Falcons' White grows up in a hurry

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

There was a time when a large percentage of McDonald's employees in greater Atlanta would see Roddy White and automatically push a button.

"I had them trained," White said with a laugh. "The No. 2 combo, always the No. 2 combo -- Quarter-Pounder with cheese, large fries and a Hi-C. Every day. Sometimes, two or three times a day. Sometimes, at 3 or 4 in the morning."

This is the story of how White went from the No. 2 combo to being the No. 1 wide receiver for the Atlanta Falcons and, perhaps, one of the best in the NFL. It's about slimming down and growing up. More than anything, it's a story about learning to take care of others and, in the process, taking care of yourself.

If the people at McDonald's could see White now -- and they haven't in quite some time -- they wouldn't recognize him. These days, White's home early most evenings. He's eating (and making) dinners that are heavy on fruits and vegetables. If he goes out, it's to watch the kids -- his kids, essentially -- play high school football.

Tyrone Moore, 15, is White's brother. Ali White, 17, is his cousin. They play football at and attend Mill Creek High School, which is just a few miles away from the Falcons' practice facility in Flowery Branch. They live with White, 27, who has taken on the role of parent for both boys.

It happened almost overnight. It happened before the 2007 school year began and it happened at just about the same time White made a bunch of other decisions that probably saved his career. It's a long and complicated story, but, when you look at the end result, it's no coincidence that all these good things happened at the same time.

Let's start with the arrival of the two teenagers in Georgia.

"They lived with my mom [in South Carolina]," White said. "Things weren't going real well. They needed someone who would always be there for them and I didn't think they were getting that. I wanted to take more responsibility and guide them in a family direction."

In most instances, young men get a chance to grow into fatherhood over time. White, who remains single, didn't even get a bachelor party. But, he said, he had enough of those moments when he was young.

"My first two years in the league, I got caught up in the things a lot of young athletes do," White said. "I'd go to practice, go to McDonald's and go out until 3 or 4 in the morning. I'd get a couple hours sleep and go do it all over again."

It showed in White's play. A first-round pick (27th overall) out of Alabama-Birmingham in 2005, White's first two years in the league were pretty close to disastrous. An ankle injury sidelined him for much of his rookie preseason. When he did get on the field, blown routes and dropped passes kept him from ever getting a solid grip on a starting job. All those No. 2 combos had taken White's 6-foot frame to almost 220 pounds and were making him run more like a tight end than a linebacker.

"Our second game against New Orleans in my second year, I dropped a few easy passes," White said. "I mean the ball went right through my arms. People were booing and I thought I'd never see the field again. I finally said to myself, 'You're not going to be in this league much longer if you keep this up. You've got to get serious about this.'"

After that season, Bobby Petrino was hired to coach the Falcons. It turned out to be a terrible move, with Petrino not even lasting a full year before bolting for the University of Arkansas. Much of Atlanta's roster called Petrino a quitter and ripped him for his inability to communicate with players.

But there is one little-known Petrino story that did pay off -- and still is paying off -- for the Falcons. At the same time White was doing some serious soul searching, the new coach sat him down for a serious talk.

"He told me I had the talent to be a No. 1 receiver in this league and that I wasn't using it," White said. "He told me I needed to drop some weight. He told me what I already kind of knew, that I had to get serious."

A lot of strange things happened to the Falcons last year. Petrino's problems are well-documented and so is the sad saga of quarterback Michael Vick. Without Vick, the Falcons used Joey Harrington, Byron Leftwich and Chris Redman as starting quarterbacks.

About the only thing that went right was the play of White. After producing 59 catches for 952 yards and three touchdowns in his first two seasons, White forgot McDonald's, dropped his weight to 205 pounds, started working harder and partying much less and, for the first time in his life, found a role model. That was veteran receiver Joe Horn, who may have been just a role player for the Falcons, but was a Pro Bowler earlier in his career.

"That guy turned the switch on for me," White said. "He showed me how to work hard and told me I could be a No. 1 receiver. I followed whatever he did. You've got to remember that I never had anybody to pattern myself after. Even when I first got into the league, I didn't have anybody like that and I thought I knew it all and kept to myself. I lived alone and I lived my life by my standards, which weren't the best."

With Horn's influence, White caught 83 passes for 1,202 yards and five touchdowns. At the same time, White was going through major changes at home and he wasn't living alone anymore. His brother and cousin arrived and so did responsibilities. He had to make sure they got to school, got to football practice, ate, did their homework and got to bed on time.

"It was a big adjustment for me," White said. "It's been worth it, though. I've just taken the approach that I want them to know I'm always going to be there for them. It's been real rewarding for me to see them do well."

It's been real rewarding for the Falcons to see White's personal growth continue. These days, he's known as one of the hardest workers on the team.

White's been a big part of the reason for Atlanta's surprising 5-3 start. His 48 catches for 733 yards and five touchdowns have helped rookie quarterback Matt Ryan look like a veteran.

"I want to be a Pro Bowl receiver at some point and I think I'm on the right track now," White said. "Before Joe left [Horn was released this preseason] he took me aside. He told me to keep doing what I did last year and to go out and become a leader. He told me I could take myself even further now that I've established myself."

Now that White's established, and found himself, he's taking everyone around him further.