Patriots’ James White, the Little Engine Who Did
The making of the backup who scored the winning touchdown in Super Bowl LI
FOXBOROUGH, Massachusetts — When James White comes to the door of his apartment, he cracks it open a few inches, only pieces of his eyes, nose and chin strap beard visible.
“Are you afraid of dogs?” he asks, with a patter of feet next to him audible from the hallway.
“No,” a reporter responds, heartbeat slightly accelerating. “But it depends on the size of the dog.”
White laughs and opens the door, revealing two toy dogs: Ace, a brown Cairn terrier, and King, a white Labrador/dachshund/terrier mixed breed. They jump up and down in excitement, so small they barely reach the reporter’s thighs.
Once the dogs are brushed aside, a look into the spacious apartment makes one forget you are in the presence of one of America’s most recent millionaires. There are remnants of luxury: granite countertops, wooden cabinets, stainless steel appliances, a big-screen TV so large that it hovers over the room like the JumboTron in Jerry’s World. Otherwise, the New England Patriots fourth-year running back lives like a common man in a home a middle-class sports journalist could afford and still have money left over for Bruce Springsteen tickets.
White even dresses like a broke college student: gray sweats, black Under Armour socks and a black T-shirt that hugs his Popeye-sized tattooed biceps, ink taking up retail space on just his left arm. This isn’t a Nick Young, strictly-for-buckets reason. White just hasn’t gotten around to filling up his right arm. “I’ve thought about doing my other arm, but probably not.”
In three short years, the 25-year-old Fort Lauderdale, Florida, native has gone from unheralded fourth-round pick to Boston hero, pulling down a record-breaking 14 receptions against the Atlanta Falcons and scoring the first ever overtime points during Super Bowl LI. Despite the best performance by a running back since Terrell Davis of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXII, White lost the MVP vote to quarterback Tom Brady. He doesn’t argue with the results.
“I couldn’t catch the passes without him throwing it to me,” White says. After some goading, White finally relents, “If they had a co-MVP, I’d take that.”
That February performance brought on the ceremonial circuit of daytime shows, including Live with Kelly and Good Morning America, and a trip to Disney World. White’s favorite stop was late night’s Conan. That’s where he was given a new Ford F-150, passed to him by Brady. White received the keys the day of this interview and reluctantly admitted he still had to pay taxes on the pickup.
One quickly learns White hates the spotlight.
“It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” White says. “I definitely enjoyed it, but I also couldn’t wait for it all to be over. Just answering the same questions like 100 times.”
There’s a sense of glee in his voice when he describes going to the mall or dinner and not being recognized as the guy who scored the game-winning touchdown in the most watched televised event of the year. It helps that he’s only 5-foot-10, 205 pounds — Nate Robinson-level measurements on the gridiron.
On the other side of the apartment sits his fiancée, Diana Civitello, on the couple’s blood-orange couch, typing away on a laptop, an HGTV show on in the background. Throughout the interview, whenever White is hung up on a question about his personal life, he looks at Civitello for confirmation. When he can’t remember the age of his own brother, he glances over at the couch. His soon-to-be wife assures him that Tyrone Jr. is 28, not 29, as James guessed. The two have dated since meeting in 2012 at the University of Wisconsin, their alma mater. (On a later phone call, White needed a moment to remember the year they met.) This past March, one month after that breathtaking night in Houston, and after dinner at Steak 954 back home in Florida, White took Civitello on a walk along the beach, dropped down on one knee in the sand and pulled out the second ring he’d procured in the span of 30 days.
Showing the learning curve of husbanding isn’t too steep, he knew exactly which ring to buy. “I’d seen about 100 [rings],” White says. “I already knew.” Civitello’s diamond ring is huge enough that fans in the nosebleeds at Gillette Stadium could see it glistening.
The Patriots rewarded White in April with a three-year, $12 million extension, which, for all intents and purposes, will keep him in Massachusetts until the next presidential election.
“To play under such a great coach like Coach [Bill] Belichick, someone who challenges you,” White says, “and to play under, I mean, the greatest quarterback of all time, it’s just mind-boggling.”
