James White knew the Patriot Way long before he met Bill Belichick

Eric Gay/AP Photo

Editor's note: Patriots running back James White's father was killed in a car crash on Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020. This story was originally published on Jan. 10, 2019.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Inside James White's boyhood home in South Florida, attention to detail was always a direct order rather than a suggestion. White's parents both work in law enforcement, and his approach to schoolwork, yardwork, football and baseball needed to be framed by discipline and accountability and not much else.

As it turned out, White was the perfect Bill Belichick player years before he ever shook Belichick's hand. "The Patriot Way," he said, "is a way I've been my entire life."

White is an invaluable member of a New England Patriots team that launches its bid for a sixth Super Bowl title Sunday against the Chargers, and his story begins with his 57-year-old father, who was a college football player-turned-aspiring sportswriter at Florida A&M. Tyrone White had been the sports editor of the university's newspaper, The Famuan, and was searching for full-time writing or public-relations work when, while he was walking in a mall one day, a police officer handed him a job application. White started as a cop with the Miami-Dade force in 1984, and what he would see working the streets shaped how he and his wife, Lisa, a probation specialist, would raise their two boys, Tyrone Jr. and James.

Tyrone Sr. saw a couple of local ballplayers more gifted than James derailed by bad choices, and a student stripped of his college scholarship after getting jailed for burglarizing a store. Before James was born, his father was conducting a robbery investigation when he was fired upon by a group of suspects. One suspect who was arrested turned out to be a high school football star and the brother of Tyrone Sr.'s former classmate.

"First and foremost, because of the environment some of these kids were raised in," Tyrone Sr. said, "they felt their opportunities were limited and they made mistakes in terms of committing robberies and homicides. You saw the talent that was wasted. I made it my practice and my habit of ensuring that wasn't going to happen to my boys, or to the individuals that I coached."

Tyrone Sr. coached James' youth teams in football and baseball. He wanted to make a difference with kids because he recalled a neighborhood man who made a difference with him, a coach who regularly loaded up local athletes in his truck, drove them to the fields and back, and never asked for anything in return but a pledge from these boys that they would do the same for others when they grew up.

James said his father was a firm coach who remained calm on the field and who preferred to correct his son's mistakes during car rides home. Tyrone Jr., who wasn't coached by his father, wasn't so sure about his younger brother's scouting report. "My dad was like Nick Saban," he said. "Definitely vocal, definitely animated. If you messed up, he let you know about it."

Tyrone Sr. was a tough-love patriarch at the Whites' Fort Lauderdale home, with the emphasis on love. James had a teammate at powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas High named Giovani Bernard, who played the outfield with White on the school's baseball team and shared carries with him in the backfield when the Raiders won the national title in 2008. Bernard lost his mother to cancer when he was young, and when his father, a Haitian immigrant, fell on hard economic times, Tyrone Sr. and Lisa welcomed the teenager into their home for his final year and a half of high school.

Tyrone Sr. would sit with Bernard, now a running back with the Cincinnati Bengals, when college coaches made recruiting visits to the Whites' home, and then move over to an adjacent room to sit with the less-coveted James for his recruiting visits. "He was a father to me," recalled Bernard. "It was awesome to have somebody there for me. He was a guy who taught you about discipline, about being on time for meetings, keeping your word, being a dependable person, doing the things that take you far in life. ...If you think about a law enforcement father, that's Mr. White. When I stayed there, I was petrified of making a mistake because I never wanted to disappoint him."

Tyrone Sr. and Lisa made sure Bernard earned his keep, just like their own sons. After baseball and football practices and games, James would be assigned the lawn mowing, and Giovani would be assigned the edging. Bernard recalled Lisa White as having a bit of a lighter touch than her husband, but just a bit. When she wanted the boys to join her for church on Sunday mornings, and James wanted to sleep in, Bernard said "she'd tear up the whole bed to wake him up."

The big Florida schools passed on the 5-foot-9 White, a three-star prospect. Some recruiters thought he was too small; others thought he was too slow. White found a Big Ten taker at Wisconsin, where he maneuvered around the presence of Heisman Trophy finalists Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon to rush for more than 4,000 yards and score 48 touchdowns over four years, and to catch 39 passes his senior season.

