It’s the one play he can’t for­get

For USC’s White, the pain of that one fate­ful play will never go away

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Zach Helfand

For­mer USC run­ning back LenDale White, now 32, thinks about the play ev­ery day. It’s fourth and two against Texas with the 2006 na­tional ti­tle on the line. What hap­pened next “stopped us from be­ing great for­ever.”

To­day: Tro­jans run­ning back LenDale White, the fi­nal in­stall­ment in a four-part se­ries re­vis­it­ing the 2006 Rose Bowl game be­tween USC and Texas.

DEN­VER — LenDale White rips open a pack of cheap cigars, packs in some green leaves and rolls a blunt.

Mar­i­juana is le­gal in Colorado, and White aches in his head, back and places where a sur­geon’s scalpel can’t touch. A lit­tle weed now and then takes the edge off, so he will smoke a bit later and avoid the dark temp­ta­tion of pills.

He has been hes­i­tant to say that pub­licly be­cause peo­ple make snap judg­ments with­out know­ing him. They think: Over­weight. They think: Loud. They think fourth and two. Screw it, he says. A lot of what he is will­ing to dis­cuss to­day he has been hes­i­tant to say, but he’s not em­bar­rassed any­more.

“I’m to the point where, man, I’m just … I’m do­ing what makes me happy, pe­riod,” White says.

Hap­pi­ness is al­ways a lit­tle tougher this time of year. It’s La­bor Day, and the NFL opens in three days. Col­lege foot­ball be­gan in earnest the pre­vi­ous week­end.

White, a for­mer USC run­ning back, loves foot­ball — loves it — even though it pains him. Even though it makes him say things like: “I’m de­pressed about foot­ball ev­ery day.”

Two weeks from La­bor Day — this Satur­day — USC will play Texas for the first time since Jan. 4, 2006, when the Longhorns were able to mount a late fourth-quar­ter rally that made them na­tional cham­pi­ons. The game re­opens painful mem­o­ries for

USC, but for White, the raw hurt has never dis­ap­peared. He thinks about one play ev­ery day. He thinks fourth and two. “It was one yard,” White says. “One yard stopped us from be­ing great for­ever.”

::

Seven years out of the NFL, White is spend­ing the hol­i­day at his friend’s house, a messy place with mis­matched fur­ni­ture and three dogs.

At 32, he is friendly, gen­er­ous and, wear­ing a white Tshirt and gray sweat­shorts, ap­pears lean — yes, lean. Ten­nis is on the tele­vi­sion, but White isn’t in­ter­ested. Be­fore long, he’s talk­ing foot­ball, rem­i­nisc­ing, smil­ing, of­fer­ing rare praise of “sorry-ass UCLA” and the Bru­ins’ mirac­u­lous come­back the night be­fore.

Then the con­ver­sa­tion turns to the usual topic, that night at the Rose Bowl when he could have been the hero.

In White's mind, the fourth-and-two play was his mo­ment, his chance to get the job done, alone, to no longer be over­shad­owed.

White loves Reg­gie Bush. White talks about him of­ten this day, and ev­ery word is glow­ing. “I've never seen a bet­ter col­lege foot­ball player,” he says.

Still, White knows Bush’s ac­com­plish­ments at USC eclipsed his own: 3,159 yards rush­ing and 57 to­tal touch­downs. It was White, not Bush, who led the team in rush­ing dur­ing USC’s two na­tional cham­pi­onship sea­sons.

He knows peo­ple for­get or don’t care about what he did in the game against Texas up un­til his fi­nal run. He’d out­played Bush, run­ning for 124 yards and three touch­downs. Two of his three touch­downs came on the same play: 27 power.

With 2 min­utes 13 sec­onds left in reg­u­la­tion and USC hold­ing a 38-33 lead, the Tro­jans were at Texas’ 45-yard line and needed two yards on fourth down to keep pos­ses­sion and run out the clock. Two yards for a third straight na­tional cham­pi­onship. Get it, and there would be no Vince Young game-win­ner.

