San Diego’s Lionel Van Deerlin is being remembered locally, statewide and nationally for his career as a U.S. Congressman and as a TV and newspaper journalist following his death Saturday at the age of 93.

But Van Deerlin will be missed as a San Diego sports fan, too. He was an eyewitness to much of San Diego’s early sports history. He loved San Diego sports, especially the San Diego athletes who went on to play for his alma mater, USC.

I remember talking with him when USC running back Reggie Bush of Helix High was in the midst of his 2005 Heisman Trophy season. Until Bush came along, Van Deerlin’s favorite USC running back was Cotton Warburton.

The San Diego High legend played for USC’s 1932 national championship team and was a 1933 All-American. This was before the Heisman Trophy was first presented in 1935, but Warburton did earn the distinction of being named to the College Football Hall of Fame — not to mention the Breitbard Hall of Fame (my day job). He also earned an Academy Award for editing for the movie “Mary Poppins.”

All these years later, Van Deerlin could vividly describe sitting in the fog at Cal’s Memorial Stadium in 1933 when Warburton led a comeback from a 3-0 deficit with a 59-yard touchdown run for a 6-3 win.

Van Deerlin called himself a “second-string end at Oceanside High,” but he knew Warburton from a history class they had together at USC. Warburton would show him the stacks of letters he received from girls around the country after seeing his picture in newspaper.

Bush and USC quarterback Matt Leinart, whose fame went beyond being college football stars in that 2005 season, didn’t have anything on Warburton, according to Van Deerlin.

He recalled a night on the town he spent with Warburton and his college 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 during an interview in 2005. “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.”

San Diego has lost a forward-thinking politician, a journalist and sports historian.

— TOM SHANAHAN

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