MINNEAPOLIS — The New England Patriots needed only 2 more yards to become world champions, and they asked former University of Wisconsin athlete James White to get them.
Tom Brady, who had directed four consecutive scoring drives to rally New England out of a 28-3 deficit and into the first overtime in Super Bowl history, barked out the play call in the huddle: A pitch to White, who would follow his blocks to the right, and look for a way to cut upfield toward the end zone.
As he heard those words, White says he remembers his reaction — and it wasn’t awe at the historic moment, or surprise that he, and not Brady, was being given the responsibility.
“Just get the ball in the end zone,” was all he thought, White said this week. “That’s it.”
White did, of course, by blasting through a hit by Atlanta’s Ricardo Allen and dragging the Falcons safety with him, finally landing on the goal line for a 34-28 victory at NGR Stadium in Houston.
It was White’s third touchdown of Super Bowl LI, which, along with a two-point conversion earlier in the game, made him the first player ever to score 20 points in a Super Bowl.
It also was the most productive day of White’s NFL career — 29 rushing yards and two scores, plus 110 receiving yards and a touchdown on 14 receptions, another championship game record — and helped earn him a three-year contract extension that already has paid him nearly $5 million this season.
Not that any of that seems to matter to White one year later.
“Last year is last year. This is a new year, and it’s a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league,” he said. “I just keep trying to get better, and work on my weaknesses.”
Postseason play is definitely not a weakness, at least not as a professional. White scored five touchdowns during the 2016 season, then added four in the playoffs. This year, limited by a late-season ankle injury, the 25-year-old Fort Lauderdale, Florida, native scored three times during the regular season — a number he already has matched during the Patriots’ march to a second consecutive Super Bowl.
So don’t be surprised if White, utilized mostly this year to catch screen passes or quick outs, emerges as an important part of the Patriots’ offense again Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Philadelphia Eagles won’t.
“We know how effective (Brady) can be, even when you take away his primary options. Those little passes can add up to important yardage,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “(White’s) game last year was a good example.”
It’s an unusual one for the Patriots, too, as White acknowledges. In the championship-filled, Brady-and-Bill Belichick era, running backs are often interchangeable, and rarely featured. Dion Lewis led New England with 896 yards rushing this season, and only twice cleared 100 yards. White, the Super Bowl hero, had only 43 carries all year, though he caught 56 passes.
White, though, speaks the language of his coach, Belichick. He cares little, he said earnestly, about personal statistics, even about playing time.
“It doesn’t matter to me if I play 10 snaps or 60 snaps. I just want to put my best foot forward when the opportunity presents itself,” White said. “I accept my role.”
It’s a role he couldn’t have anticipated at UW, where he played from 2010 through 2013; he rarely caught a pass until his senior season. White played with backs such as John Clay, Montee Ball, Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement — now an Eagles rookie — so he’s used to divvying up playing time.
“I always felt confident in my ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. At Wisconsin, we didn’t do it too much, we were more of a power running team,” said White, who was selected by the Patriots in the fourth round (130th overall) of the 2014 NFL draft. “Once I got here, I just tried to pay attention to all the details the coaches drew up for me, and find a way to get on the field. (Catching passes) was a good fit, and I want to be the best I can be at it.”
He learned to play on a big postseason stage while in Madison, too; White appeared in three consecutive Rose Bowls. Were they as memorable as his Super Bowl experience last year?
“Nah,” White said with a laugh. “We lost all three.”