Heisman Memories: Even by Heisman Standards, Jason White Was One of a Kind

The only Heisman winner to win the award after two knee injuries, White emerged from beyond obscurity to become an Oklahoma legend.
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Jason White didn’t come from literally nowhere. He came from Tuttle, OK.

But to outsiders, coming from Tuttle to win college football’s most prestigious prize — with a circuitous route through hell, aka back-to-back knee surgeries — is the same as coming from nowhere.

White defied all odds by getting a scholarship to OU from the nearby Class 3A school, where he quarterbacked and played safety and kicked field goals and returned punts. Then he really turned things upside down when he eventually winning the starting job.

Then, two years later, after surgery on his left knee, followed by surgery on his right knee, White emerged from the OU quarterback room not only as the starter, but as a legend.

Sort of.

“Did you guys predict him first team All-Big 12 (in 2003)?” Bob Stoops asked a group of reporters at Big 12 Media Day in 2004. “Second team? Third team? I don't think.”

Realistically, White’s ascendence surprised Stoops, too. Not that White won the job — that’s why the Miami Hurricanes offered him a scholarship, why OU offered him a scholarship, because he was a really good player — but that he won the job and then wrecked both knees and then won the Heisman.

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White chose OU over Miami and arrived in the 1999 recruiting class. He actually played in two games in ’99, but hurt his back and his ankle and took a medical redshirt.

The irony.

After Josh Heupel led the Sooners to the national championship in 2000, the job in ’01 was open, and the competition was fierce between White and Nate Hybl. Hybl won the job, but White also played. Then against Texas, Hybl got hurt, and White came in and saved the day — with a little help from Roy Williams and Teddy Lehman.

Hybl was back the following week against Kansas, but wasn’t effective. White came off the bench and threw four TD passes to Trent Smith, then got his brief moment in the spotlight as the starter. White strafed Baylor for 343 yards — and then it was over. He went down in a heap at Nebraska, a non-contact injury to his left knee, and the job belonged to Hybl.

When 2002 began, however, the job belonged to White. He started the first two games of the year against Tulsa and Alabama, and in a similar play to the one in Lincoln, White got outside the pocket and went down in a heap — this time, his right knee.

It was his fourth college football season, and there he was watching Hybl lead OU to another Jan. 1 bowl victory. Another year wasted.

Only, it wasn’t a waste. It was fuel.

White emerged from a quarterback room that included Brent Rawls, Paul Thompson and Noah Allen, broke almost every OU passing record, played in back-to-back BCS National Championship Games and now has a statue outside the stadium.

During his 2003 Heisman campaign, White completed 62 percent of his passes for 3,846 yards with 40 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He set the school record for, among other things, passer efficiency rating at 158.1, and was a force of nature before more injuries tempered his postseason.

White essentially won the Heisman on the strength of his spectacular 12-game regular-season, then struggled in losses to Kansas State and LSU.

More than a few voters said they wish they’d waited until after the Big 12 Championship Game to cast their ballot, or that they wished they’d voted for someone else.

“They're the ones that voted. I didn't vote,” White said in 2004. “No one complained about the first 12 games, but the last two put a damper on it. I don't care what college team you are, the way we won the first 12 games was something special.”

White’s own accomplishment is singularly spectacular — even by Heisman Trophy standards. He’s the only one out of 85 winners who won the trophy after tearing up both knees.

How many promising college football careers have been ruined by knee injuries? How many potential Heisman winners let it go after their first one, let alone a second?

For Jason White, all the disappointment, all the pain, all the dark days — it was all motivation.

“Because those dark days in the training room, in that building all alone, I think it made me a better person,” he said in 2014. “It made me a better player. And it made me realize, if you want something, you’ve got to work hard to go get it. So I wouldn’t trade that for anything. I just don’t reflect on those memories because, you know, you’re right, they were dark.

“When you’re driving to the training room to do rehab, you’re always thinking, ‘Am I doing this for nothing? Am I going up here and working out for two hours for nothing?’ But pushing through that, overcoming that, it sure paid off at the end.”

It did. White also won the Davey O’Brien Award as the top quarterback in the nation, AP Player of the Year, Sporting News Player of the Year and was named unanimous All-America.

In 2004, White was back on the big stage in New York as a Heisman finalist — this time he finished behind USC’s Matt Leinart and teammate Adrian Peterson — after leading the Sooners back to the Big 12 Championship and back to the BCS title game.

Throwing this time for 3,205 yards with 35 touchdowns and nine interceptions and completing 65 percent of his passes, White was named Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year, won another Davey O’Brien Award as the best quarterback in the nation, the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award as college football’s top senior QB, and the 2004 Maxwell Award as the nation’s top player.

White never played in the NFL. He gave it a shot with the Kansas City Chiefs and the Tennessee Titans, but his knees were so painful he couldn’t even take snaps under center. He didn’t make it past training camp.

But hey, a lot of Heisman winners play in the NFL. Only one tried it after two knee injuries.

“Even now,” White said, “I wouldn’t do it any different if I could do it all again.”