Penn State Football: The Zimmerman Trial And The Story of Charlie Janerette
In the days following the conclusion of the George Zimmerman trial, tensions and debates have flared in almost every corner of the country. Arguments surrounding self-defense, appropriate force, and the very legitimacy of laws and procedures have made the trial and the resulting "not guilty" verdict larger than life; so much so that it seems like an aberration in America's long judicial history where crimes and punishments seem much more clear cut.
But it's actually a story we've heard before.
For Penn State fans well versed in the history of the Blue and White, the Zimmerman trial brings up thoughts of a Philadelphia native-turned Nittany Lion. A story that sees an All-American leave the NFL and slowly lose himself to depression until a fateful night in 1984.
For those who have not heard the tale, it ends as the lights of a single police car slowly alternated red and blue off of a brick apartment building and down North 15th Street in Center City Philadelphia, only minutes before 3 a.m. on October 26, 1984. It’s an empty scene apart from a few men, a police officer, and the body of 6-foot-3, 253 pound Philadelphia native Charles Fletcher Janerette Jr., who lay motionless on the ground.
The story begins almost five decades earlier.
Janerette was born and raised in the Richard Allen projects, less than a five minute drive from the road he would later be gunned down on. He and his family would later move to West Oak Lane, a better neighborhood found in the northwest end of the city. Janerette would go on to play high school football at Germantown High School, attending school and befriending future comedy legend Bill Cosby, one year Cosby's senior. Cosby would later pattern his "Fat Albert" cartoon character on his oversized friend.
"There was a friend of mine," Cosby said in 1973 on The Dick Cavett Show. "His name was Charlie Janerette, and Charlie and I played football at Germantown High School together. Charlie was 6'5" - when he was in high school - 6'5" weighed about 258 pounds and he made All-State as a tackle. That's how big he was. He would just stand up and panic would set in on the other team."
"Guys would start running sideways and everything and he'd just pick up everybody, you know. And Charlie's 6'5" 258 pounds and he's out there killing... well not killing but he's really causing a lot of panic in the hearts of people carrying balls and having to block him. And he's 23 years old and I went by his house, we were going to go to this party and his mother said "JUNIOR!" And that was the funniest sight I ever saw in my life, man. Two hundred sixty five pound dude. Six five and his mother says "Junior!" In his house, he was still "junior." But don't say that to Charlie outside of his house."
While at Germantown, Janerette would become an all-city and all-state lineman and was eventually recruited to play for a still-growing Penn State program.
Janerette would become a second-team All-American in 1959 but would make his biggest mark on the world and college athletics just by stepping onto the field on a cold blustery day in October of 1959 in his hometown of Philadelphia.
With the Nittany Lions having gone 8-2 in the regular season, falling only to No. 4 Syracuse and Pittsburgh, Penn State was scheduled to take on the Alabama Crimson Tide at the Liberty Bowl. The only problem was Janerette's skin color.
A few years into the early stages of the Civil Rights movement, Alabama had never stepped onto the field and lined up against an African American player before. At the time, Southeastern Conference schools were still segregated. Some were restricted by law to even play teams with African American players on the roster. To step on to the field against Penn State would cross lines that had been left untouched for decades.
But Alabama agreed to play, following the somewhat reluctant approval from the University of Alabama board, and Alabama governor John Patterson. Patterson interestingly enough won his place in elected office on a segregationist platform, actively touting the support of the KKK and Citizens Councils.
And so it was to be, Penn State and Alabama would face off in Philadelphia for the first time.
Tide coach Paul "Bear" Bryant recalled the events leading up to the game in his autobiography.
"We got the bid to play Penn State in the Liberty Bowl, and Penn State had a few black players. I wanted to go because we were just getting our program going good. I told Governor Patterson I'd need his support. He said "Shoot, Bear, I’m just trying to get votes. Go on up there and play 'em"."
And so they played.
Penn State won the game, 7-0, on a touchdown scored on a fake field goal in the dying seconds of the first half. The on field, implications of Janerette's presence opened the door for Alabama to play teams who also had African American players like Nebraska and Missouri. Penn State, meanwhile, stood proudly with the program's first- ever bowl victory and one of the leaders in the desegregation of sports.
"After the game there was a little party for the players, and a big black tackle named Charlie Janerette came up to me and said he wanted to shake my hand. He said 'Coach, that’s one of the nicest bunch of sportsmen I have ever played against," Bryant wrote in his autobiography.
After Penn State, Janerette was taken in the 1960 NFL draft by the Los Angeles Rams. His contract at the time was good for only $7,500 with a $500 signing bonus. Janerette took that money and covered the down payment for a house that his parents and sisters could live in. For a man born to the projects, the four-bedroom house in the quiet section of Philadelphia known as East Mount Airy was an insurance policy on his family’s happiness and well-being.
