Raleigh, North Carolina – Willie Dean ‘Pat’ White is buried in Hillcrest Cemetery in Raleigh. A special 1964 All-American plaque sits next to his gravestone, which reads “unquestionably Raleigh’s greatest All-American multi-sport athlete.”
The marks are a solemn reminder of what his life could have been.
White rests outside the Rochester Heights neighborhood in east Raleigh, a part of town where he was revered. A sharp dresser with a keen intellect, White was something of a hero, boasting an almost mythological heritage. White’s death from cancer at age 19 was a blow not only to football fans, but also to legions of people inspired by his talent, personality and charisma.
“It’s hard to understand today what he meant to people back then,” said Tim Stevens, who covered high school sports for The News & Observer. “He was going to show everyone that you could come here and be successful.”
Raleigh’s Ligon High, now a middle school and formerly the city’s black high school, had its share of successful big names like Harlem Globetrotters star James “Twiggy” Sanders. There was also NFL offensive lineman John Baker, who would become Wake County Sheriff.
White was raised in the Chavis Heights neighborhood of Raleigh as one of nine children. With records showing White standing at six feet and 160 pounds, his stature wouldn’t be considered imposing by modern standards.
His speed, however, was another story.
His speed elevated him to the top athlete in the state, earning All-American honors for two seasons in football and winning state tennis championships in singles and doubles. Additionally, White was an all-state basketball selection and a sprinter on track teams.
“He could dribble faster than you could run,” former football and basketball teammate Walter ‘Link’ Ellis said. “He was so quick.”
Reports note that White ran a 9.7-second 100-yard sprint, which was a bit slower than Jesse Owens’ 9.4-second time. White rushed over 2,600 yards at Ligon and held the school career record with 276 points when the institution became a college in 1971.
White would have been 78 in 2022.
During his short life, his accomplishments inspired many black people in Raleigh and surrounding areas at that time, who struggled with marginalization and practices that would be considered discriminatory today. Raleigh, which had Shaw and St. Augustine universities, was building a network of schools to serve the black community. Ligon opened in the early 1950s to fill the role of Washington High, which was among the most highly regarded black high schools in the state along with Durham’s Hillside High, Greensboro’s Dudley High, and Fayetteville’s EE Smith High, among others.
George Morgan was the center for the Little Blues and remembers the responsibility of protecting White from defenses. Morgan said teams would pressure White relentlessly and blitzing was becoming a popular defensive strategy.
“I had in mind that I had to protect him,” said Morgan, a collegiate player at St. Augustine’s and later coach at Millbrook High.
“But I couldn’t protect him from [cancer].”
In 1963, White helped Ligon win the district and reach the state championship game against Charlotte’s Second Ward. The Little Blues lost 28-14 with White scoring both touchdowns and converting the two extra points.
It would be his last football game.
Although this was long before the days when high school sports were covered by ESPN and various online outlets, White had some celebrity status in North Carolina and beyond. It was no hyperbole to say that he carried the community on his shoulders as he took Ligon football to new heights.
“Pat was getting letters and had to go to the manager’s office every week to pick up her mail from fans all over the country,” Ellis said.
Pat’s special brand of athleticism made him fast for his time. Referees blasted White’s elusiveness as he was so fast on a contraband run they couldn’t follow the play.
Former Raleigh Times sportswriter Bruce Phillips wrote: “The loss of Willie White will be counted among the major heartbreaks of Raleigh sports for a long time to come because of his greatness on the field and his golden goals off it.”
White won the Raleigh Times High School Player of the Year award in 1964 and would be the first black athlete to receive the honor.
Brad Thompson wrote a book about his life and death, “Too Soon: The Pat White Story”. Thompson came to Raleigh from Goldsboro to attend NC State and learned more about the phenom that was White.
“Everyone around would be talking about him with enthusiasm,” Thompson said. “He was just a good guy.”
White was recruited by schools as big as Syracuse, where recent stars like Jim Brown and Ernie Davis had played. He ended up choosing Morgan State. Many believe he made his choice because of relatives who lived in the Baltimore area.
However, he never reached college. Doctors discovered cancerous growths near the end of his senior season.
“I didn’t see it coming,” said Ellis, who was a pallbearer at White’s funeral. “Some people said Pat was complaining about ailments he was having, feeling sick and all that, but not to the point of worrying me.”
White died on July 9, 1964, having received his high school diploma a few weeks earlier in the hospital. Morgan said he couldn’t bear to attend his funeral.
“I had my chance to bring closure to him on my own,” Morgan said. “It was too much.”
“He was the big hope,” Stevens said. “Like a folk hero.”