Despite carrying New England to its fifth championship, White wasn’t promised the starting job this season, and the Patriots brought in two running backs (Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee) who are expected to compete for the recently vacated spot atop the depth chart. As has been the case his entire football career, White will be in a crowded work space come Sept. 7, when the Patriots kick off Week 1 of the regular season against the Kansas City Chiefs. New England begins preseason play Thursday night against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Little Engine That Could. Those are the first words in White’s Twitter bio; the words former teammates use to describe him. His mixture of speed, strength, crisp route running and patience led to the third-most yards after catch in the NFL last season by a running back, even though he sat behind two other backs in New England’s rotation. Which isn’t new for him.
Despite two high school state championships, three Big Ten titles, two Super Bowl rings and a handful of state, conference, NCAA and NFL records, White has never been the starting running back on a team. His three seasons with the Patriots? He once backed up one-hit wonder Jonas Gray. Four seasons with Wisconsin? Nope. What about three years of varsity at NFL hotbed St. Thomas Aquinas High? Nada. Not even his little league days with the Pasadena Panthers? “No. Not ever. It’s always been somebody else. That’s how it was for me for forever.”
White doesn’t mind sharing the backfield. He relishes it, in fact, preferring more chefs in the kitchen as long as it leads to the betterment of the team.
“You see a guy score a touchdown, you want to go out there and score a touchdown,” White says. “You see him make a big block, I want to make a big block. I think it brings out the best in each player.”
That mindset worked while backing up future Cincinnati Bengals running back Giovani Bernard at St. Thomas Aquinas. The two were close throughout high school — Bernard at one point lived with the Whites while his father was out of work — and were often referred to as “twins” because of how much time they spent together and how similar their playing styles were. White hated that name. “Nope. Nah, I’m taller, that’s what I got him on.”
More than 2,300 yards and 38 touchdowns later, White found himself in Madison, Wisconsin. Reports said he was upset he didn’t receive an offer from in-state schools Florida, Florida State or Miami (“I guess they didn’t like what I brought to the table”), but he had always planned to leave home.
As a true freshman, he sat behind incumbent John Clay during the 2010 season but still led the team in rushing and won the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award. Heading into his sophomore campaign, White expected to be the starter after a grueling back-and-forth offseason competition with then-junior Montee Ball, who also came on strong for the Badgers at the end of the previous season. But Ball won out and by season’s end was a Heisman finalist after scoring 39 touchdowns, tying an NCAA record.
“We went into camp, me and Montee, they told us it was an open competition, who was going to be the starter,” White says of the summer before the 2011 season. “I thought I won. They picked Montee.”
Then-running backs coach Thomas Hammock was one of the people responsible for Ball starting over White. He’d recently joined the staff and implemented a system built on competition, where the best player gets the lion’s share of playing time. That turned out to be Ball, but what Hammock, who now works for the Baltimore Ravens, noticed in White was even rarer than Ball’s record-shattering skills: selflessness. White never complained.
“He never showed one iota of being unhappy, dissatisfied,” Hammock said. “He knew that, hey, Montee came in, he did what he was supposed to do, and he had a great season to show for it.”
Under the surface, it was one of the most dispiriting moments of White’s life. He hadn’t felt this distraught about football since his freshman year at St. Thomas Aquinas, when, after falling behind on the depth chart, he briefly considered switching to cornerback. His father talked him off the ledge, but he wasn’t that good at corner anyway. “That probably wouldn’t have been a smart move.”
White’s parents encouraged him to make the most of his time on the field and to cheer on Ball from the sideline. It helped that they missed only two games his entire four-year career at Wisconsin while still living in Florida. “They love to travel. All those frequent flyer miles,” White says.
Ball had been in the same predicament the previous season, losing snaps to White, a true freshman at that. At one point Ball even considered switching to linebacker. But friendship prevailed; the two eventually became roommates.
“We truly understood that we really cared about each other off the field, but on the field we understand that it’s a job, and we both want to compete against each other for the No. 1 spot,” Ball said.
