Len­dale White is on the re­bound, but still haunted by 4th-and-2 play.

Len­dale White is on the re­bound but still haunted by 4th-and-2.

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Zach Helfand

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-2. 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 who grew up in Den­ver, loves foot­ball — loves it — even though it pains him. Even though it makes him say things like: “I’m de­pressed about foot­ball ev­ery day.”

On Satur­day, USC played 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-2.

“It was 1 yard,” White says. “One yard stopped us from be­ing great for­ever.”

Re­liv­ing fourth-and-2

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 T-shirt 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.

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 fourt­hand-2 play was his mo­ment, his chance to get the job done, alone, to no longer be over­shad­owed.

White loves Reg­gie Bush. “I’ve never seen a bet­ter col­lege foot­ball player,” he says.

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 and 13 sec­onds left in reg­u­la­tion and USC hold­ing a 38-33 lead, the Tro­jans were at Texas’ 45-yard line and needed 2 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.

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. “Cut back, 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?

NFL ca­reer fell short

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.”

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. 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 suf­fered 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.

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 lashed out at Car­roll pub­licly, and he still has not got­ten over the pain.

White never played in an­other NFL game.

Fight­ing the demons

When White moved back to Den­ver, his de­pres­sion spiked. That fourth-and-2 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.”

White wasn’t sure if his de­pres­sion was be­cause of fourth-and-2 or the NFL or CTE, or some­thing else.

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

Break­ing cy­cle of pills

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-2, 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.”

As­so­ci­ated Press file

Texas play­ers stop USC’S Len­dale White from con­vert­ing on a fourth-and-2 play in the fourth quar­ter of the na­tional cham­pi­onshp game on Jan. 4, 2006.

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