It’s the third day of Patriots training camp, and the two fields outside Gillette Stadium are packed with eager fans. Kids dive to catch Stephen Gostkowski field goals after they pass through the goalposts. Whistles blow every few seconds as the players get in formation to start each play. Machines that hurl the ball into the air make satisfying “thwack” noises. From up close, the noise of pads clashing is coming through loud and clear. On this rainy New England morning, James White is just another player practicing for the upcoming season. After camp ends for the day, he takes some time to talk about his career and the game this past February that made him famous.
When James White rushed over the goal line in overtime of the biggest game of his life, he didn’t even need to see the ref’s signal. He knew his touchdown had won just the Patriots the Super Bowl. He ran through the end zone in celebration, and fellow running back LeGarrette Blount tackled him. White was on the top of the world.
The 25-year-old White, who is from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, always knew he wanted to be a football player. “Of course, I never knew if I was going to make it, but I was presented with many great opportunities, and now I’m working and trying to get better,” he says.
White began his football career at St. Thomas Aquinas High School, where he split carries with future NFL running back Giovani Bernard. In 2008, White and his fellow Raiders won the high school national championship. “Winning in high school was fun, but winning the Super Bowl was completely different,” says White. “The Pats did a lot of hard work, spent a lot of long days practicing, and it all paid off when we won the Super Bowl.”
While at St. Thomas Aquinas, White got a new nickname, which came in the strangest way. “My creative writing teacher, Mr. Aloma, was doing senior skits with us, and he randomly called me Sweet Feet,” says White. “I didn’t really like it, but when I entered the draft, everyone told me to change my Twitter username. I changed it to @SweetFeet_White. I didn’t think the name was that big of a deal, but the fans loved it, and even some coaches started calling me Sweet Feet. My name’s pretty common—we have four other Jameses on the team—so it’s good to be called something other than James.” Now even Tom Brady, the Patriots’ star quarterback, calls White Sweet Feet.
When it came time to pick a college, White had many options close to home, such as South Florida and Clemson. But he chose Wisconsin, he says, because “I knew leaving Florida would help me grow as a man, and I knew my parents would support me no matter what.”
White was not expected to dominate in college, but in his freshman year, he rushed for 14 touchdowns and more than 1,000 yards to win Big Ten Freshman of the Year. White even surprised himself.
“Going into my freshman year I didn’t even know if I was going to play, but my hard work paid off, and I was given a lot of chances, and I kept improving and getting better,” he says. “The award was a huge honor, but I didn’t let it stop me from [trying to] keep improving and working hard.”
Clearly. Over the next three years, White averaged almost 1,000 rushing yards and more than 10 touchdowns a year. He also averaged about 170 yards receiving and 9.2 yards per catch.
Since entering the NFL, White has been considered more of a receiver than a rusher. When asked if this bothered him, he says, “Being considered more of a pass-catching running back doesn't annoy me. I feel confident in my abilities, and I just do what my coaches ask me to do.”
White played with future NFL running backs in college too: Montee Ball, Melvin Gordon, and John Clay. “We all were good friends, but on the field, we were competing,” says White. “Our running back coach made us compete, which made us all better players.”
The Badgers played in a bowl game every year White was on the team but never won. Wisconsin lost the Rose Bowl three times and the Capital One Bowl once. “Not winning a bowl game in college was tough,” he recalls. “When I talk to current Wisconsin players, I always tell them, You don’t want to go out without winning a bowl game. It’s not fun.”
Ready for the Pros
White was drafted by the Patriots in 2014 and slowly made his way into the starting lineup; in 2016, he had the third most receiving yards of all NFL running backs. The Patriots made the Super Bowl, and White was ready.
“James is a great guy and a great teammate,” says New England fullback James Devlin. “He’s very smart, and it’s an honor to go to work with him because he takes his craft very seriously. He works hard and does all the right things. It rubs off on all of us.”
Adds Devlin, “James is a little quiet, but he has a good sense of humor; he’s very humble. It’s hard to get any words out of him, but when they do come out, they’re always funny and well-timed.”
Just because White is quiet, doesn’t mean he’s shy—because White loves to dance! “I dance every now and then. I’m always smiling; I like to have a good time. My go-to dance song is Drake and DJ Khaled's ‘To the Max,’” he says. Maybe that’s the real reason why they call him Sweet Feet.
The Patriots made their way through the playoffs and to the Super Bowl. White was ready. “It was the last game of the year, playing for a championship, I just wanted to leave it all out on the field,” he recalls. “The adrenaline fueled me, as it always does. But I definitely felt a rush in my veins; I was excited for the moment.”
The game did not start well for White and the Patriots, who were down by three touchdowns when White went to work. “It was tough being down 21–0; we were all nervous. But as soon as we started scoring points, slowly, but efficiently, we all believed,” he says.
By the end of regulation, the Patriots had tied the game, with White leading the charge.
The Patriots won the coin toss, and Brady and White took them down the field. At the two-yard line, White took the pitch from Brady and ran the ball into the end zone to clinch the Super Bowl. “I dove in and watched my mom’s face go blank. I left the ball and ran through the end zone. Legarrette Blount tackled me. It was a surreal situation,” says White in his play-by-play of the winning touchdown.
He set the record for most receptions in the Super Bowl, tied the record for most touchdowns, and broke the record for most points scored. White truly had a game for the ages. In the off-season, he signed a three-year contract extension.
White is trying to avoid only being known as a big-game superstar. “The Super Bowl is all in the past for me; after the game ended, the slate is wiped clean,” he says. “It’s a new season. Nobody cares what you did last year; you’ve got to come out here and show everyone your abilities.”
Photographs by (from top): Focus on Sport/Getty Images; Mike McGinnis/Getty Images; Aidan Kohn-Murphy