Ball recently told Sporting News he had battled a substance abuse problem even while breaking school and national records for the Badgers. He was selected by the Denver Broncos in the second round of the 2013 draft but flamed out of the league after two seasons because of his addiction. White witnessed the drinking and partying but didn’t know how serious the problem was because Ball was easily rushing for over 150 yards on game day.
“I didn’t see it as a problem because he was still producing,” White says. “He was a great player, so I’m not going to judge nobody. He was out there ballin’. Can’t say nothing to him, he was out there doing what he had to do. He had his grades and he was performing. I’m sure a lot of the coaches tried to talk to him, but he’s a man. He has to make his own decisions.”
White spent the next three seasons backing up Ball and future Los Angeles Chargers running back Melvin Gordon, who set an NCAA record for career rushing average and was a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2014.
Gordon said the 2013 season, when he split time with White — 206 carries for the former, 221 for the latter — was one of his best years at Wisconsin. He gravitated toward White’s infectious attitude (“Dude really comes with a smile on his face every day to work.”) and his “Florida boy” dance moves.
While setting an NCAA record for rushing yards by a pair of teammates during the 2013 season, the pair created a viral dance that was part Pat-A-Cake, part electric slide and a dash of high knees at the end. “Our thing was to dance. Like, James, he danced a lot. Obviously you can see when he scores touchdowns. That didn’t just start when he got to the league. We used to do that all the time,” Gordon said.
Suddenly, in the middle of the interview, Gordon gets an alert on his phone that the NFL has relaxed its rules governing player celebrations.
“Ah, man, I’m going to start cutting up,” he yelled in excitement. “That’s lit right there.”
White’s a first-one-in-last-one-out kind of player, and it helps that he lives just one exit away from Gillette Stadium. Chalk that up to being raised by strict parents who both work in law enforcement. His father, Tyrone, is a police officer, and his mother, Lisa, is a probation specialist. The pair worked hard to instill discipline, courage and humility into James and his older brother.
This partly led to White skipping the team’s visit to the White House in April. He didn’t speak out against President Donald Trump, like some of his teammates did, but White decided not to attend based on the president’s past inflammatory comments about people of color. “He said some things that kind of tried to split the world up, in my opinion, marginalize some races.”
And while it’s been well-documented that Brady, Belichick and owner Robert Kraft are friends of Trump’s, the difference in political allegiances never divided the team. “Everybody has their own opinions. We’re there to play football, so it’s not about politics. It is what it is.”
At this point, Ace starts scratching the reporter’s arm, signaling he wants attention, but it can also be read as, “Stick to sports, bro!”
White concedes that Trump is the president and “you’ve got to support him either way.” Also, White went to the White House in 2015 with then-President Barack Obama and walked away less than impressed. “It was kind of boring.”
Growing up in a law enforcement home also taught White how to interact with police as a black man. “There are some cops you consider ‘bad’ cops, and then there’s some cops that are ‘outstanding’ cops,” White says. “They try and do their job to the best of their abilities. Obviously, sometimes that doesn’t go the proper way. No matter how trained they may be, the way they’re raised, they can act a different way in that one special moment.”
Any person a police officer interacts with has to be “treated the same way you’d treat a white, Spanish or black person. Treat them all the same,” White says. “You can’t act any faster on somebody else just because you feel like you’re threatened.”
That takes on a whole new meaning living so close to Boston, a city with such a troubled racial history that Hall of Fame basketball player Bill Russell once called it “a flea market of racism.” Two days before this interview, Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones was called the N-word by a fan at Fenway Park. White said he hasn’t had any issues during his three years in the area, chalking it up to playing for the Patriots. “I’ve never had any problems, but I guess it’s probably different for me because I actually play here, and not from the opposing team. I’ve never experienced it or heard anything about it. That’s a first for me.”
A football locker room is much like the cafeteria scene from Mean Girls, but instead of the room being divided among preps, burnouts, unfriendly black hotties and sexually active band geeks, cliques usually form based on position groups. The Seattle Seahawks’ defensive backfield is named after a group of DC Comics villains, the Green Bay Packers’ offensive line appeared in Pitch Perfect 2 together, and even Brady, known for his uber-competitiveness, brought backups Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett with him to the Kentucky Derby in May.