Janerette would bounce around the league for several more years until his final season in Denver before a brief stint in the Canadian Football League. By 1965, the 27-year-old Janerette’s football career had ended. Married to his wife, Joan in 1965 they had a daughter, Dariel, and things seemed well for the former gridiron star. However by late summer of 1972, it was the beginning of a long and painful end to Janerette's life.
"He began acting strangely," Joan told the New York Times. "Very hyper. His movements were very quick at times, and he began to say strange things. Like he was going to solve all the problems of the world."
Joan would eventually convince Janerette to see a psychiatrist, admitting himself to a Syracuse hospital for a 10-day stay. The problems increased, and Janerette's family believed he was suffering from manic-depression. Following a diagnosis, Janerette was known to avoid his medication, which sent him into depressive states. In October 1972, Janerette was part of an accident that resulted in the death of a pedestrian. Janerette pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated and was able to walk away with his license suspended for three months.
It was a moment that started a slow downward spiral for Janerette's life.
Janerette would eventually lose his job following a series of unexplained absences. Penn State's football coach was now Joe Paterno, who was an assistant while Janerette was at Penn State. Paterno hired Janerette as a graduate assistant, partially to keep an eye on his former player. Even then, Janerette would have bouts of unexplained and out-of-character behavior that even Paterno noticed. Janerette moved to Washington, D.C. for a short period before finally making a fateful return to Philadelphia to teach English and stay close to his family.
On the morning of October, 25 1984, Janerette never reported to school. A phone call to his house revealed that he never made it home the night before. It wasn't until late that night that a cab driver and friend of Janerette, by the name of Paul Jones, saw Janerette standing alone at a bus terminal; Jones would note later that Janerette hadn't looked well and seemed out of sorts. A brief exchange between the two ended with Jones lending him money to pay a bus fare to get back home. Jones told him he would.
But Jones never saw Charlie Janerette again.
As the minutes ticked away into the darkest hours of the night Janerette wandered the streets of Philadelphia until he came across Officer Frank Von Colin, who had stopped two men for a simple traffic violation. Janerette found himself by North 15th street and Cherry, so close to where his life began only 45 years ago.
What happened next is something that remains a murky soup of uncertainty and conjecture. All who witnessed the event stated that the former football star entered Von Colln’s idling police cruiser; the resulting actions by both Janerette and Von Colln are less concrete.
"Charlie once told me that he had heard that if you ever have trouble, or don't have money, and need help, then you should get into a police car. He said, 'They have to take you home,'" Janerette’s sister, Hope, told The New York Times.
Von Colin, an undersized individual compared to the former NFL lineman, was faced with the uncertainty of Janerette's motive and the sinking feeling of history repeating itself.
A little over a decade earlier, Von Colin's father Sgt. Frank Von Colin was killed by gunmen who bestowed the title of black revolutionaries upon themselves. It was likely a moment slowly unfolding for the younger Von Colin as he watched a hulking figure enter his car in the dead of night. How his father's murder played into Von Colln's actions will never be known, but it seems unlikely that those thoughts did not inhabit even some of the smallest cracks of his subconscious.
Von Colln tried to remove Janerette from the vehicle. The men at the scene would report a scuffle took place; they would later change their stories at the trial saying they went along with the police story to "Just get out of there." According to their testimony at trial, Janerette was not resisting arrest. The ambiguity in the stories opened an immediate controversy that would surround the legacy of Janerette.
But one thing was for certain, the night ended as Janerette fell to the ground, a single gunshot wound to the head from point blank range at 2:30 a.m. He died 15 hours later inside the Hahnemann University Hospital, according to the Associated Press.
Janerette's family sued the officer. In the following court proceedings, a U.S. District Court jury ruled in 1987 that Von Colln was justified in using deadly force, but negligent as he left his nightstick in his police car in direct violation of standard procedure. The family received $188,000 with little closure attached.
"I’m glad for one thing," Hope Janerette told the Times. "I’m that now Charlie is out of that little private hell he was living in."
Following a criminal investigation into Von Colln's actions, the FBI ruled that there was not enough credible information to move the case forward.
In an ironic twist, Common Pleas Judge James Lineberger acquitted the man charged with the murder of Von Colln's father in the mid 1990s. Richard Bernard Thomas left prison after 26 years of imprisonment a man of 51 years of age. Von Colln left the courtroom with the uncertainty of who killed his father.
Almost 30 years later, the story of Janerette is as relevant as ever. In the wake of the George Zimmerman trial, wounds are once again opened and lines are drawn for each side to stand on. For a nation less than a century removed from the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the hours following the Zimmerman verdict are a reminder that for as far as the country has come, that some of the same emotions, suspicions, and tensions that were felt in the wake of Janerette's death are present well into the 21st Century.
For Janerette and his family, his legacy has become caught between the good life that he lived and the downward spiral it became. Penn State remembers him on All-American lists and two short paragraphs explaining his role in "black history" at the university. The great tragedy of his story may not be that he is remembered for its ending, but that his story is hardly remembered at all.
*Special thanks to C.J. Schexnayder for research assistance*