Ligon legend still inspires

Staff WriterOctober 24, 2010 

  • Honors

    Two-time All-America selection as a football quarterback

    All-state selection in basketball

    State singles and doubles champion in tennis

    State sprint champion

    1963 Ligon Little Blues

    Alamance 48-0 W (two rushing touchdowns)

    New Bern Barber 12-12 (two rushing TDs)

    Wilson Darden 13-6 W (one rushing TD, one TD reception)

    Wilmington Williston 22-0 W (two rushing TDs, 1 TD pass)

    Kinston Adkin 34-8 W (two rushing TDs, one TD reception)

    Elizabeth City Moore 34-8 W (two rushing TDs)

    Durham Hillside 25-8 W (three rushing TDs)

    Fayetteville E.E. Smith 14-14

    Rocky Mount Washington 22-6 W (two rushing TDs, one TD punt return)

    Charlotte Second Ward 28-14 L (two rushing TDs)

  • Tim Stevens has covered high school sports for The News & Observer since 1987. He has been inducted into the N.C. High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame and the National High School Sports Hall of Fame.

The streets surrounding the red brick Providence Holy Church were still wet from morning rains as thousands lined up for the funeral of 19-year-old William Dean "Pat" White on a steamy afternoon in July 1964.

Men in their suits and women in white bonnets waited outside the Raleigh church. Inside, the sanctuary was filled to capacity. Teenage girls wept. Some mourners needed to be supported as they passed White's casket. Others fainted.

They grieved for a quiet, unassuming recent Ligon High graduate who may have been the greatest all-around high school athlete ever to play in North Carolina. White was idolized for the great things he might achieve and mourned because he'd never get the chance to try.

He was a two-time high school football all-American as a quarterback, a high school all-state selection in basketball and a state champion in track and in tennis. In each sport, he competed against other black athletes in segregated events and was honored, for the most part, with segregated awards.

White could run 100 yards in 9.7 seconds. (Jesse Owens held the national high school record at the time, 9.4.) He was recruited by national college football powers.

White had become the embodiment of the hope for a better tomorrow for a community struggling with poverty and segregation. White was the youngest of nine children and lived in what was known as the projects in Chavis Heights, which is near Ligon. He ate many of his meals and spent many of his nights at the home of his oldest sister, Adline, who lived five doors down and whose daughter, Barbara Keith, was about his age and considered herself more a sister than a niece.

He lived in extreme poverty and didn't have many clothes, but he always looked neat and sharp, Keith said.

Ligon, which opened in the 1952 to replace Washington High, was the center of much of the black community along with East Hargett Street, the black business district. For three years, White had been the face of the best of Ligon.

"He was the great hope," said Carol Gartrell, a Ligon cheerleader and one of White's best friends. "He was showing that a person, even a very poor person, could achieve greatness and carry themselves with great dignity and show concern for people. All these people were so proud of Pat."

Bill Hooker, who came to the all-black Ligon High as an assistant coach in the fall of 1963, said, "The community was devastated [by White's death]. He seemed indestructible. He was young. He was bright. He was kind. He was good. He was strong. He was so humble. He carried the hope of so many poor kids."

White played his last football game on Nov. 16, 1963. He died July 9, 1964, a victim of cancer.

James "Twiggy" Sanders, who later was a basketball star at Ligon High and became a Harlem Globetrotter, lived around the corner from the church on Bledsoe Avenue. He was in the sixth grade and joined the masses outside.

"You've got to understand. Pat was our idol," Sanders said. "And suddenly, he was dead."

Crowd-pleaser

White rushed for 1,040 yards in 1963 and had more than 2,600 rushing yards during his career. He still held the Ligon career scoring record with 276 points when the school became a middle school in 1971.

White had several touchdowns nullified because he was so adept at faking handoffs and keeping the ball himself on bootleg runs. In the first half of his first game as a senior, inadvertent whistles cost White three touchdowns in a win over Alamance, according to Ralph Campbell, the Ligon statistician in the fall of 1963.

"An official would be at the line trying to get the pile unraveled and looking for the ball and Pat would be in the end zone holding the ball up. The crowd would go crazy," lineman Freddie Curtis, a co-captain with White, recalled.

Assistant coach Hubert Poole recalled White as "a lot like [NFL quarterback] Michael Vick. Pat could run and throw and catch, and he was a good defensive player."

Curtis said it is hard to describe White as a player.

"He played with a razz-a-ma-tazz. Everything he did was exciting," Curtis said. "He would do something you hadn't seen before."

White started at quarterback as a sophomore, junior and senior and was chosen an all-America during his junior and senior seasons. He also called all the plays.

White was so strong that 45 years later many remember him as being far bigger than his roster-listed size of 6 feet, 156 pounds.

Football first

White led Ligon to the N.C. High School Athletic Conference championship game and scored two touchdowns in a 28-14 loss to Charlotte Second Ward. He was selected to play in the Shrine Bowl Youth Game, an all-star game for black players before integration.

