Rebuilt For Success Playing on reconstructed knees, Jason White stands atop the nation's passer ratings and has Oklahoma flirting with perfection

November 24, 2003

Tuttle, Okla. (pop. 4,300), is not exactly a concrete jungle, but
it seemed that way at times to the town's most famous native son,
Jason White. The Oklahoma senior quarterback was seven when his
father, Ron, who owns a concrete company, began bringing him
along when he laid driveways and sidewalks or poured foundations
for houses. Jason was too young to be of much help, but Ron
wanted his son to get used to the idea of going to work. As Jason
grew older, he stopped playing in the sand and started shoveling
it, laying the bottom layer for the concrete, and hauling sacks
of cement in wheelbarrows. Summer vacation for young Jason meant
getting to the job site at 7 a.m. for a 12-hour day in the
Oklahoma heat. "My back would be so sore at the end of the day,
it was horrible," White says. "I can't say I liked it much, but I
saw that it was what my dad did, so I figured it was the right
thing to do."

He also saw that it was a way to make money. His father paid him
an hourly wage, and by the time Jason was 14, he'd saved enough
to buy a battered pickup. Though he was too young to drive, Jason
worked on it every day for a year, overhauling the engine and
sprucing up the body. When he was finished, the truck was in such
good shape that he sold it for a profit.

It's little wonder, then, that when White suffered a devastating
knee injury in each of the past two seasons, the one thing that
didn't scare him was the amount of work he was told it would take
to come back. He understands better than most about the rewards
that can come from hard labor, and he's finally getting the
chance to enjoy them. After a combined 12 months of
rehabilitating torn anterior cruciate ligaments in both knees,
White has rebuilt his career as well, leading the Sooners to the
No. 1 ranking and propelling himself into the thick of the
Heisman Trophy race.

"There are so many guys who would have given up and decided that
their career just wasn't meant to be," says Oklahoma offensive
coordinator and quarterbacks coach Chuck Long. "But Jason is a
very tough-minded young man. There's something about that
small-town, working-class background that has made him a
no-nonsense, unflappable guy. His attitude is, I don't care how
hard the job is, just tell me what has to be done, and I'll do
it."

Now that White has two healthy knees again, he's making football
look easy. He has 36 touchdown passes against just six
interceptions, and he has completed 65% of his passes. More
important, both for the Sooners' title hopes and for his Heisman
chances, his play has improved steadily as the season has
progressed. In Oklahoma's 77-0 demolition of Texas A&M on Nov. 8,
White completed 16 of 18 passes and threw for five touchdowns in
just one half of work, and last Saturday, in a 41-3 defeat of
Baylor, he tossed four more TD passes, three of them in the first
quarter, as the Sooners raised their record to 11-0. His passer
rating, 174.4, leads the nation and would be good enough for
seventh-best alltime over a full season. (Oklahoma plays at Texas
Tech this weekend, then finishes with the Big 12 championship
game on Dec. 6.) Those are Heisman-caliber numbers, though White
needs to work on his campaign speech. "Basically I just throw the
ball to whoever's open, and on this team, someone always is," he
says. "If I were playing for any other team in the country, I
don't think I'd be in this position."

The Sooners' offense is overflowing with talent, which creates
the only question about White's Heisman worthiness: Is he truly
an outstanding quarterback or merely a good one who's fortunate
to have a fleet of Maserati-fast receivers and backs at his
disposal? White's wideout weapons include Mark Clayton, who has
1,159 receiving yards and 14 touchdown catches, as well as
Brandon Jones and Jejuan Rankins, who have 13 TDs between them.
All three are adept at turning medium-length passes into long
gainers, which has benefited White's statistics. But White's
accuracy helps make it possible for his receivers to roll up
yards after the catch. "He hits you in stride so you can catch it
and keep moving," Clayton says. "We have a great system and a lot
of talent, but it wouldn't be the same without Jason." Oklahoma's
opponents agree. "Don't sell that young man short," says Texas
coach Mack Brown. "He can throw the deep ball with the best of
them. They have a lot of talented players, and the quarterback is
one of them."

White might never have been a Sooner if Oklahoma hadn't hired Bob
Stoops as head coach just before White made his recruiting visit
in early 1999. Stoops's aggressiveness and enthusiasm helped
persuade White, who was leaning strongly toward Miami, to come to
Norman. That was probably for the best, because, as he worked on
a plate of barbecued ribs and chicken last week, answering
questions with just a hint of a twang, he came across as so
endearingly Oklahoma-bred that it was hard to picture him
anywhere near South Beach. White, who still travels the 30 miles
from Norman back to Tuttle every Sunday to have dinner with his
parents, Ron and Sue, is everything you'd expect a small-town
product to be. He's disarmingly honest. ("My favorite class? I
don't really have one, to tell you the truth. I hate class.")
He's allergic to hype. ("I'm sure my dad would enjoy going to New
York [for the Heisman ceremony]. But then he likes any trip. He
considers it a vacation when he goes to Texas for parts.") He's
unfailingly humble. ("I'm a decent cook. I did some stuff on the
grill one time and it didn't kill me, so I kept doing it.")

