BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Buffalo Bills cornerback Tre'Davious White's thoughts could almost be heard through the phone in a recent interview: What are the odds of Bills rookie wide receiver Marquez Stevenson and himself, both from Shreveport, Louisiana, even making it to the NFL?
The odds were slim for White, 26, and Stevenson, 23, both natives of the northwest Louisiana city (population: 187,112) -- where one's chances of being the victim of violent or property crime is 1 in 17, according to Neighborhood Scout. Where, depending on the neighborhood, the people you grew up with don't always make it out; the city's homicide rate in March 2021 was up 1000% from the previous year.
Churning out professional athletes is nothing new for Shreveport; Pro Football Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw, longtime Bills quarterback Joe Ferguson and former Dallas Cowboys cornerback Morris Claiborne are among the notable players who hail from the town in which the Red River flows.
It's also where one neighborhood, the Cooper Road, produced a group of friends who have made it to the NFL. But White and Stevenson are not just friends who grew up on the same street. On numerous occasions they slept in the same house during get-togethers. Stevenson was close friends with White's younger brother, Da'Vonta, as was Cleveland Browns cornerback Greedy Williams and Greedy's brother, New York Giants rookie cornerback Rodarius "Lee Lee" Williams.
When Stevenson was selected in the sixth round of the 2021 NFL draft, two picks after Rodarius, it was cause for celebration on the Cooper Road. Not just because Stevenson, who played for the University of Houston, made it to the NFL, but because he was reuniting with White.
"The whole neighborhood celebrated when he got drafted -- the neighborhood celebrated," White said. "Because they were like, 'he's going to the NFL but he's going up there with you.'"
Stevenson might not be sleeping at White's house anymore, but they're playing together on the same team for the first time.
White's example and the guidance from members of their community pushed Stevenson to get drafted by Buffalo, where his speed and playmaking ability at 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds might earn him a spot in the team's crowded wide receiver room. With Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, Emmanuel Sanders and Gabriel Davis locks to make the team, Stevenson is among several wide receivers vying for two or three jobs. He is projected to make the Bills' final roster, and is a strong candidate for the practice squad if he is cut Tuesday.
He has made a good impression. His teammates and coaches already call him "Speedy," and he has lived up to the name this preseason, returning a punt 74 yards for a touchdown against the Chicago Bears in his second game. This came one week after reeling in a 42-yard catch on fourth-and-10 to extend the Bills' winning drive against the Detroit Lions.
"Impressed with what he did. Obviously, the big play with the return game and he did some good things again at receiver," Bills coach Sean McDermott said. "Two games and he's done some things that catch your eye."
Stevenson making it this far is worth celebrating. Just as he was inspired by White's journey to the league as the Bills' 2017 first-round pick out of LSU, Stevenson's path can serve as an example for the next Shreveport kid who has an NFL dream.
"Coming from where we come from, little kids look up to you," Stevenson said. "I get DMs daily, they ask me questions and I tell them to keep going, keep their head down, and don't doubt themselves."
Following White's lead
It didn't matter if the game was marbles, table tennis or chess -- even as a child, White wanted to win. It drove him to become a five-star recruit as well as class valedictorian coming out of Green Oaks High School.
He said coaches encouraged him to be more vocal with the younger guys who looked up to him, but White didn't necessarily see himself as an inspiration to others.
"That was never me. I just figured it never will [happen], it's just not how God designed me," White said. "I didn't really realize the effect of my work ethic and me just driving to be the best I can be until I got home this offseason, and so many people were just proud."
White's humility is what made the success of Stevenson, who attended Northwood High School, and the Williams brothers such a source of joy. Eternally introspective, White appreciates what his neighborhood friends have accomplished, but it wasn't until he saw Stevenson in Orchard Park, New York, that he truly understood his role in the process.
"Every time I see Marquez in the facility now, it's kind of weird but it gives me joy," White said. "Because he really did it and I really did it, coming from our circumstances. Because it wasn't great at all.
"It's so special because those guys watched me -- they actually watched me work for it. Not many people are able to say they've done what you've done and been able to motivate and inspire a whole area, and do it in a great way."
But not everyone who helped Stevenson and White thrive got to see where they are today.
'I don't even know if I cried'
Stevenson can't pinpoint when he met Eric Lindsey; it was one of those friendships that materialized about the time Stevenson was in sixth grade. An excellent football player and boxer, Lindsey, two years older, often kept his younger friend out of trouble.
"I'd always been the younger guy playing with the older guys, that's really how I got a name for myself," Stevenson said. "I knew what he was doing, but every time we were together, he knew not to bring that type of energy around me. He would try to show me a better way."
Stevenson clearly remembers the day Lindsey died. Greedy dropped Stevenson off at home one night but quickly called back.
"He told me to go look on Facebook, they're saying Eric's laid out in the middle of a parking lot right now," Stevenson said.
Williams circled back and they drove to the apartment complex where Eric had been shot. They arrived at a crime scene Stevenson remembers vividly. Yellow tape, people screaming.
The date was May 12, 2016, just before 2 a.m. More details burned into Stevenson's memory. It was also the day of Stevenson's high school graduation.
"[Lindsey] had actually given me his cap and gown to wear since we wore the same size," Stevenson said. "It was just crazy, plus I was graduating with his sister and I would call her my sister, too. Emotions was everywhere when we walked in the building.
"I really didn't know what to feel [at the scene]. I don't even think I cried but I mean, at the funeral, I remember watching the slideshow not even feeling like I've got to cry -- but I just felt a tear fall out of nowhere. I didn't even feel that emotion coming, it was the first time I cried in a long time."
Stevenson had hardly had time to process what happened. Four days after Lindsey's death, he left for Houston to begin his collegiate football career.
He never thought about taking a break, figuring Lindsey would want him to move forward. He tattooed memorials to his late friend on his body and hung his picture up in his apartment in Houston -- in the mirror, so he would see Lindsey every morning.
White remembers Lindsey, a running back so talented White used the word four times in describing him.
"It's so sad, but it's just, like, that happens," White said. "Where we come from, that's normal. It's so sad that that's our reality. ... It's why a lot of people don't understand us."
Lindsey's death felt different because he was "like a brother." It hurts him not to be able to share this NFL experience with his friend, but Stevenson knows how Lindsey would feel if he were here.
"It made me push harder and not complain about what I don't have, just be grateful for what I do have," Stevenson said. "You never know when it's your last time, so cherish every opportunity.
"I know he'd be proud of me."
'Steal of the draft'
Stevenson still visits his high school teachers and principal whenever he's in town.
"He's always been that kid to please teachers," Northwood principal Shannon Wall said. "'Yes sir' since day one."
Are you ready for an already improbably-small world to get even smaller? Wall's best friend from childhood, Eric Washington, is the defensive line coach for the Bills.
Wall and Washington remain close enough that on draft night in April, Wall sent his old friend a text asking that he relay a message to the coaching staff in Buffalo.
"I was texting Eric to tell them they just got the steal of the draft," Wall said. "They got the real deal."