“It sucks to lose the last game, man.”
That may sound like an odd quote coming from a Super Bowl hero. But for James White x’14, a running back for the New England Patriots, losing the last game was an all-too-familiar reality during his time at the UW. Each of his four college seasons ended with a postseason loss, including three consecutive Rose Bowl defeats.
“Whenever I have a chance to go back, I just preach to those guys at Wisconsin to finish that season strong, because I can’t say that I ever did,” White says.
But you’d be hard-pressed to find a player who’s finished a season better than White did in February, when the Patriots overcame a 25-point deficit to beat the Atlanta Falcons in the Super Bowl. White’s 14 receptions and 20 points scored — three touchdowns and a two-point conversion — both broke previous Super Bowl records. And his game-winning two-yard dive marked the first overtime touchdown of the Super Bowl era. (Before then, former Wisconsin running back Alan Ameche ’56 was the only player to score a game-winning touchdown in overtime of a championship game.)
“I heard the play call and knew the ball was coming to me. I was just trying to find a way in,” White says, recalling the moment. “After that, I can’t even really describe the feeling.”
White is actually a two-time Super Bowl champion, although he was inactive for the championship game in his rookie season. His MVP-worthy performance, though, brought a trip to Disney World and a new pickup truck from talk-show host Conan O’Brien. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who was officially named Super Bowl MVP, first suggested that White deserved the truck formerly gifted to MVPs. But the NFL had stopped the promotion, so O’Brien, a Patriots fan, happily filled the void and surprised White on national TV with a new truck.
Perhaps as improbable as New England’s historic comeback was White’s leading role in the Super Bowl. When On Wisconsin last caught up with him in fall 2013, White was entering his senior season at the UW and looking to emerge from a more familiar role: a change-of-pace backup to a star running back (first Giovani Bernard in high school, and then John Clay x’11 and Montee Ball x’13 in college). But just when it appeared White was ripe for a feature gig, the UW’s Melvin Gordon stole the spotlight with a breakout season.
White once again settled into a backup position, but his steady production (fifth-leading rusher in UW history) proved enough for the Patriots to draft him in the fourth round in 2014. His receiving skills and versatility out of the backfield fit New England’s offense, which prominently features “passing backs.”
“[The UW] prepared me very well. We were asked to do a lot of things as running backs, mostly my junior and senior years, catching the ball out of the backfield,” White says. “I’ve always been able to do it. I used to catch the ball in the front yard all the time as a kid. We threw the ball to running backs in high school, too.”
As White sets his eyes on a third Super Bowl ring, he’s keeping another goal in mind: his UW degree. “I still have, like, 10 more credits. I have to finish that up soon before they change the curriculum on me,” he says, laughing.
White’s breakout performance may keep him away from the books for a few more years, but he insists his life hasn’t changed very much: “I’m still going to be the same person.”
The same person, perhaps. But now, finally, winner of the last game.
Published in the Winter 2017 issue