James White has been here before. Twenty-two years on this earth and he's comfortable being here. Here is where the expectations of one of the most winningest franchises in the world don't seem too great. Here is training camp, competing against veterans who have been here for years. Here is being part of the group, out of the individual spotlight, but still ready to shine if needed.
At five feet nine inches and 205 pounds, he's not a big player. With a 4.57 40 yard dash, he's not a fast player. With a nine feet and six inches broad jump, he's not an explosive player.
He's the fourth all time leading rusher at Wisconsin, a school known for its running backs, but he was never the feature running back. He's third all time in rushing touchdowns, but he only led his team once in his four years on the squad.
His high school teammate was Giovani Bernard, a second round pick and rising sophomore for the Cincinnati Bengals. One of his college teammates, a fellow second round pick, Montee Ball is now a running back with Peyton Manning and the Broncos.
His other college teammate, Melvin Gordon, is already receiving potential first round praise. His current teammates are second round pick Shane Vereen and third round pick Stevan Ridley. He's used to competing with top talent.
White was selected in the fourth round by the New England Patriots. And he's right where he's meant to be.
St. Thomas Aquinas high school in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, is the rough equivalent to the Madden team you construct when you're bored. The school has had the most graduates on NFL rosters for opening week each of the past three seasons, with Geno Atkins the most notable alumni (although you could argue Michael Irvin is their most notable graduate overall).
They won 37 consecutive games and were crowned the 2008 National Champions. Four players from the school were drafted in the first four rounds of this year's draft. It would have been easy enough to fade into the background against such a great group of talent; instead he opted to compete for the spotlight.
Actually, "opted" might be too active of a word; White didn't have a choice.
"[James] had thoughts about going somewhere else," shares Tyrone, White's father. "I said, 'No, you're not going anywhere else. This is part of competition and competition is part of life. You have to work through it and things work out.' And they did."
White clawed his way to the foreground and earned one of the near-double digit Division I scholarships that were issued to his teammates.
"I have speed- but I am not the fastest back there is," said White, back in his high school days. "But I can get by you or I can run through you."
It's easy to feel overshadowed when your teammates are stealing all the light, but White was destined to be a Patriot. He knew his best chance would be taking advantage of the time he had on the field- no matter how limited- and making the most of his opportunities. When Bernard was injured before their game against the #2 ranked team in the country, White knew exactly what to say.
"If [he is out], then I will just have to out there and do my job," White said. And with a probable wink to Bill Belichick, he followed that up with, "He's probably going to play, though."
That game was against Marcus Lattimore, a five star recruit who is currently with the 49ers. White led his team with 9 touches, 110 yards, and the game sealing touchdown in a showdown between the #1 and #2 team in the country. ESPN didn't mention him once.
"At times I do feel overlooked," White said. "But really, what I focus the most on is just going in and doing what I do to help my team win. That's what I am focused on. It's also great being in the same backfield with [Bernard]. We really enjoy playing on the same team. We block for each other and pick each other up during the course of a game, things like that."
Somewhere, Belichick smiled.
The Patriots are ready for White to make an impact and they're not hiding their expectations.
"It’s been good working with James White," Belichick told XM radio. "He’s a very interesting and versatile player. He does a good job in the passing game and in the running game -- both inside and outside. Blitz pickup -- we have a pretty extensive offense for him to learn, but he’s working hard at it.
"We’ll just let him go and see how it goes, but I think he has the ability to compete on all three downs, in both the running game and the passing game."
Compete. White can and will compete for time on the field. His experiences in high school and college have been preparing him for this exact moment in his life.
"He’s got a real maturity for someone who is just getting out of college," said Brady about White. "He’s one of those guys who has been out here every day...He’s been able to make a mistake, get the correction, come out again and not make the mistake the next day, so it’s been great."
He knows that not making mistakes is crucial to earning the trust of the veterans and the coaches. "Ball security is job security," he shrugged at the beginning of camp. White gets it.
White's played on the best teams in the league before. He's played with and against the best talents before. Playing alongside Vereen and Ridley will be no more or less challenging than lining up with Bernard, or Ball, or Gordon.
He's not the fastest. He's not the strongest. He's not going to be given opportunities he hasn't won through competition. He's earning his expectations through achievements on the practice field.
White is acting like he's been here before. In reality, he's been here for the longest time.