As best James White can remember, he had never scored a game-ending touchdown before. Like, never never. He had certainly never played in a Super Bowl before, nor had he put together a game like he did Sunday, setting career highs for receptions (14), yards from scrimmage (139) and points (20). So of course he didn’t think to hold onto the football after breaking the plane and making history on the final play of Super Bowl LI.
Instead, he dropped the ball and sprinted around the end zone until an equally euphoric LeGarrette Blount swung White around and threw him to the turf. White didn’t care. He hardly felt the 250-pound thumper. We did it, Blount yelled. You played your tail off!
“Or something like that,” White says. “To be honest I was gone at that point.”
As Tom Brady told his teammates to calm down—They’ve got to review it! They’ve got to review it!—White put his hands on his head. He wasn’t in a state of disbelief about forgetting the ball (that would come later), but he was incredulous about everything else that had occurred. “It was just crazy.”
The never befores kept coming. An iPhone with nearly 500 text messages (he replied to all of them, even if it took a couple days). A Good Morning America interview with Michael Strahan (on no sleep!). A private plane ride to Disney World (“That was really cool,” White says, though not quite cool enough to prevent him from dozing off). He’d enjoyed a Boston victory parade before, back in 2015, but he was inactive for that Super Bowl and went largely unrecognized on the parade route. This time was different.
Then, following a mini mob at NikeTown and a championship party at Icon Nightclub in Boston, it was off to L.A., White’s fourth city in as many days. Thursday, he appeared on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, where the host surprised him with a Ford F-150. Days earlier, Brady had promised White the truck that traditionally comes with MVP honors (as Brady did with Malcolm Butler in 2015), only to find out that Ford no longer offered such a promotion. Now, O’Brien, a Massachusetts native, was making good for the QB. White roared with delight.
Another first for White? All of these political questions! Since the Patriots’ win, a handful of players have committed to skipping the traditional White House visit. Now, White gets asked his thoughts on the trip as often as people bring up him leaving that dang ball behind. “I’m still up in the air about whether or not I’ll go,” he says. “I’m not really big into politics and whatnot. I honestly haven’t even thought about it. I’m just trying to enjoy this experience for now.”
He’s also still getting his head around what exactly happened in Houston.
On Edelman’s preposterous catch: “I still don’t know how he found a way.”
On his own performance: “I knew I had a great role in the game plan and the opportunity to catch passes, but I never thought 14 catches and three touchdowns. I’d never imagined that in a million years.” White does his best to rationalize it—he worked to get open on every route, he thought the Falcons D might have been tired by halftime, nothing is impossible with Tom Brady on your team—and yet, “If we play that game 100 times, we probably lose 99 times and win once,” White says. “It still seems really crazy.”
But from another perspective, Sunday’s game fit perfectly into White’s story. He was basically bred for New England’s next-man-up backfield. He shared the ball with Melvin Gordon and Montee Ball at Wisconsin, backed up Giovani Bernard at St. Thomas Aquinas High School, and wasn’t even the featured back on a youth team his dad coached. So he was ready to do whatever was asked of him Sunday, which included running plays he hadn’t practiced after Dion Lewis got hurt at the end of regulation. When he did get on the field in high school, it was often behind center in the so-called WildWhite formation, which came in handy when the Patriots called for a direct snap to White on their first two-point conversion attempt.
And on the game-winning play in overtime, White had an experience from his Badger days guiding him. As a freshman, what would have been White’s first college score turned into a fumble when a San Diego State defender knocked the ball out of his outstretched hands. Then-coach Bret Bielema found White on the sideline afterward. “Remember this play the rest of your career,” he told White. “Never reach the ball into the end zone. Run the ball into the end zone.” That’s exactly what White did Sunday, barreling through Atlanta safety Ricardo Allen to get there.
None of his coaches ever told him how to handle what came next, though, the folk-hero status and the geopolitical questions, but friends and family have been pleased to find the same White they’ve always known.
Growing up, White earned the nickname “Smiley” because he always seemed to be beaming, and the spotlight has not yet wiped away his grin. It was there Sunday night, when Bill Belichick palmed White’s head on the way off the field, and was still shining Thursday on O’Brien’s set. At Disney World, White was smiling so much that his St. Thomas Aquinas coach, George Smith, couldn’t help but add to his former player’s queue of texts. “Hey James,” he wrote (according to Saturday Tradition), “You’ve got a better smile than the frickin’ Disney characters.”
That day gave White his first taste of a new reality. During the season, he was hardly ever recognized in Boston. Now, as he strolled through the theme park, he could hear fellow tourists chattering, “Look, that’s the guy from the Super Bowl.” He also had his first run-in with a star-struck fan, when both were boarding the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train roller coaster. White is disappointed that he can’t remember the young teen’s name—he certainly would if it weren’t for the preceding sleepless night—but he does recall how “in shock” the kid seemed, so excited to meet a Super Bowl legend that he could hardly hold a conversation. “It’s pretty cool to interact with new people and get to make somebody’s day,” White says. Soon enough, the ride took off. As the group flew through one of the steeper embankments, the kid let out a joyful holler. White’s girlfriend, one row back, could hardly open her eyes, while the rest of his family either braced or screamed through the curve. But the Super Bowl champion in front looked different. Sleep-deprived, maybe, but also buoyant. Undaunted by the twists and turns to come. Smiling from ear to ear.
And this time, he was not letting go.