Poole said White's best sport was football. He might have become an even better tennis player if he'd had the opportunity to devote more time to the game. During a period when African-American tennis stars were defined by Althea Gibson and young Arthur Ashe, White used tennis as a way to stay in shape. Nevertheless, he won state high school titles as a sophomore in singles, doubles and mixed doubles in segregated events.

But White's heart was on the football field, and by the time he was a high school senior, he was a local legend.

Curtis said he had never seen anything like the swarm of fans waiting for the Ligon bus to arrive at away games.

"It was like Johnny Unitas was getting off our bus," Curtis said.

The Raleigh Times, the now-defunct newspaper, presented White with its high school player of the year award in 1964.

"I can't thank Coach Pete Williams and the other Ligon coaches enough for the time and patience they have showed me," White said in a Raleigh Times article by sports editor Bruce Phillips. "All I could do was run, and they taught me the rest."

Williams, the Ligon coach, said then that White was incorrect in this last statement.

"He took to coaching and was determined to make something of himself," Williams told Phillips.

Williams, now deceased, had coached in Raleigh since 1940 and called White the best athlete he'd ever seen.

National attention

Most of the top college programs in the country, at least those not in the segregated South, recruited him to play football, according to newspaper accounts. Syracuse, Minnesota, Michigan State and other schools wanted him.

In a move that didn't surprise his friends, White chose Morgan State, a historically black college in Baltimore. He had relatives in the Baltimore area.

"Pat wasn't impressed with a lot of things that other people were," Keith recalled. "Minnesota, Michigan State. That didn't mean anything to him.

"He never realized how good he was. To look at him or talk to him, you'd never know he did sports at all."

The ninth child of Cap and Ada White, he seemed perfectly fit for his family nickname of "Pet." His disposition endeared him to most people who knew him, Keith said.

"He was the most humble, good person," Keith said. "He genuinely cared for other people."

He had a subtle sense of humor, too. He wrote in The Echo, the Ligon yearbook, that he planned to become a nuclear physicist.

"That was a joke," Curtis said. "Everybody who knew Pat knew that he was going to be a professional ballplayer one day."

Unyielding opponent

White's friend Gartrell said she doesn't remember when he first started feeling poorly.

He had chest pains before his senior football season at Ligon. It was diagnosed as indigestion. The cancer was not discovered until after his senior year was almost complete.

"White played with cancer all last season and perhaps longer," Dr. W.F. Clark, his physician, told The Raleigh Times after White's death. "He was an amazing young man. He never complained once."

The disease's impact began to show in the spring of his senior year.

"He said he didn't understand why he was so tired," Gartrell said. "He decided to train harder. I still can see him going to the track and pushing himself harder."

White, standing directly behind Campbell in the baccalaureate services in late May, passed out and was taken to Wake Memorial Hospital. Doctors suspected appendicitis and operated. They found cancerous growths throughout his chest and stomach. There was no treatment.

No one told White he had cancer, though. Williams, the coach, later told Gartrell that he let it slip out when he told White that not everyone who had cancer died.

Ligon principal Herbert Elliott Brown and Gartrell went to Wake Memorial and presented White with his high school diploma. White was the first person in the class of 1964 to graduate.

During the next few weeks, White was in and out of the hospital, returning whenever the pain was too severe.

"We carried ... peanuts to his room, and we were laughing and having the best time. Pat was laughing, too," Gartrell said. "But the next day, he didn't know who I was. Who his sister was. The cancer had gotten to his mind."

Phillips wrote in the Raleigh Times, "The loss of Willie White will be counted among the major heartbreaks of Raleigh sports for a long time, because of his greatness on the field and his golden goals off of it."

A few years ago, an eternal flame was added to White's burial site in Hillcrest Cemetery off Old Garner Road.

"Those of us who remembered Pat wanted a better memorial than the marker he had," former teammate Bruce Lightner said. "He was the best athlete I've ever seen. I've never seen anyone with the ability to think and react the way that he could."

Still an icon

A natural question is whether White's reputation has grown through the years, his feats exaggerated by his early death.

"No," Poole, the former assistant coach, said emphatically. "Pat White was that good."

Said Lightner, " 'Good' is not an adjective I'd use to describe Pat White. 'Great' is more accurate."

Bobby Guthrie, the Wake County Schools athletic director, said when he moved to Raleigh from Wilmington, he quickly learned that great players were to be compared to Pat White.

"Pat was a legend," said Danny McLaurin, who was a sophomore at Durham Hillside in 1964. "Everybody in the state knew about Pat White."

Former teammate Curtis, who now operates a concession business, said he regularly is asked about White when customers at college football games learn Curtis played at Ligon.

"All these years later, people still want to know about Pat White," Curtis said. "Ask anybody who remembers him. We tell the same stories. This isn't an exaggeration."

Poole recently found a blue "Ligon Little Blues" license plate from the 1960s and put it on the front of his car. At a car wash last month, the attendant cleaning the tires saw the plate and asked if Poole had ever seen Pat White play. Minutes later, he said, another attendant saw the license, walked up and asked the same question.

At a supermarket, a young man bagging groceries recognized Poole and proudly told him that he was related to Pat White.

"It's been 45 years," Poole said. "These fellows were not born when Pat played. They still talk about him."

tim.stevens@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8910

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