April 19, 2024

TAMPA BAY, Fla. — Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Rachaad White and his mother, Rochelle, still remember that tearful car ride home following the Thomas A. Simone Memorial Football Award banquet.

It was White’s senior year of high school in 2016 and he didn’t win the award, presented each year to the best high school player in Kansas City.

“You see how you feel now?” his mom told him. “Never let anyone make you feel this way again.'”

That car ride is the moment White, now 24 and in his second year in the NFL, leans on for when things don’t go according to plan. It serves as a reminder to where he came from when he finally earned the Bucs’ starting role, and how much he leaned on Rochelle, who he calls his Superwoman, as he navigated the path to becoming a professional football player.

“I was hurt. I was hurt for sure,” White said. “I didn’t even get voted as a finalist, I was a semifinalist. … I was already upset because I wasn’t getting no [scholarship] offers.

“I felt like I let myself down, let my family down, let people down.”

His mother told him, “There are going to be certain instances — key moments in your life, defining moments. This is going to be one of them.”

Seven years later, the second-year pro has ascended to starting running back for Tampa Bay, galvanized by a journey that included stops in Division II and junior college. He’ll help lead the Bucs’ rushing attack against the Buffalo Bills on Thursday night (8:15 p.m. ET, Amazon Prime).

But on that car ride, it wasn’t enough in White’s mind to merely be an also-ran for the award. Not with all the dreams he had and what they’d been through as a family. He wanted to look out for his mom and his three brothers — Antoine, Darrioine and DeAndre’.

“Breaking generational curses,” White said, “I’m gonna be the one that breaks it and changes things.”

ROCHELLE WORKED TWO jobs — at a gas station at night and as a school bus driver during the day — while raising four boys and going to school. First, she earned her bachelor’s degree at Central Missouri, and, later, her master’s degree at Missouri.

White’s father wasn’t around for much of his childhood and struggled with addiction.

“He was incarcerated from when I was maybe 8 or so,” White said. “He came back around when I was a freshman in high school.”

Rochelle often worried about the family becoming a “victim” to their environment, but nothing could prepare them for the phone call they received in the early hours of June 30, 2016.

His brother, Darrioine, then 22, had been shot while taking a friend home. He was caught in the crosshairs of an altercation at a nearby apartment complex. Doctors gave him a 6% chance to live, according to Rochelle, odds he beat after a month in the hospital.

“It broke my mom. It hurt my mom to death,” White said. “It had a huge impact on my life. … It just changed me.”

The incident, and the feeling White needed to get out of Kansas City, made playing football at the next level mean more.

He ended up attending Nebraska at Kearney, a Division II school in 2017. During White’s freshman season, he took a redshirt and didn’t appear in a game. But in practice, he earned the nickname “Lil Le’Veon” after former NFL running back Le’Veon Bell. They said if he did well in junior college that he could be recruited by a Power 5 school and stand a much greater chance of fulfilling his NFL dream.

In 2018, White transferred to Mt. San Antonio College, a junior college in Walnut, California – a move his mom was against.

“I called the entire family and everything, and I wanted them to talk him out of it, but he was head-strong and he decided to go,” Rochelle said. “I said, ‘Well, how are you going to get there?’ He said, ‘I’ll pay for it on my own.'”

By then, White’s father had started communicating with him regularly as he tried to make amends for his absence. He began sending money to his sons, which White saved and used to purchase a one-way plane ticket to California.

Rochelle would also send money, but that didn’t cover the cost of living on the West Coast. White feared if he told her just how bad things were, she’d try to convince him to come home.

White and his teammates would put together their money and try to cram more than 10 people into one apartment, where some would have to share couches or mattresses on the floor and “get creative” so they all could have a place to lay their heads. At times, White even slept on the floor.

“When I first got there, I was sleeping in the living room. I just picked a corner in the living room,” said White, who lived in six different apartments in the two years he played at Mt. San Antonio.

They would try to help each other out, but there’s a limit to how many people can squeeze into a two-bedroom apartment, which cost about $2,300 a month.

