LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Lackawanna coach Mark Duda has been telling this story lately, partly because it only happened a couple weeks ago, but mostly because it says exactly what he wants it to say about his star pupil.
Kevin White had showed up at his old junior college, laced up his cleats and practiced with the team. “It was a big thrill for our guys,” Duda said.
Until, that is, one of Duda’s young quarterbacks threw a pass to the soon-to-be No. 7 overall pick in the NFL draft, White caught it and “got visibly pissed off and slammed the ball on the ground,” the coach recalled. “Then Kevin looked at the quarterback, who was like, ‘Oh my God, you’re mad at me,’ and ran over to him and said, ‘No, no, I’m not mad at you, it’s me. I ran an absolutely horses--- route.’
“It’s two weeks before the NFL draft, he’s at a junior college practice and he’s mad at himself for not running a perfect route. I think more guys should get mad at themselves. It shows how much he cares and it bodes well for the Chicago Bears and for Kevin White.”
White was at Halas Hall Friday after a celebratory dinner at Buffalo Wild Wings downtown Thursday night with 50 of his closest friends and family, the place erupting in wild applause when the Bears' No. 1 draft pick walked through the door.
And yes, from all indications, he cares.
He cares about doing his best.
“Yes, in this game I want to be the best to do it … want to be the best that I can be, so if I’m not doing something right, I want to correct it the next time,” he said.
He still cares about proving people wrong.
“Always …” White said. “There’s always going to be critics and doubters. I just love for someone to say I can’t do something and do it and get a smile on their face.
“[In high school] everyone would always say, ‘You know, if you go Div. I, you may sit the bench,’ or ‘There’s only one percent chance you’ll go to the NFL.’ That’s what keeps me going.”
That, and a few guidance counselors he wouldn’t mind running into one day. “Oh yeah,” he said with a laugh, “I have a few.”
He does not, however, particularly care about the future performance of Amari Cooper, the No. 3 pick of the Raiders and the wide receiver to whom he was compared to most as the draft drew closer.
“I wish him nothing but the best,” said White. “[But] we’re here now, and I’m not competing against Amari. I just want to be the best that I can be. Competing against guys like Richard Sherman and Patrick Peterson, I’ve got to worry about beating those guys.”
When you come from where Cooper has emerged, it’s not all that difficult to keep things in perspective.
Ka’Raun White, Kevin’s younger brother by a year and nine days, remembered their high school days when the brothers and a few of their buddies worked at McDonald’s.
“Every time we went to work, it was fun, playing around, throwing nuggets at each other,” said Ka’Raun. “And our co-workers would say, ‘When y’all get rich and famous, don’t forget about us.’ ”
It was a joke at the time though, because Ka’Raun, now a Division I prospect at Lackawanna, was an undersized wide receiver scrapping to make the high school team, and Kevin was on the J.V., trying to prove he deserved to play on varsity.
“He’s been my biggest motivator,” Ka’Raun said. “I was working at McDonald’s for four years and kind of gave up on football. Then I saw him put up big numbers [his senior year], contact the Lackawanna coach and I figured if it happened to him, it can happen to me.”
In those days, the brothers trained at the FASST performance facility, Kevin catching balls one-handed from the JUGS machine at 60 mph, power-skipping a 25-yard course in two skips, pushing everyone in the place.
“When he walked in, it was like a light entering the room, like ‘Kevin’s here, now it’s time to start,’ ” said Jason Brader, who ran the facility and trained Northwestern’s Dan Persa and Devin Street, who would later be drafted by the Dallas Cowboys.
Still, it took a connection between Brader and Lackawanna assistant Charlie Grande, whom Brader played for, to get White to the junior college level.
And after a redshirt year and a missed second season at Lackawanna due to a missed deadline on filing financial aid forms, it took good old-fashioned persistence to get White to a Division I school.
A dedicated email campaign, which he estimated Friday to be “over 250 for sure,” went out to pretty much every Division I football program out there.
“I’d just copy-paste,” he laughed. “Google Wisconsin or West Virginia, wherever, ‘Hey, this is Kevin White from Lackawanna Junior College. I would like to be a West Virginia Mountaineer.’ Then I would change ‘West Virginia Mountaineer’ to ‘Wisconsin Badger.’ ”
For a while, White recalled, it looked like South Alabama would be the only school to bite before Hawaii, Texas Tech and finally West Virginia responded.
Injuries, three different quarterbacks and a first-year offensive coordinator and receivers coach contributed to sidetracking his first year at West Virginia. The second year, it soon became evident he was special -- with 16 catches for 132 yards at Texas; eight catches for 132 yards against Baylor, including a one-hander in the fourth quarter for one of his two touchdowns on the day in a West Virginia victory; 100 yards receiving in one quarter against Kansas.
There was also 10 catches for 173 yards against Oklahoma, a career-high 216 yards against Maryland and nine catches for 143 yards in the Mountaineers’ loss to Alabama.
Clearly, White cared about the comparison to Cooper then. And White admitted it was that game that really boosted his confidence early in the season.
But the obstacles were necessary, White said, and Duda agreed.
“You can be a star coming out [of high school] with 100 offers,” Duda said. “You can go to LSU, start there and feel entitled. Or you can be a junior college guy like Kevin White who had to work his tail off, went to West Virginia and worked on his craft.
“Who do you think is going to hold onto his career harder?”