As a junior, White ran for four touchdowns and passed for a fifth in a rout of Nebraska that earned Wisconsin its third consecutive Big Ten title. Through high school and college White knew nothing but winning and championships, which, along with scouting reports highlighting his physical shortcomings, made him an ideal fit for a certain franchise led by a certain coach based in a certain town wedged between Boston and Providence.

On May 10, 2014, James White and family members were watching the fourth round of the draft at his grandmother's house when the Patriots were about to make their choice with pick No. 130. White thought he had a shot at going to Baltimore at pick No. 134; his former running backs coach at Wisconsin, Thomas Hammock, was a Ravens assistant.

But when the Patriots called with news of their decision, Tyrone Sr. thought about the no-nonsense, fundamentals-first programs James played in at St. Thomas Aquinas and Wisconsin. He thought it was a blessing that James was hired by the ultimate NFL meritocracy, an organization built around a selfless ethos. White's coach at St. Thomas Aquinas, George Smith, was watching with some of his assistants when the Patriots added White to their ever-growing circle of situational backs and smart and versatile role players.

"We thought it was the best thing ever for James," Smith said.

They were right, of course, because Belichick was born to coach people like James White, and because Tom Brady, another Big Ten player taken too late in the draft, was wired to appreciate White's talent for winning. Belichick and Brady saw what Wisconsin's new offensive coordinator, Andy Ludwig, saw in 2013 -- the running back could be a hell of a weapon in the passing game. And that's what White has been the past four seasons in Foxborough, catching 243 passes for 19 touchdowns and 2,141 yards, including 87 receptions, seven touchdowns (plus five more on the ground) and 751 receiving yards this season, when the aging, playmaker-deficient Patriots needed him more than ever. Needed him as much as they did in his record-breaking performance in their record-breaking comeback victory over Atlanta in Super Bowl LI in Houston.

White caught 14 passes on 16 targets for 110 yards against the Falcons, and scored 20 points in the second half and overtime, punctuated by his winning touchdown run. After taking a pitch from Brady to the right side, White defied all the bygone recruiters and scouts who didn't believe he was big enough or strong enough to do precisely what he did -- plow through contact and two Atlanta defenders at the 2-yard line and get the ball into the end zone.

"It still seems surreal, kind of fake," White said two years later of the moment he realized he'd just won the Super Bowl. In the NRG Stadium stands, his father recalled the faces of Falcons fans tightening with concern as his son shredded their defense while New England erased its 28-3 deficit. The Whites were sitting in the corner where James scored the first overtime points in Super Bowl history, and they were blocked by fans from seeing the end of his run.

Tyrone Jr., 30, was hardly surprised when replays showed his kid brother had indeed carried the ball across the goal line. He recalled a hit James took when he was about 7 or 8 years old while playing a neighborhood game with a simple rule for defenders: two-hand touch for ball carriers on the street, full-contact punishment for ball carriers on the grass. Trying to be cute, young James once ran the ball with one foot on the street, the other on grass, before a boy nearly twice his age and twice his size positively crushed him. "And James got up and continued playing like it was nothing," Tyrone Jr. said.

Brady was named the Super Bowl MVP, not White, and the running back brushed off that hit like it was nothing, too. "Everyone," Bernard said, "knows that was James' award to win." Including Brady, who said as much afterward and compared White to the all-time finest of New England's decorated supporting actors. "I was telling Coach [Belichick] earlier," the quarterback said then, "James White is like my oldest son. He just does everything right and you can never get mad at him. If he doesn't make the play, he feels worse about it than you do. He's just the best teammate."

White refuses to concede that he even for one second hoped he would be named Super Bowl MVP ("Honestly I was just happy to get a win"), or that he deserved it more than Brady ("For me to have the game I had he had to throw me the football"), or that he felt vindicated after a dozen running backs had been drafted before him in 2014 ("I was just happy to hear my name called"). This kind of talk, or non-talk, is among the many reasons his head coach so clearly adores him.

"He's a great kid," said Belichick, who gave White the three-year, $12 million extension in the spring of 2017 that ultimately made Dion Lewis expendable. "He's smart, he works hard, very tough, dependable, his ball security, his decision-making, situational football -- I mean, he is one of those guys that almost always does the right thing. Sometimes things come up that aren't exactly the way they were practiced or doesn't exactly follow the rule that you've outlined, but he has to make a decision quickly, whatever the circumstances or situation is, and he almost always makes the right one. Some of that's just instinctive and good judgment on his part that's, I'd say, beyond coaching."

