100 in 100: Buncombe County’s Charlie ‘Choo Choo’ Justice, UNC’s runaway train

The Asheville running back was a two-time runner-up for the Heisman Trophy

Asheville’s Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice, pictured in 1948, starred for the North Carolina Tar Heels. (AP Photo)

North State Journal’s 100 in 100 series will showcase the best athlete from each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. From Alamance to Yancey, each county will feature one athlete who stands above the rest. Some will be obvious choices, others controversial, but all of our choices are worthy of being recognized for their accomplishments — from the diamond and gridiron to racing ovals and the squared circle. You can see all the profiles as they’re unveiled here.

Buncombe County

Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice

Some athletes get statues in their honor. A select few get a bust in a hall of fame. Charlie Justice has both of those. The Asheville native was so special as a football player that he has been given a truly unique tribute by his alma mater North Carolina. In honor of his uniform No. 22, the 22-yard lines on both sides of the field at Kenan Stadium are painted blue.

Nicknamed Choo Choo because he looked like a runaway train while dodging tackles, Justice led Lee H. Edwards High School to a pair of undefeated seasons, averaging an incredible 25 yards per carry during his senior year. After spending four years in the Navy during World War II, when he played on the football team at Bainbridge Naval Training Center in Maryland, he enrolled at UNC — twice earning All-America honors and finishing second in the voting for the Heisman Trophy in 1948 and ’49.


Justice ran or threw for 64 touchdowns during his college career and piled up 4,883 total yards — a school record that stood until 1994. He twice led the Tar Heels to the Sugar Bowl and once to the Cotton Bowl, the first three postseason appearances in school history. He was so dominant that Benny Goodman’s orchestra featured him in a song titled “All the Way, Choo Choo.”

Arguably the greatest football player ever produced by the state, Justice was drafted by the Washington Redskins after college. Although his NFL career was cut short by a series of injuries, he still retired as the franchise’s third all-time leading rusher and is a member of the Redskins’ Ring of Fame. He is also in the College Football Hall of Fame and was a member of the first class to enter the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.

“Greatness and humility are too seldom linked,” said former UNC athletic director and current ACC commissioner John Swofford. “But they certainly were with Charlie.”