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Tuesday, October 11, 2005 | A Heisman Trophy winner needs a stage.
Reggie Bush, USC’s All-American running back from Helix High, plays a grand stage Saturday that could catapult him into becoming San Diego’s fourth Heisman winner when the No. 1-ranked and two-time defending national champion Trojans travel to resurgent Notre Dame.
Bush, of course, must share the stage with USC quarterback Matt Leinart, last year’s Heisman winner when Bush also was a finalist. But as a junior, as opposed to the bias voters have against a freshman or sophomore, Bush is making the kind of electrifying plays that could push him ahead of Leinart and others.
The thought of a USC All-American running back from San Diego facing Notre Dame as a defending national champion has me wondering if Bush could have been chasing a fifth Heisman Trophy for San Diego football if only the New York Athletic Club had dreamed up the award a couple of years earlier.
You know about San Diego’s three Heisman Trophy-winning running backs: Marcus Allen of USC and Lincoln in 1981, Rashaan Salaam of Colorado and La Jolla Country Day in 1994 and Ricky Williams of Texas and Patrick Henry in 1998.
But do you know about Irvine “Cotton” Warburton? You should.
The San Diego High legend played on the Trojans’ 1932 national championship team, he scored two touchdowns in the 1933 Rose Bowl win over Pittsburgh and in the 1933 season – which included a 19-0 win at Notre Dame – he was a consensus All-American pick, meaning he was named to all 10 recognized All-American teams.
He sounds like Heisman material, but the first award wasn’t presented until 1935 to the University of Chicago’s Jay Berwanger.
Warburton died in 1982, so I could go into the archives and recite dry statistics. Better that I relate eyewitness accounts that also portray Warburton’s magnetic star power.
Lionel Van Deerlin, 91-years-young, knows San Diego sports, although the journalist and former U.S. Congressman from San Diego described himself as a “second-string end” in the early 1930s at Oceanside High. Van Deerlin not only saw Warburton play for the Trojans, he sat behind him in a USC history class.
“He would get these letters from girls who would tell him they were saving his pictures from newspapers,” Van Deerlin said. “He got a lot of press nationally, and I suppose if you were drawing upon the whole country there were enough nutty girls out there, but I was astounded by it. He was amused by it and didn’t take it seriously.”
Other letters came from young athletes asking for advice on how they could become a star football player.
Van Deerlin added the letters from girls kept coming despite the fact Warburton – a gritty, 5-foot-6, 148-pounder nicknamed Cotton for his tow-headed appearance – played much of the 1933 season with a mask to protect a broken nose. There were no facemasks on leather helmets in those days, so it was unusual for a football player to play with his face obscured by what would equal a hockey facemask in today’s sports world.
“He was very ominous looking,” Van Deerlin said. “He looked like the Phantom of the Opera. He wasn’t very big, but he was a tough guy who would take on anybody.”
Van Deerlin remembers USC struggling in a scoreless game against Loyola, the Los Angeles school that fielded football in those days, when Warburton sparked the sluggish Trojans by bouncing a play outside the pile for a long touchdown run. USC went on to win 18-0.
In a famous USC comeback played in the fog at Cal, a game that Van Deerlin attended, the Trojans trailed 3-0 when Warburton broke off a 59-yard touchdown run for a 6-3 win.
Bush and Leinart are larger-than-life figures in Los Angeles, but so was Warburton in his time. Van Deerlin recalled a night on the town he spent with Warburton and his girlfriend, whom Van Deerlin knew from their days as students at Oceanside.
“We had been at an event downtown, and Cotton had a car,” Van Deerlin said. “We went out to the Beverly Hills Hotel because the Mills Brothers were singing. Everyone was delighted to see him when we arrived, and they had a table for him. It didn’t seem to faze him being treated that way, but I don’t think he took advantage of it. He was a good person.”
Warburton doesn’t have the football hardware of modern San Diego running backs, but he does them one better by having earned an Oscar for editing on the 1965 movie “Mary Poppins.” He was a Hollywood Trojan.
There are other San Diego great running backs from the era – USC’s Russ Saunders, Washington State’s Ed Goddard and USC’s Amby Schindler come to mind – but among them Van Deerlin says Warburton tops his list.
He surprised me when he said he was leaning toward considering Bush as San Diego’s best running back of all-time. Sports fans generally stick with athletes of their age and most San Diegans of the modern era rank Allen as No. 1.
But Van Deerlin likes Bush for his combination of speed and open-field running. He thinks Warburton – the 1929 California high school state champion in the quarter-mile in the state meet at the Los Angeles Coliseum – comes closest to Bush in those abilities.
“I can’t imagine anyone better than Reggie,” Van Deerlin said. “I don’t see how a coach can approach a game to contain him.”
Who’s going to argue with a man who has seen all of San Diego’s great ones?
Tom Shanahan has been writing about San Diego athletes at the professional, collegiate and high school levels for 27 years. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions (www.sdhoc.com). You can e-mail him at