The New England running backs are no different. White is closest on the team with Brandon Bolden, Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount, who signed with the Philadelphia Eagles in May. They hang out together, attending Celtics games or just chilling at one another’s apartments watching basketball or Monday Night Football. Most of the group lives in the same area — Blount’s apartment was a few doors down from White’s.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski’s house is close by as well, but the two have hung out only sparingly, going out for beers together just once. As it turns out, the infamous partier isn’t always as rowdy as he appears. “He’s actually pretty quiet when he’s in the facility, unless you’re like joking with him,” White says of Gronkowski. “He’s a pretty quiet guy.”
And even when he’s the skipper of the Gronk Party Ship, his antics don’t matter to White if he’s producing on Sundays. “As long as you’re doing what you have to do on the field, hey, I don’t care. Everybody can do whatever they want to do as long as we’re going out there and giving all you have on the field, and you’re on time with stuff. Whatever floats your boat.”
And when it comes to Brady, he’s the patriarch of the team, mostly because the upcoming season is his 18th. “He’s very personable; you can talk to him about anything. Even though he’s much older than” — White pauses to think of the right way to put this — “some of us can probably be his kids.” (Rookies D.J. Killings, 22, and Kenny Moore II, 21, are actually young enough to be the 40-year-old quarterback’s adult sons.) White praises Brady’s stringent training and eating regimen. He believes the quarterback can play well into his 40s, although he doesn’t particularly eat like the 12-time Pro Bowler. While Brady prefers a diet of rabbit food and turmeric, White’s guilty pleasure is Krispy Kreme doughnuts. “When that hot light’s on, I can’t pass.”
The night before Super Bowl LI, White went out to dinner in Houston with Gordon, Blount and Bernard. As the group sat around the table, the conversation turned to White, who through two playoff games had zero rushing yards and 27 receiving yards on four receptions. He’d had a strong regular season (60 receptions, 551 yards), and his friends predicted that he would repeat that production in his first Super Bowl. (He was inactive when New England beat Seattle two years earlier.) “One of us mentioned it, I don’t know if it was me or Gio, but one of us was like, ‘Boy, if you go out there and get three touchdowns tomorrow … you better win MVP, cause you ballin’,’ ” Gordon said of the conversation.
What they couldn’t foresee, though, was one of the most feared offenses in the league trailing 28-3 halfway through the third quarter, which included an 82-yard interception return for a touchdown. “After the pick-six, I just kept my helmet on and was like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening,’ ” White says. “I was pretty much like, ‘We can’t go out like this.’ ”
From that point on, White appeared to catch everything Brady threw at him, whether running wheel routes out of the backfield or split out as a receiver. He accounted for two touchdowns and an extra point as the Patriots tied the game at 28 with just under a minute left to play in the fourth, pushing the Super Bowl into its first-ever overtime period. White ended the game with 14 receptions for 110 yards and six rushes for 29 yards.
After working their way down the field in OT, the Patriots huddled at the Falcons’ 2-yard line.
“When Tom made the playcall, I realized the play was going to me. I feel like everything went in slow motion. That’s what you dream about as a kid, to have that opportunity to win a championship with the ball in your hands.”
Brady turned to the right and tossed the ball to White 6 yards behind the line of scrimmage. He ran far right, cut back to the left, running into a defender within feet of the goal line. He bounced off the Falcons player, lunged forward and stretched his hands toward the thick white line separating obscurity from immortality.
“When I scored, I don’t even know how to put it into words … I was just running — don’t really know what I was running to. I was just running.”
His 2-yard touchdown capped the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history: The Patriots erased a 25-point deficit to defeat the Falcons, 34-28.
He didn’t know he’d hauled in the most receptions in Super Bowl history. “I knew I had a lot, didn’t know I had 14, though. I knew I was getting the ball a lot, because I was tired and I wasn’t really paying attention to all the stats.”
Hours after the game, he wasn’t even 100 percent sure he’d actually crossed the goal line. “I knew I got in, but looking at the replay afterwards, it actually looks pretty close.”
But on second thought, “Nah, I still know I got into the end zone.”