Coach Pete Car­roll made a fate­ful de­ci­sion. He kept Bush, the Heis­man Tro­phy win­ner, on the side­line. Ev­ery­one in the sta­dium knew what the call would be: 27 power. Car­roll, in the sea­son’s big­gest mo­ment, was go­ing with White.

No one doubted the out­come. White was huge and strong and fast and could run through any­one. He’d get the first down. And then he didn’t. The de­fense knew what was com­ing. USC’s line was pushed back. White, with nowhere to go, ran hope­lessly into two de­fend­ers.

“When I look at that film, I should’ve tried to ‘Reg­gie’ — any­thing,” he says. “Cut­back, do some­thing, any­thing. Dive as high as I can over the top. When I run, just dive. You try to think of any and ev­ery­thing that you could do at that point in time, or what you could’ve done to change the out­come of the play.”

He be­lieves the play has come to de­fine him, and he won­ders: How many times do you hear peo­ple talk­ing about LenDale White as USC’s ca­reer leader in touch­downs? It’s not O.J. Simp­son, Charles White or Mar­cus Allen. It’s him. Yet that’s not his legacy.

“Yeah, Texas is prob­a­bly go­ing to be the game,” White says. “They’ll never for­get that. There’s noth­ing I can do to shake that.”

Af­ter the game, he went to the stu­dio with his friend Snoop Dogg. They were in shock. They kept ask­ing: What hap­pened?

Sit­ting at his friend’s din­ing room ta­ble, White men­tions a par­tic­u­lar word: “bust.”

Does he con­sider him­self an NFL bust? He vac­il­lates be­fore reach­ing a con­clu­sion. “Hell no,” he says.

Then again, he ac­knowl­edges that he wanted to be in the Hall of Fame and didn’t come close. He didn’t make the most of his NFL ca­reer, and it was his own fault.

“That's all me,” he says. “I didn’t do stuff right. I didn’t work out as hard as I should’ve.” Why not? “That’s a good-ass ques­tion,” he says.

He looks down and says qui­etly: “All I did was hurt my­self.”

White says he left for the NFL early, af­ter his ju­nior sea­son, be­cause he had fam­ily to care for. He grew up poor, and his fa­ther died of HIV when White was young. “You know how hard that is to tell kids when you’re 11 or 12, that your dad died of HIV?” he says.

He no longer wanted his mother toil­ing for $9.25 an hour or the bugs to bite his grand­mother in her run­down nurs­ing home. It was dif­fi­cult to leave USC, where he was fa­mous, kick­ing it with Snoop. Car­roll had be­come a fa­ther fig­ure. He knew things about White that few peo­ple did. White re­grets leav­ing when he did.

For a brief time, he re­cap­tured in the NFL what he’d left be­hind at USC. Dur­ing his sec­ond sea­son with the Ten­nessee Ti­tans, he rushed for more than 1,000 yards. His third, he scored 15 touch­downs. He even be­came friends with Young — the Rose Bowl neme­sis who be­came his NFL team­mate. But he didn’t push him­self hard enough, and on top of that, his body took a pum­mel­ing. He was a big tar­get, and de­fend­ers cut him down with big hits.

White es­ti­mates he sus­tained 20 to 30 con­cus­sions, about one ev­ery other game. But he can’t be sure. Only one was di­ag­nosed, he says.

“You lose con­scious­ness and then all of a sud­den it’s like shoooo-ooooof ,” White says, mak­ing a slurp­ing noise, his eyes grow­ing wide as he de­scribed the sen­sa­tion. “Like, that’s how it sounds, like shh­h­h­hhloooof, and then all of a sud­den you hear the play again.” He’d wan­der around in a haze, Young di­rect­ing him to the right spot un­til he re­gained his senses.

His head throbbed. His body ached. When his ca­reer be­gan to slide, he slipped into a funk. Pain pills, he found, dulled the mis­ery.

“And I don’t mean like pop­ping a pain pill be­cause I’m hurt,” White says. “I mean pop­ping scripts. Like 10 Vi­codins at a time type [stuff]. You know what I mean? To feel it, like I’m high. To feel the numb­ness.”

