Charles White, a dynamic tailback for the University of Southern California who set the school’s career record for rushing yardage and won the 1979 Heisman Trophy, died on Wednesday in Newport Beach, Calif. He was 64.
Judianne White-Basch, his care manager and former wife, said the cause of his death, at a hospital, was esophageal cancer.
White, who went on to play eight seasons in the N.F.L., was part of U.S.C.’s lineage of elite running backs, four of whom also won the Heisman: Marcus Allen, O.J. Simpson, Mike Garrett and Reggie Bush. White’s 6,245 rushing yards exceed the 4,810 gained by Allen, who ranks second on U.S.C.’s all-time list.
White was not especially big or fast; rather than elude defenders, he bulled his way through them. And he was a workhorse: In 1978, he rushed 374 times (65 more than anyone else in the N.C.A.A.’s top ranks) for 1,859 yards. The next year he ran for 2,050.
All the pummeling he experienced in high school, at U.S.C. and in the N.F.L. took a physical toll in a cumulative battering to his head. In 2012, Ms. White-Basch said, he was diagnosed with dementia, a symptom of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease that is linked to repeated head trauma but can be diagnosed only after death.
“Suddenly, everything made sense,” she said in a phone interview.
Ms. White-Basch donated her former husband’s brain to the CTE Center at Boston University to determine if he had C.T.E.
Ms. White-Basch said it was possible that he used cocaine and alcohol to self-medicate symptoms of a brain injury. “Everyone was targeting him” on the field, she said. “And he gave hits that were as hard as the hits he was getting.”
In 1987, while playing for the Los Angeles Rams, White was charged with being under the influence of a controlled substance, believed to be cocaine, for which he had been treated in a monthlong program in 1982 while with the Browns. In 1988, he was suspended for 30 days by the N.F.L. for using alcohol, a violation of the league drug program he had entered when he was arrested.
Charles Raymond White was born on Jan. 22, 1958, in Los Angeles and was raised by his grandmother, Bertha Leggett. He was recruited from San Fernando High School to U.S.C. and led the team in rushing in 1977, 1978 and 1979.
At the Rose Bowl after the 1978 regular season, White scored the decisive touchdown on a disputed play from the Michigan 3-yard line in the second quarter. He fumbled the ball before he reached the goal line. The umpire signaled that Michigan had possession of the ball, but the line judge called it a touchdown; the head linesman then reaffirmed that it was a score.
The touchdown extended U.S.C.’s lead to 14-3, which held up in a 17-10 win, and the school was named college football’s national champion in a poll of 35 coaches.
White was incandescent in the next year’s Rose Bowl against Ohio State. He rushed for 247 yards on 39 carries and scored the winning touchdown with 1 minute 32 seconds left in the game, lifting U.S.C. to a 17-16 victory.
“Charlie White is the best football player I’ve ever seen,” John Robinson, the U.S.C. coach, said after the game. “If you don’t believe me, just go back and look at the fourth quarter. His domination was absolute. He is the greatest competitor I have ever seen.”
White was chosen by the Cleveland Browns in the first round of the N.F.L. draft in 1980, but in four seasons, he never rushed for more than 342 yards. After he was released by the Browns, he was signed by the Rams, who were then coached by Robinson, for the 1985 season.
His first two seasons with the Rams were uneventful, but he was spectacular in 1987, carrying the ball 324 times for a league-leading 1,374 yards and 11 touchdowns. However, the season was tainted by a 24-day players’ strike, during which games were played largely by nonunion replacements for three weeks. White was one of a group of players who crossed the union’s picket lines.
He started the 1988 season serving his four-game suspension and never regained his starting job. He gained only 323 yards that year, and Greg Bell led the Rams with 1,212 rushing yards.
White retired after the season and spent the next 20 years at U.S.C. as a special assistant to the athletic director, Mike McGee; the football team’s running backs coach; and as a university administrator. During that period, Ms. White-Basch said, he was abusing alcohol but not cocaine.
In 2000, he said, he sold his Heisman Trophy for $184,000 to settle tax debts.
In addition to Ms. White-Basch, he is survived by their daughters, Nicole, Tara and Sophia White; their sons, Julian and Ashton; and their granddaughter, Giovanna Hemmen, with whom he was close.
White was the subject of a profile in The Los Angeles Times last year in which the columnist Bill Plaschke described his quiet life in an assisted living facility.
“He knows he is Charles White and he knows what he accomplished for his beloved university,” Mr. Plaschke wrote, then quoted him as saying, “I know I once did something good, something great, something fantastic for U.S.C.”