And then Belichick bestowed upon White his most valuable and elusive imprimatur.

"He knows how to play football," the Patriots coach said.

New England's very own Big Game James sure doesn't act the part. As he spoke with a reporter outside the Patriots' locker room one day last week, cutting an unassuming figure in his team-assigned sweats, White conducted himself as advertised. He has a generosity of spirit about him, and a neighborly laugh is his default response to most questions and observations. Media members who cover the Patriots just honored White with their annual "Good Guy Award" for showing class and professionalism in his interactions with them.

He is a Super Bowl hero who said he gets recognized when he's out and about "every now and then." White explained that people sometimes do a double take when they see him, and act as if they know he's a Patriot but can't quite identify which one.

"We wear helmets," White said. "I think that's a big factor."

But his teammates picked him as a captain for a reason. White isn't the most vocal leader, yet there's a competitive ferocity behind that aw-shucks reaction to both honors and slights that can be traced to a police captain who fought for his career after he was demoted from the rank of major and then fired in 2013. The Miami Herald reported Tyrone White was fired for depositing nearly $23,000 in payments from what was then known as Sun Life Stadium into an account supporting his charity football team that competed against other police departments and played in the Police Olympics. The checks were made out to White, who said he had solicited a donation from the stadium to defray team costs; police officials said the checks were erroneously made out to White and should have been sent to the department for security provided at Miami Dolphins games.

Tyrone Sr. sued the county for wrongful termination and won back his job in 2015. On his victory over his own department, Tyrone Sr. explained, "You have to stand up for what is right, for your principles. Sometimes people feel if you're not as open or boisterous, they take that as a sign of weakness. ... People sometimes take advantage of you, and you have to stand up for what you believe in."

"If he doesn't make the play, he feels worse about it than you do. He's just the best teammate."
Tom Brady on James White

The patriarch's willingness to fight for the restoration of his career and his good name made an impact on those closest to him. "If you know you're right," Tyrone Jr. said, "trust in what you believe in. ... When we heard it, it was kind of absurd just because of who he is as a person. That's not him."

Tyrone Jr. and James always knew their old man for being as honest as the day is long. Tyrone Sr. and Lisa White provided their sons structure and stability, and forever held them to high standards when it came to school, practice, homework, trimming the hedges, picking the weeds, mopping the floors or writing book reports or summaries of newspaper articles Tyrone Sr. assigned them to read.

Reflecting on his upbringing, James White said his parents' law-enforcement lessons "molded me into who I am today. Just hearing all the stories about the things not to do, and hearing about people they grew up with ... made me want to be on the right track."

No current Patriot is more trusted than White, and for good reason: He fumbled twice in 754 touches at Wisconsin, and he has yet to lose a fumble in 516 regular-season and postseason touches with the Patriots. Bernard said White's days of tracking fly balls as an accomplished outfielder at St. Thomas Aquinas helped hone his pass-catching skills, as his own experience doing the same helped him catch 265 passes over six years with the Bengals.

Tyrone Sr.'s drills in the family yard didn't hurt either. From 15 yards away, the father would have James turn his back to him before he threw the ball his way and then yelled for him to turn. "He never threw it too hard," James said with a laugh.

The last man standing from New England's 2014 draft class, White just became only the fourth running back in the Super Bowl era to finish a season with at least 750 receiving yards and seven receiving touchdowns. White's 19 receiving touchdowns since 2015 give him eight more than any other running back in the league over that period. So when he has bumped into the coach who recruited him to Wisconsin, Belichick consultant Bret Bielema, around the Patriots' facility, Bielema has said jokingly, "Oh boy, look at how times have changed."

Except nothing has changed at all. James White still has great feet, great vision and a killer smile, and just like in high school and college, he doesn't mind sharing the backfield with bigger names.

He has always played and acted like a Patriot, starting in grade school with his first demanding coach. Tyrone White helped prepare his younger son for Bill Belichick, and that's a chief reason why a dynasty in decline still has a credible chance to win the whole thing.