Then, hope ap­peared. The Ti­tans traded him to the Seattle Sea­hawks, re­unit­ing him with Car­roll.

It lasted a month. The Sea­hawks cut him dur­ing the off­sea­son. Car­roll in­formed White of the move in a phone call. The im­per­sonal na­ture wounded White deeply. He felt aban­doned. He lashed out at Car­roll pub­licly, and he still has not got­ten over the pain.

White’s feel­ings toward Car­roll are com­pli­cated. “I’m more mad at Pete, the Sea­hawk sit­u­a­tion, be­cause he han­dled it like a cow­ard,” White says.

But he also still loves Car­roll. If he could go back and do it all over again, he says he’d play for Car­roll at USC in a heart­beat. How­ever, he also knows this: Car­roll wasn’t the fa­ther fig­ure White imag­ined. Car­roll was a coach.

White says Car­roll should have cut him in per­son. He imag­ines the con­ver­sa­tion: “LenDale, I love you, son. This is what’s wrong with you, though, as a player right now.”

In an email, Car­roll says that: “Un­for­tu­nately, the tim­ing and cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing LenDale’s re­lease didn’t af­ford me the op­por­tu­nity to speak with him in per­son — some­thing I al­ways try to do. I am sorry he feels hurt by the sit­u­a­tion and truly wish him well.”

White never played in an­other NFL game.

The next time White was in the pub­lic eye it was be­cause he was in­volved in a dis­pute at the Coli­seum af­ter a USC game in 2014. Re­porters took video.

White was try­ing to get to USC’s locker room, but he was stopped by four po­lice of­fi­cers and two se­cu­rity guards. He stopped, look­ing re­signed. He was be­ing kicked out of the sta­dium. He shook hands with the po­lice of­fi­cers, but he pointed at some­one far­ther down the tun­nel and started yelling be­fore walk­ing out of the sta­dium. He be­lieves Pat Haden, then USC’s ath­letic di­rec­tor, had him re­moved.

White, USC said, had been ag­gres­sive on the side­line dur­ing the game and was yelling at play­ers and coaches near USC’s bench. Re­ports sur­faced in­di­cat­ing Haden be­lieved White wasn’t sup­port­ing the pro­gram.

White took it as if he were be­ing ac­cused of trea­son. He says he loves USC with­out reser­va­tion, but felt Haden treated him as if he were still some poor kid in­stead of a for­mer Tro­jans great. (Haden did not re­spond to a phone call seek­ing com­ment.)

What White re­ally needed was help. When White moved back to Den­ver, his de­pres­sion spiked. That fourth and two had blot­ted out his bril­liance. He fix­ated on re­turn­ing to the NFL, even though it was years af­ter he’d been cut. Peo­ple stopped him in the gro­cery store and asked when he was com­ing back. He worked out with his best friend with the Ti­tans, run­ning back Chris John­son. And when White wasn’t with John­son, he worked out near home, with high school play­ers.

White’s mother no­ticed him chang­ing. White is bright and gen­tle, a plea­sure to spend time with. But he turned sour. He stopped groom­ing him­self. He’d snap, grum­ble at his nieces and neph­ews.

“Moth­ers know,” Anita White Tay­lor says. “Ev­ery­thing was get­ting to him. Ev­ery­thing. And I do mean ev­ery­thing, from the sun shin­ing in his face in the morn­ing to the sun go­ing down in the evening. Ev­ery­thing got to him. He was just mad at the world.”

Tay­lor had wanted him to re­turn to foot­ball. Then when he vis­ited one day, she watched him try to get up from the couch. His big toe was jacked up. His shoul­der was in ob­vi­ous pain. He limped. It was like an old per­son, she says, try­ing to work out all the kinks.

“It just seemed like two diesel trucks col­lid­ing to­gether, and he’s fi­nally feel­ing all the pain now,” Tay­lor says.