“It was just a crazy time,” said Zach Rangel, who was a teammate of White’s. “It was very sporadic, unstable. You kind of just didn’t know what was going to happen one day from the next and evictions and lights turning off, water going off — there was always something new. You would come out there and you’d sign a lease, and then eventually somebody, one of your teammates, gets evicted. You look up and you’ve got 14 guys in a two bedroom, one bathroom apartment.”

White’s relationship with Rangel would prove instrumental for White’s time in California.

“We leaned on each other,” Rangel said. “We had a rule early on. It’s tough to go about it by yourself. … We made a pact that no matter what apartment we stayed in, it’d have to be able to fit two of us so we could both be there.

“Anytime any of us had any food or anything like that, if say, he went out and he got a pizza somewhere, we were splitting it. If I had a sandwich, we were splitting it. If I ate, he ate. If he ate, I ate.”

White recalled a conversation while out in California, where a teammate told him “Juco is either gonna make you or it’s going to break you,” where White responded, “It ain’t gonna break me. I ain’t being broke.”

WHILE WHITE WAS succeeding on the field, where he rushed for 1,264 yards and 10 touchdowns in his sophomore year, he balanced odd jobs to help pay the bills – even during the season.

One job was security at the music festival, Coachella, where he saw Todd Gurley who was the star running back with the Los Angeles Rams at the time.

“Man, go get a picture,” White’s coworkers told him. But White refused.

“The next time I go to Coachella, I’m gonna be the guy backstage … not working it,” he told himself.

As his former teammates back in Nebraska had predicted, White would go on to get an offer from a Power 5 school, Arizona State, in 2020.

He would rush for 1,006 yards and 15 touchdowns, along with 456 receiving yards and a receiving touchdown, during his final season in 2021. The Bucs then selected him in the third round of the 2022 NFL draft.

“I remember being there at his draft day in Arizona,” said Rangel, who still talks to White regularly. “You’re just proud of him. … I don’t think there’s a more deserving person than Rachaad.”

During White’s rookie year, he was the No. 2 back behind Leonard Fournette. White got his first start over in Week 10 in the NFL’s first regular season game in Munich, Germany, against the Seattle Seahawks.

White would have his best game to date, rushing for 105 yards on 22 carries and helping the Bucs close out the game down the stretch when Fournette had officially been ruled out in the fourth quarter with a hip injury.

“I’m just proud of him,” Rochelle said. “He didn’t give up. He knew what he wanted.”

White did enough toward the end of the season to make the Bucs believe in him as their lead back, and after the team parted ways with Fournette in the offseason, White became the guy.

THE 2023 SEASON has been filled with ups and downs for White, including a pivotal play where he ran into a wall of defenders that resulted in a safety against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 3.

The Bucs’ run-blocking woes were on display, but White doesn’t lay blame on the unit. His resiliency is why he says he believes he can spark a fledgling rushing attack that’s averaging 77.8 yards per game – 29th in the league – as their unit continues to adjust to offensive coordinator Dave Canales’ system after six games.

The Bucs’ run block win rate is currently 63%, which ranks last, according to ESPN Stats & Information. It’s an indicator of where some of their biggest struggles lay.

“I want greatness right now, but you got to work for that,” a resolute White said. “And that’s one big thing I just keep understanding — you got to keep working. That’s what it’s about. Only way is up, and that’s for all of us.”

As White is still working on his patience to this day, his mom, who now works for a crisis hotline, has given him needed perspective. She told him to “get back to smiling more” after the Eagles loss, and you could see it the following week in a win at the New Orleans Saints.

As the Bucs (3-3) are on a two-game slide since their Week 5 bye, smiles may be hard to come by, but White is coming off his best game of the season.

Although White didn’t really get it going on the ground (33 rushing yards) against the Atlanta Falcons, he had six catches for a career-high 65 receiving yards.

“Sometimes it ain’t always about how you start,” White said, “it’s about how you finish.”

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