Hard work key to White’s as­cen­sion

Run­ning back does it all for Brady, Pa­tri­ots

Woonsocket Call - - SPORTS - By BREN­DAN McGAIR bm­c­gair@paw­tuck­et­times.com

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.”

File photo by Lourian Mardo-Zayat

Pa­tri­ots run­ning back James White went from split­ting time with two other back at Wis­con­sin to be­ing the hero of Su­per Bowl LI.

Photo by Louri­ann Mardo-Zayat / lmzart­works.com

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.

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