LAKE FOREST — The life of Charles White was celebrated Saturday with the exact type of pomp and circumstance the former USC running back would have wanted.
The memorial service for White, who died last month at the age of 64 from cancer, was decorated with cardinal and gold flowers surrounding his urn, painted with his school’s colors. Pictures from the 1979 Heisman Trophy winner’s career lined Saddleback Church. And the Trojan band performed for family and friends as they entered and exited the auditorium.
“Charles loved ‘SC. It was in his blood,” former Trojan quarterback Paul McDonald told the gathered mourners. “Walking down the Coliseum tunnel, for those of us in the crowd that got to experience that, there was nothing quite like that before a game. To his last days on this planet, he was wearing his Trojans sweatsuit. He loved ‘SC.”
Numerous USC luminaries gathered to celebrate White, who to this day remains USC’s leading rusher. Anthony Davis, Ronnie Lott and Mike Garrett were among the dozens of former Trojans who gathered before and after the service to catch up and share stories about the Trojan legend.
The service opened with a round of applause for White. James Brown’s “Super Bad” played over a highlight reel of White’s USC career, intercut with pictures from the running back’s life with his family. Speakers told stories of his athletic feats, from middle school coaches in San Fernando Valley waiving his registration fees to his legendary performance against Ohio State in the 1980 Rose Bowl.
“Was there anyone, pound for pound and inch for inch, tougher than Charles White?” asked Pete Arbogast, the longtime voice of USC radio who was a student broadcaster during White’s college career. “Not very big of stature, certainly, but no bigger heart was there ever to wear the USC football uniform.”
White faced his share of difficulties in life, from addiction to dementia, and the speakers Saturday were honest about those challenges, which led to a split with his ex-wife, Judi White-Basch, with whom White had five children.
But the pair never gave up on their relationship entirely. White-Basch stayed by White’s side during his battle with cancer.
When White lost 25 pounds suddenly and doctors would not admit him into the emergency room because his blood results came up negative, it was White-Basch who called USC athletic director Mike Bohn. Within a few hours, Bohn had assembled a team of USC Keck doctors to help White through his illness.
“You took care of my brother until the last breath,” White’s half-brother James Gordon told White-Basch. “Until the last breath.”
White-Basch focused on a different aspect from her ex-husband’s final days. Speaking beside their daughter, Tara, wearing White’s USC varsity jacket, White-Basch spoke about White’s positivity in his final days.
“The man was a hero. He never complained. He asked us how we were,” White-Basch said. “We’d say, ‘How are you doing, Charles?’ ‘One hundred percent.’”
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But after their complicated history, White-Basch closed her remarks with one final lesson from White: forgiveness.
“I’ve got some stories, man,” White-Basch said to laughter from the assembled. “But that man loved me. He would have laid down his life for me, I would have given my life for him. And we got the honor to share what most people don’t share. And it was forgiveness and pure love. But we had to get to the point where we’re leaving this earth to do that with each other. I implore you to love the person that you’re next to, and forgive.”