The men­tal pain was worse. Tay­lor sat him down and talked about de­pres­sion. She’d gone through bouts, too, she told him. She asked him to see some­one. She saw a com­mer­cial about the brain in­jury chronic trau­matic en­cephalopa­thy, or CTE, on tele­vi­sion. She begged him to get checked out. She asked him: Why don’t you find some­thing else to de­vote your life to?

“He told me, ‘Mom, foot­ball is all I know,’ ” Tay­lor says. “‘That’s all I know.’ ”

He thought about killing him­self. He didn’t know if he’d be good at any­thing else.

“I don’t wanna be that guy to drive to a … sta­dium and blow my brains out,” he says. “I don’t want to be that guy. But bro, some­times, there’s, again, that frus­tra­tion of foot­ball and the fact that peo­ple are able to hold that over you.”

A few years ago, White’s USC bud­dies formed a group tex­ting thread, which has grown to about 30 for­mer team­mates. Chris McFoy, a for­mer USC re­ceiver, says the men use it to check in on each other, “just like we’re still in the locker room or still play­ing to­gether.”

Lots of them, hav­ing reached the high­est highs, were go­ing through foot­ball with­drawal of their own.

“It kind of leaves you with a void,” Keith Rivers, a for­mer USC line­backer, says.

Many days, the group chat kept White afloat. The team­mates and friends he thought he let down picked him up. They checked in con­stantly. Snoop Dogg called when­ever he was in Den­ver. John­son hosted White at his house. Young called weekly. White’s USC team­mates called him, sug­gest­ing new ven­tures, new goals.

“If it wasn’t for some of that group chat talk some of the days, I don’t know how I would get through it,” White says.

White wasn’t sure if his de­pres­sion was be­cause of fourth and two or the NFL or CTE, or some­thing else.

He just won­dered: With­out foot­ball, what value did he have?

White puts the blunt down on the ta­ble. He knows peo­ple think he’s a stoner, but he’s done his re­search. He ex­plains that a par­tic­u­lar type of mar­i­juana has been part of his re­cov­ery.

White broke his de­pen­dence on pain pills with prod­ucts made with cannabid­iol, a less psy­choac­tive chem­i­cal in cannabis. He says it has helped his anx­i­ety, soothed his pain.

White thinks it can help other peo­ple like him. Do­ing so has be­come his mis­sion. He bought into a farm that sells mar­i­juana to dis­pen­saries called High Coun­try Ranch.

His at­ti­tude has im­proved, ac­cord­ing to his fam­ily and friends. Tay­lor be­gan to see some­thing dif­fer­ent in her son around July. He smiled more. He played with his nieces and neph­ews. McFoy says White again is “the guy that cracks jokes, tells the truth, is bru­tally hon­est, love him or hate him.”

The Times in­ter­viewed 30 play­ers from USC’s 2006 Rose Bowl team. Many of them think Bush should also have been on the field on fourth and two, at least as a de­coy. White agrees.

Just about all of them say, given a do-over, they wouldn’t change any­thing else. They’d give the ball to White.

White just wants to find a place where he’s not de­fined by one yard.

“I just want to live, man,” he says, “and be at peace.”

‘Yeah, Texas is prob­a­bly go­ing to be the game. They’ll never for­get that. There’s noth­ing I can do to shake that.’

— LENDALE WHITE, on what he thinks his legacy is at USC

Rob Gau­thier Los An­ge­les Times

Don­ald Mi­ralle Getty Im­ages

USC RUN­NING BACK LenDale White (21) rushed for 124 yards and three touch­downs in the 2006 Rose Bowl against Texas. But it was the one yard he didn’t get on a late fourth-and-two play that left the Longhorns de­fend­ers in a cel­e­bra­tory mood.

Los An­ge­les Times

AF­TER A DIS­PUTE fol­low­ing a USC game in 2014, LenDale White was es­corted out of the Coli­seum by po­lice of­fi­cers. Re­porters recorded video of the in­ci­dent.

Lisa Blu­men­feld Getty Im­ages

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