Hard work key to White’s ascension
Running back does it all for Brady, Patriots
FOXBORO — The commemorative football was an ode to the statistics that James White compiled in Super Bowl LI: 29 rushing yards on six carries, 110 receiving yards on 14 catches, and three touchdowns.
George Smith made two copies of the keepsake football. One would be tucked inside the trophy case at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The second one … Smith one day drove over to White’s apartment.
What was White’s reaction to his high school head coach taking the time to create such a memento?
“He just kept smiling,” said Smith, who coached White for three years at St. Thomas Aquinas. “James always has a smile on his face.”
In a locker room that at times doubles as an intense pressure cooker, White is cut from a different cloth among his New England Patriots teammates. The fifth-year pro out of the University of Wisconsin has an upbeat nature about him; you have to wonder if he’s ever experienced a bad day.
“I can’t put a finger on it, but his parents were the salt of the earth. They raised him to always be kind,” Smith said during a phone interview last week. “James had a disposition which was apparent when he walked onto campus at eight in the morning. It continued throughout the day – his classroom teachers loved him. It carried over to the football and baseball fields. When he walked the hallways here, he was one of the most respected kids we had on campus during those years.”
To those who know White best, there’s no such thing as him either feeling blue or believing the hype surrounding him. Tell White that he has the most touchdown receptions by an NFL running back since 2015 (16) and you’ll get a shrug of the shoulders. Personal milestones aren’t his thing, though rest assured his body of work hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“He does it week in and week out, one practice to the next practice,” Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski said recently about White. “He’s a great example for our team and deserves everything he’s been getting.”
“I would definitely echo that statement,” said Smith when informed about the praise Gronkowski lavished upon his former St. Thomas Aquinas pupil.
In a New England backfield that due to season-ending injuries suffered by Jeremy Hill and Rex Burkhead, White’s value has become even greater. While it appears that rookie Sony Michel is the feature back, White’s ability to serve as a check-down option for Tom Brady and occasionally spell Michel has made him a Patriot for all downs.
Entering Sunday night’s showdown against undefeated Kansas City, White sits atop all New England pass catchers with 32 receptions – nine more than Gronkowski – while rushing the ball 23 times for 110 yards. No longer is he viewed as a third-down back where seldom usage can test one’s patience.
As Brady noted after the Patriots’ 26-10 loss to Detroit last month, White has got to be involved. In the two games since getting singled out by Brady, White has caught 18 passes and ran the ball 10 times. He’s also found the end zone on three occasions.
“I mean, for me, I always feel like I’m involved whether I touch the ball or not. One week, it may be catching, one week it may be running, one week it may just be blocking,” White said. “I just want to execute my role every Sunday, which can be different week to week. I mean, whatever it takes to win. I’ve accepted my role and just go out there and execute to the best of my abilities.”
To Smith, White’s willingness to put personal acclaim aside for the greater good was apparent when he shared the same backfield in high school with current Cincinnati Bengals running back Giovani Bernard.
“Those two guys got along great. They weren’t selfish at all,” Smith said. “When James was here, he was the hardest working guy we had.”
In White’s senior year at St. Thomas Aquinas in 2009, Bernard went down with an injury that enabled White to become the feature back. Smith installed a Wildcat offense that White picked up instantly – he totaled 20 touchdowns along with 1,145 rushing yards and 253 receiving yards.
“He was unbelievable that year and we had won the national championship [in 2008, White’s junior year of high school]” said Smith, who also coached current Patriots wide receiver Philip Dorsett.
White rushed for over 100 yards a game on 17 different occasions during his college career at Wisconsin, despite splitting carries with talents such as John Clay, Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon. When White joined the Patriots in 2014, he found himself behind a running-back group that at the time included Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden, and LeGarrette Blount. In recent years, White has been in the mix along with Dion Lewis, Mike Gillislee, and Burkhead. “He’s never said a word,” Smith said. Coming across as demonstrative or bombastic isn’t White’s style. He’s not going to demand more touches or engage in a lengthy contract holdout like Pittsburgh running back Le’Veon Bell. If Michel or another Patriot running back has a question, White won’t give him the cold shoulder.
“I always try and help guys if they have any questions, whether it’s a new guy coming in like Kenjon [Barner] or Sony … just keeping them up to speed on the little things that they need to know,” White said. “It’s always good to help your teammates because you never know who’s going to be out there for a specific play and they might not get that rep in practice but they might get it in the game, so every little thing that I can help them with will make us better.”
Smith is retired from coaching football at St. Thomas Aquinas though remains the school’s athletic director. When the Patriots staged their epic come-from-behind win over Atlanta in Super Bowl LI, Smith fired off a text message not too long after White’s title-clinching touchdown in overtime. He didn’t expect to hear from White as quickly as he did.
“He said, ‘Thanks coach, that means a lot,’” Smith said. “I don’t even know if he was in the locker room or still on the field celebrating.”
To Smith, White has the qualities to impress on the field and the personality to remain grounded off of it. No matter the hand you’ve been dealt, White’s mantra is to just keep on smiling.
“To me, James obviously is a great football player,” Smith said, “but more than that, he’s a great human being. We need more James Whites not just in pro sports, but in life.”
Patriots running back James White went from splitting time with two other back at Wisconsin to being the hero of Super Bowl LI.
James White (28) is Tom Brady’s most dependable running back in the passing game. Since the start of the of 2015, no running back has more receiving touchdowns than White’s 15.