FOXBORO — The date was February 5, 2017. From NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, the event was Super Bowl LI. Late in the fourth quarter, the New England Patriots had forced overtime with the Atlanta Falcons. They were in position to cap the most improbable comeback in Super Bowl history.
For Patriots fans everywhere, the best was yet to come.
Despite the unforgettable images of linebacker Dont’a Hightower’s strip sack, receiver Julian Edelman’s incredible catch, or quarterback Tom Brady tearfully embracing his mother Galynn in the aftermath of the historic 34-28 comeback win, the victory simply does not happen without running back James White.
In his first Super Bowl appearance, White hauled in a Super Bowl-record 14 passes on 16 targets for 110 yards and scored all but 14 of New England’s points. When it was time to score the winning points in overtime, the ball was placed in the reliable hands of the then-25-year-old running back.
As was the case throughout his entire career, White did not disappoint.
Though his retirement announcement on Thursday signifies the end of an on-field era in New England, White’s legacy of teamwork, perseverance and class will forever resonate from every corner of Gillette Stadium.
Having been drafted by the Patriots in the fourth round (130 overall) of the 2014 NFL Draft, White became one of the most beloved and revered players in team history.
On the field, he spent the majority of his career as one of the best role-specific running backs in the NFL. Perhaps best known as a third-down specialist, White possessed a unique ability to be used effectively on all three downs, as well. The Wisconsin product was at his best when catching passes out of the backfield, especially in up-tempo situations such as two-minute drills. Even though White has gained comparatively few yards on the ground (given his status as a running back,) he routinely demonstrated the ability to successfully carry the football when asked to do so.
In 2020, White was a mainstay on a Patriots’ team which finished 7-9, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008. In his first season in the post-Brady era in New England, White’s production dipped from that of previous seasons. He finished the 2020 season with 121 yards rushing with two touchdowns and 375 yards receiving with one touchdown.
However, White’s season was shrouded in tragedy for a much more serious reason. Having lost his father in September (in a Florida car crash that also seriously injured his mother), the Patriots offensive captain understandably played the season with a heavy heart, and a pain incomparable to anything he could experience on a football field.
In the midst of sorrow, White still entered 2021 with a great deal of optimism. Unfortunately, he would suffer a hip subluxation in week 3 against the New Orleans Saints, which would prematurely end his season. Despite the injury, White was one of the Patriots most reliable offensive players in 2021. He was actually the Pats’ leading pass catcher in week 2, receiving six passes on six targets for 45 yards. He also ran five times for 20 yards and a touchdown. Most importantly, White had become a favorite target of quarterback Mac Jones.
Once again, White faced an offseason of uncertainty. The soon-to-be free agent had suffered an injury requiring a great deal of time and energy from which to recuperate. In fact, the four-time Patriots team captain began to wonder if his days on a football field had come to an untimely end. Still, he signed a two-year, $5 million deal to remain in New England. Though he made some progress
Historically speaking, White is also one of the more highly-decorated all-time New England Patriots. He finishes his 95-game regular season career having amassed 381 catches for 3,278 yards and 25 receiving touchdowns. He also carried the ball 319 times for 1,278 yards and 11 touchdowns. In 12 postseason games, he caught 59 passes for 506 yards and three touchdowns, while gaining 146 ground yards on 36 carries with five touchdowns. His dual-threat capabilities (both as a receiver, as well as a runner) will be difficult to replicate, and nearly-impossible to duplicate.
He is a three-time Super Bowl Champion ((XLIX, LI, LIII), a four-time team captain and a member of both the All-2010’s team and the Patriots All-Dynasty Team. Unsurprisingly, he was honored by coach Bill Belichick and team owner Robert Kraft on Thursday morning with glowing sentiments regarding his time in New England.
Still, White’s greatest impact on the only professional franchise for which he played during his eight-year career will remain through his persistence and determination. Neither a 28-3 deficit, nor the tragic loss of a loved one derailed his reserve. Without fanfare, White simply grabbed his helmet and joined his teammates on the field; determined to make the most of the next play.
Just one week after his father’s death in 2020, White’s leadership by example was certainly evident. Though absent from the field, his Patriots' teammates picked up the slack during the team’s week 4 matchup with the Las Vegas Raiders. Despite their 36-20 victory, New England’s running backs made it clear that their thoughts and hearts were with their beloved teammate and captain.
Following the game, former Pats running back Rex Burkhead said that “every time (he) reached the end zone Sunday, it was for James White.”
Sony Michel, another former teammate added, "We came together and just played hard. That's what James White does."
While the Patriots will enter 2022 without White on the field, the example he set will continue to inspire his team each time they take the field … especially, when the outlook may be bleak.
That’s what James White did … and will always continue to do for the New England Patriots.