FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – James White was not the New England Patriots’ featured running back when Super Bowl 51 started.
As White has proven before, that was irrelevant.
In 2009, White was a senior at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He was a starter for the perennial state and national powerhouse but wasn’t considered the go-to ball carrier. That role was held by Giovanni Bernard, now of the Cincinnati Bengals.
“Gio was more the tailback, and a lot of times we changed our sets so we could use both of them,” said St. Thomas Aquinas athletic director George Smith, the school’s football coach when White was a senior. “But when Gio was hurt in his senior year and couldn’t play, James took a whole different path. He became the deal.”
When the Patriots needed him Sunday night, White was the deal again.
He set Super Bowl records by scoring 20 points and making 14 catches for 110 yards. He had two rushing touchdowns, including the game-winner in overtime as the Patriots came back from 25 points down and stunned the Atlanta Falcons 34-28 for the franchise’s fifth Lombardi Trophy.
“Isn’t he great?” Smith asked.
Apparently, Tom Brady thinks so.
Before the Patriots left Houston for home on Monday, Brady suggested White should have been MVP – the award that the Patriots quarterback received for a record fourth time.
“I think James White deserves it,” Brady said. “It’d be nice for him.”
White really started making an impact with the Patriots last season, when Dion Lewis got hurt. More than half of his touches in the Super Bowl came in the fourth quarter or overtime, when New England was desperately trying to find something that worked.
Such has been his career trajectory – he’s always been considered good on whatever team he’s with, whether it was St. Thomas Aquinas or Wisconsin for college or New England now. But the real appreciation of White, at all three of those places, has come in the moments when he’s been called upon to take on a bigger role.
“White is like my oldest son,” Brady said. “He just does everything right and you can never get mad at him because even if he doesn’t make the play, he feels worse about it than you do, you know? He’s just the best teammate. He’s an incredible player. … I’m so proud of him and everything he’s accomplished. I’ve seen him grow from a rookie to working his tail off to become a big factor in all these games.”
There’s a bit of irony that White’s biggest NFL moment came against Atlanta.
Had things gone a little differently eight years ago, White might be calling Atlanta home.
He was a standout center fielder for St. Thomas Aquinas, batting first or second in the order and making base-stealing look easy. The scouts came knocking, ones from the Braves in particular. And White seriously considered pursuing baseball instead of football.
“Always was on time, always had his homework, worked hard to get his grade, always got his A,” said Ed Waters, who was his high school baseball coach and also taught him American history and government. “Sounds too good to be true, but he definitely is in that category.”
They’ve been using White as an example for current students at St. Thomas Aquinas for some time – long before he entered Super Bowl lore.
And that will continue. They’re hoping to get White on campus for a rally with the school’s 2,200 students later this week, once things like Tuesday’s parade in Boston are completed.
“He did whatever we wanted here,” Smith said. “He was unbelievable.”
The Patriots would say the same.