"Do me a favor," he says toward the end of an interview. "When it sells, why don't you call me back and let me know what it sold for?"

--

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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