For most NFL players, discovering their potential comes at an early age. The elite players know they’re destined for the top ranks in high school, while the rest become aware of their bright future early in college.
After sitting out a year following high school, White enrolled in Lackawanna Junior College in Scranton, Penn., where he played two seasons. It was during his second year when he saw the potential in himself to play at the game’s highest level.
“The last season at junior college,” White said today at Halas Hall. “And then going to West Virginia, I noticed it in spring and summer camp. And I was doing some really good things. The season didn’t go as planned but once I got done with the season I kind of got back on track and kind of hit it hard during the offseason. That’s when it hit me — at Lackawanna.”
Yet even after he transferred to West Virginia in 2013, White struggled to make his mark, catching just 35 passes for 507 yards and 5 TDs his junior year.
“I had a couple injuries,” said White. “Three different quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator: first year. Receivers coach: first year. So it was a little bit of everything.”
In 2014, White put his problems behind him and had one of the best seasons of any wide receiver in the country, catching 109 passes for 1,447 yards and 10 TDs. He then followed it up with an outstanding performance and the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine and, just like that, he’s a Top 10 pick in the NFL.
“It’s been crazy,” White said. “My phone has been blowing up. Everyone is texting me and telling me how I deserve it and how just a few years ago I wasn’t playing back at junior college. I’m blessed.”
For White, it’s been an uphill climb from the very start, yet he said that’s what keeps him motivated.
“Everyone would always say, ‘You know, if you go Division I, you may sit the bench,’ or ‘There’s only a 1-percent chance you’ll go to the NFL.’ That’s what keeps me going,” he said. “I’ve always got to prove everyone wrong. There’s always going to be critics and doubters. I just love for someone to say I can’t do something and then I do it, it puts a smile on my face.”
In person, White is quiet and humble, which is in stark contrast to his playing style, which is aggressive and intense.
“I’ve been [like that] all my life,” he said. “I’m not real cocky. I’m a human being. I just play football. I guess I’m good at it but I don’t know, it’s just been me my whole life. I’m not really into myself off the field but on the field, you can’t tell me nothing. I think you’ve got to play like that, the confidence. You’ve got to feel like you’re the only one who can do what you can do. I don’t practice it or anything, it just comes natural to me.”
It’s an intensity bred from a family that thrives on competition.
“[It comes] from home. My dad and brothers, we hate losing and we love winning,” he said. “I guess always being overlooked. I wasn’t the star in high school and then junior college, I had to go through that. Even at West Virginia my junior year, I was killing in spring and I was killing in camp and then I went down injury. Went down with a foot. Went through three different quarterbacks so it was always something. When my senior season I was healthy it was great.”
White played in front of 50 people while in Lackawanna yet will perform in front of 70,000-plus fans on a weekly basis in the NFL. For a small-town kid coming to the big city, that transition can be tough, yet White has already received guidance from former Bears receiver Brandon Marshall, with whom he’s developed a close relationship.
“We got in contact. He contacted me back during the season and I was supposed to go down there to his facility to train for the combine. But I couldn’t make it. He just loved my game. And he told me if I needed anything that he’s only one phone call away. So we just kind of talked on the daily. Talked about life things.
“He said if I did end up here it’s a great city and I’d love it. He said they were still going to live here. That his wife loves it. So he said if I did end up here, I would love it.”
White also has new friends in Jay Cutler and Alshon Jeffery, with whom he had lunch today.
“I think [Cutler] was very excited,” White said. “He was calm as well but I could tell he was like a let’s-go kind of thing. Can’t wait. But I think we’ll do some pretty good things. Alshon is cool so I think we’ll be all right.”
White said Cutler took care of finding a restaurant and securing reservations for dinner this evening with his family.
“Yeah, that was cool. He's a cool guy, laid-back. He's the man in this city so he said if you need anything let me know. So I'm going to dinner tonight with the family and he kind of set that up.”
Where are you eating?
“I don't know, some fancy, nice dinner I guess.”
Fancy dinners in the NFL’s second largest media market, that’s a long way from Scranton. Once it all sinks in and the regular season rolls around, will doubts again creep in for White?
“No not in the least,” he said. “I just try to think of it and look at it as football, the same thing I’ve been doing since I was a kid.”
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fifth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.