His gentle humor and laid-back demeanor have made him a favorite
with teammates, although White knows that his calm can be
disconcerting at first. "Probably every teammate I've ever had
has looked at me before a game and said, 'That dude ain't ready
to play,'" he says. "I'm not a guy who gets real fired up and
makes a big speech in the locker room. I just focus on what I'm
supposed to do and try to go out and do it."

It's the same way he approached his concrete work for his father,
a job that ended when he was 15 and his summer schedule of
lifting bags of cement by day and lifting weights for football at
night began to wear him out. "I told him that if he wanted to
work toward getting a scholarship, then he wouldn't have to work
for me," Ron says. "It didn't take him long to say yes to that
deal."

Stardom was expected of White when he enrolled at Oklahoma in
1999. He appeared briefly in two games as a redshirt freshman in
2000 and began his sophomore year as the second-string
quarterback, but he was so impressive in relief of starter Nate
Hybl that he took over the job in the seventh game of the season,
against Baylor. In the second quarter of the next game, against
Nebraska, as he rolled out and threw on the run, his left knee
buckled. His ACL had snapped. Six months of rehabilitation
followed, a process that was by turns painful and tedious. "You
do things that seem like they're not doing you any good," White
says. "Things like heel slides, where you stretch your leg out
straight [while sitting on a bench] and then slide your heel up
until your knee is bent up to your chest. I did hundreds and
hundreds of those. The rehab was about four hours a day, every
day, and the whole time you're wondering if your knee will ever
be the same."

Finally doctors pronounced the left knee healthy, and White won
the starting job once again as a junior in 2002. But against
Alabama in the second game of the season he scrambled to his
right to evade the rush and felt something pop in the right knee.
Goodbye, season. Hello, rehab. The physical rehabilitation was
identical the second time around, but the psychological recovery
was more difficult. "The day it happened, I thought about not
coming back to football," White says. "But only for that day. I
went home to Tuttle and talked to my parents. They didn't try to
push me either way, but by the time I was done talking to them, I
knew I wanted to come back to Oklahoma."

He had no expectations of a spectacular finish. The starting job
was no longer his. "After the second time the coaches had to take
my knees into consideration," he says. "They had to ask
themselves, Can we trust this guy, or is he going to go down
again? I was just happy that they gave me the chance to compete
for the job." White played so well in spring practice that the
choice was clear. On June 19 of this year, White's 23rd birthday,
Stoops told him he was the No. 1 quarterback again.

Although he'd played in just 11 games in three years, White felt
more prepared for the job than he ever had before. He realized
that when he was sidelined the first time, he hadn't used his
down time to observe the Sooners' offense closely enough. He was
a much more diligent student after the second injury. "By the
time this year started, I felt like I had a much better
understanding of the offense," he says. "I realized that if I
made good, quick decisions and went to the correct receiver,
that's all I had to do. I didn't need to be a hero on every
play."

There are those who consider his mere presence on the field to be
heroic, and if White successfully completes his pursuit of the
national championship and the Heisman, the folks back in Tuttle
will surely want to honor him. White would no doubt be
embarrassed by having a street named after him, but he'd probably
appreciate it too. Just don't ask him to pave it.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO BRACING HIMSELF White blew out his left ACL in the eighth game in '01 and the right just two weeks into the '02 season. COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO WELL-OILED MACHINE White, the hub of a high-octane offense, is praised by his receivers for his ability to hit them in stride.

White Hot

JASON WHITE, who leads the nation with a 174.4 passer rating,
could become the first quarterback since passing efficiency
became an NCAA stat in 1979 to win the passing title and the
national championship in the same season. In fact, only six
quarterbacks on national champions have ranked in the Top 10 in
passer rating.

SEASON CHAMPION QUARTERBACK RATING (NATIONAL RANK)

1999 Florida State Chris Weinke 145.1 (7)
1996 Florida Danny Wuerffel 170.6 (2)
1993 Florida State Charlie Ward 157.8 (4)
1987 Miami Steve Walsh 138.8 (10)
1984 BYU Robbie Bosco 151.8 (2)
1982 Penn State Todd Blackledge 134.2 (10)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)