Friday, October 17th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHERRYVILLE, N.C. (AP) _ Charlie ``Choo-Choo'' Justice, twice a runner-up for the Heisman Trophy while piling up yardage as an elusive running back at North Carolina in the late 1940s, died Friday morning. He was 79.

Justice had been in declining health for the last five years, according to family friend Hugh Morton, who said Justice died at 3:25 a.m. at his home in Cherryville.

``The sports world and the state of North Carolina lost a legend today,'' Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner John Swofford said in a statement.

``His contributions to the university and intercollegiate athletics as a whole are immeasurable,'' Swofford said. ``However, as impressive as his accomplishments were on the field, they couldn't surpass the quality of the individual. Greatness and humility are too seldom linked, but they certainly were with Charlie.''

When he completed his four years at Chapel Hill, Justice gained 4,883 yards running and passing, a record that stood for 45 years until quarterback Jason Stanicek topped it in 1994. Justice was on hand to congratulate Stanicek.

``He clearly was the most exciting football player that I've ever seen,'' Morton said in a telephone interview.

``He was the best broken field runner that has ever been as far as I'm concerned. There were all kinds of jokes and stories about his going by various locations on the field at least twice'' in the same play, Morton said.

In 1948, Justice was second to Doak Walker of SMU in the Heisman Trophy balloting. The next season, Notre Dame's Leon Hart got the award ahead of Justice.

North Carolina went to the Sugar Bowl twice and to the Cotton Bowl during the Justice era. The Tar Heels lost all three games, but went 32-9-2 while Justice played in Chapel Hill.

In four seasons, Justice scored 234 points and accounted for 64 touchdowns. He rushed for 2,634 yards.

Justice was twice named to the all-Southern Conference team, of which North Carolina was a member prior to joining the Atlantic Coast Conference. He was Southern Conference player of the year in 1948 and 1949.

Justice went on to play for the Washington Redskins from 1950-1954. He gave fans a preview of what he had to offer in the 1950 College All-Star Game in Chicago, gaining 133 yards, 48 more than the Philadelphia Eagles collected as a team. He was named the game's most valuable player.

Justice was honored by the Redskins in 2002 as one of the team's 70 greatest players during its 70th anniversary celebration.

He also was the first athlete inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.

Surviving members of the Justice teams from 1946-1949 were to hold their annual gathering in Chapel Hill Friday night as part of homecoming weekend.

In the book, ``They Made the Bell Tower Chime,'' Justice is said to have been given the nickname during his stint in the Navy, when a fellow sailor remarked, ``He runs along just like a choo-choo train.'' The book also says Benny Goodman and Johnny Long recorded the hit song, ``All The Way Choo-Choo'' that sold by the thousands.

Justice is survived by his wife, Sarah Hunter Justice; a daughter, Barbara Crews; two granddaughters and one great-granddaughter.

Funeral services have not been completed.