He doesn’t have breakaway speed and he doesn’t have imposing size, but neither did
Though he never got the chance to meet Payton, nor witness any part of his career as it was happening having been born a month after Payton’s career ended, White was drawn to ‘Sweetness’ after watching highlights of his career.
“When I was growing up I would spend time at my cousin’s house and they had this videotape of the greatest running backs ever,” said White. “It had Emmitt Smith, Earl Campbell, Barry Sanders, Thurman Thomas and for some reason I just really liked Walter Payton. I just like his style and how he ran and it just took off from there.”
White was a highly decorated high school player, much like Payton. He also has a similar all-around game to the Hall of Famer, who was LaDainian Tomlinson before LaDainian Tomlinson. That’s why coming out of Asheville high school in North Carolina White was ranked the nation’s No. 11 all-purpose back.
When he got to North Carolina, White chose to wear 34 in honor of Payton. However, the Tar Heels coaching staff took White’s all-purpose ranking a little further than White ever anticipated. In his college career he played cornerback, wide receiver, kick returner, gunner and running back.
He didn’t have the chance to focus on one position until his senior season when he rushed for 927 yards and seven touchdowns as the featured back in just nine games before a broken collarbone cost him his last three games in 2010. He also had 24 catches for 288 yards as he averaged 6.5 yards every time he touched the ball.
“You have a guy in him that has been kind of a jack-of-all-trades,” said Bills offensive coordinator/running backs coach Curtis Modkins. “He was probably one of the better athletes on North Carolina’s squad and when you’re one of the better athletes you get put in a lot of different roles. He was asked to do a lot of different things, but when they settled on him at running back I think he really found a home.”
Still, White now believes the time spent at all of those other positions could serve him well in earning a role on Buffalo’s roster.
“The different aspects I learned at different positions help me out now at running back,” he said. “From being a defensive back I can recognize more coverages at running back. Being a gunner on special teams I can tackle. Being at receiver I feel like I can catch pretty good. So I think all around it can help me out.”
Though White’s size (5’10” 209) and versatile skill set is very similar to Payton, he doesn’t have a trademark high kick step like Payton nor does he claim to be as talented as the Hall of Famer. What he takes from the former Chicago Bear is his motto, which was ‘Never Die Easy.’
That motto was derived from Payton’s college coach Bob Hill at Jackson State, referring to never just running out of bounds on a carry, but punishing the defender with a blow before going down. It also was the title of Payton’s autobiography, which White has read.
One aspect of White’s game that looks similar to Payton’s is the ability to get yards after initial contact. White is blessed with great balance. He runs angry like Payton. He doesn’t have elite speed, but White clocked consistently in the low 4.5s in the 40 and has a good burst through the hole.
“Those guys are easier to find than those speed, run away guys,” said Modkins. “This league is not built on speed, run away type guys at that position. You’d like to have one that can break away, but for the most part you want the good four or five-yard runners and then every now and then you have a guy like C.J. (Spiller) that has that extra gear.”
Sure White would love to have an illustrious career that includes nine Pro Bowls and 11 seasons with 1,200 rushing yards or more, but the appeal of Payton for White was the Hall of Famer’s approach to the game.
“I just like his work ethic and then how people talked about how he was off the field,” said White of Payton. “He was the nicest guy off the field and had the best personality, but when he was on the field there was switch he turned on he was a fierce competitor. I just want to be like that off the field and be a people person, but on the field turn on that switch and be a football player.”
Through the first few days of training camp practice White’s switch has most definitely be turned on. Head coach Chan Gailey has talked about easing his players into the demands of camp to be ready for the season. White, however, knows only one speed and that’s full tilt. He’s been bursting through holes like a jackrabbit from day one.
“I just try to go as hard as I can and just try to earn a spot on the team and find a role for you and practice hard,” he said. “Sometimes you might not know everything that’s going on, but if you’re playing hard that makes up for some of that.”
That’s why White will never claim to be like Walter Payton. What NFL rookie would? But he knows it can’t hurt to pattern his approach to the game after one of the league’s all-time greats.
“I just think his will to go and his fight is what I try to take from him,” said White. “I just try to run as hard as I can.”