LenDale White rips open a pack of cheap cigars, packs in some green leaves and rolls a blunt.
Marijuana is legal in Colorado, and White aches in his head, back and places where a surgeon’s scalpel can’t touch. A little weed now and then takes the edge off, so he will smoke a bit later and avoid the dark temptation of pills.
He has been hesitant to say that publicly because people make snap judgments without knowing him. They think: Overweight. They think: Loud.
They think fourth and two.
Screw it, he says.
A lot of what he is willing to discuss today he has been hesitant to say, but he’s not embarrassed anymore.
“I’m to the point where, man, I’m just … I’m doing what makes me happy, period,” White says.
Happiness is always a little tougher this time of year. It’s Labor Day, and the NFL opens in three days. College football began in earnest the previous weekend.
White, a former USC running back, loves football — loves it — even though it pains him. Even though it makes him say things like: “I’m depressed about football every day.”
Two weeks from Labor Day — this Saturday — USC will play Texas for the first time since Jan. 4, 2006, when the Longhorns were able to mount a late fourth-quarter rally that made them national champions. The game reopens painful memories for USC, but for White, the raw hurt has never disappeared. He thinks about one play every day.
He thinks fourth and two.
“It was one yard,” White says. “One yard stopped us from being great forever.”
Seven years out of the NFL, White is spending the holiday at his friend’s house, a messy place with mismatched furniture and three dogs.
At 32, he is friendly, generous and, wearing a white T-shirt and gray sweatshorts, appears lean — yes, lean. Tennis is on the television, but White isn’t interested. Before long, he’s talking football, reminiscing, smiling, offering rare praise of “sorry-ass UCLA” and the Bruins’ miraculous comeback the night before.
Then the conversation turns to the usual topic, that night at the Rose Bowl when he could have been the hero.
In White’s mind, the fourth-and-two play was his moment, his chance to get the job done, alone, to no longer be overshadowed.
White loves Reggie Bush. White talks about him often this day, and every word is glowing. “I’ve never seen a better college football player,” he says.
Still, White knows Bush’s accomplishments at USC eclipsed his own: 3,159 yards rushing and 57 total touchdowns. It was White, not Bush, who led the team in rushing during USC’s two national championship seasons.
He knows people forget or don’t care about what he did in the game against Texas up until his final run. He’d outplayed Bush, running for 124 yards and three touchdowns. Two of his three touchdowns came on the same play: 27 power.
With two minutes and 13 seconds left in regulation and USC holding a 38-33 lead, the Trojans were at Texas’ 45-yard line and needed two yards on fourth down to keep possession and run out the clock. Two yards for a third straight national championship. Get it, and there would be no Vince Young game-winner.
Coach Pete Carroll made a fateful decision. He kept Bush, the Heisman Trophy winner, on the sideline. Everyone in the stadium knew what the call would be: 27 power. Carroll, in the season’s biggest moment, was going with White.
No one doubted the outcome. White was huge and strong and fast and could run through anyone. He’d get the first down.
And then he didn’t.
The defense knew what was coming. USC’s line was pushed back. White, with nowhere to go, ran hopelessly into two defenders.
“When I look at that film, I should’ve tried to ‘Reggie’ — anything,” he says. “Cutback, do something, anything. Dive as high as I can over the top. When I run, just dive. You try to think of any and everything that you could do at that point in time, or what you could’ve done to change the outcome of the play.”
He believes the play has come to define him, and he wonders: How many times do you hear people talking about LenDale White as USC’s career leader in touchdowns? It’s not O.J. Simpson, Charles White or Marcus Allen. It’s him. Yet that’s not his legacy.
“Yeah, Texas is probably going to be the game,” White says. “They’ll never forget that. There’s nothing I can do to shake that.”
After the game, he went to the studio with his friend Snoop Dogg. They were in shock. They kept asking: What happened?
Sitting at his friend’s dining room table, White mentions a particular word: “bust.”
Does he consider himself an NFL bust? He vacillates before reaching a conclusion. “Hell no,” he says.
Then again, he acknowledges that he wanted to be in the Hall of Fame and didn’t come close. He didn’t make the most of his NFL career, and it was his own fault.
“That’s all me,” he says. “I didn’t do stuff right. I didn’t work out as hard as I should’ve.”
“That’s a good-ass question,” he says.
He looks down and says quietly: “All I did was hurt myself.”
White says he left for the NFL early, after his junior season, because he had family to care for. He grew up poor, and his father died of HIV when White was young. “You know how hard that is to tell kids when you’re 11 or 12, that your dad died of HIV?” he says.
He no longer wanted his mother toiling for $9.25 an hour or the bugs to bite his grandmother in her rundown nursing home. It was difficult to leave USC, where he was famous, kicking it with Snoop. Carroll had become a father figure. He knew things about White that few people did. White regrets leaving when he did.
For a brief time, he recaptured in the NFL what he’d left behind at USC. During his second season with the Tennessee Titans, he rushed for more than 1,000 yards. His third, he scored 15 touchdowns. He even became friends with Young — the Rose Bowl nemesis who became his NFL teammate. But he didn’t push himself hard enough, and on top of that, his body took a pummeling. He was a big target, and defenders cut him down with big hits.
White estimates he sustained 20 to 30 concussions, about one every other game. But he can’t be sure. Only one was diagnosed, he says.
“You lose consciousness and then all of a sudden it’s like shoooo-ooooof,” White says, making a slurping noise, his eyes growing wide as he described the sensation. “Like, that’s how it sounds, like shhhhhhloooof, and then all of a sudden you hear the play again.” He’d wander around in a haze, Young directing him to the right spot until he regained his senses.
His head throbbed. His body ached. When his career began to slide, he slipped into a funk. Pain pills, he found, dulled the misery.
“And I don’t mean like popping a pain pill because I’m hurt,” White says. “I mean popping scripts. Like 10 Vicodins at a time type [stuff]. You know what I mean? To feel it, like I’m high. To feel the numbness.”
Then, hope appeared. The Titans traded him to the Seattle Seahawks, reuniting him with Carroll.
It lasted a month. The Seahawks cut him during the off-season. Carroll informed White of the move in a phone call. The impersonal nature wounded White deeply. He felt abandoned. He lashed out at Carroll publicly, and he still has not gotten over the pain.
White’s feelings toward Carroll are complicated. “I’m more mad at Pete, the Seahawk situation, because he handled it like a coward,” White says.
But he also still loves Carroll. If he could go back and do it all over again, he says he’d play for Carroll at USC in a heartbeat. However, he also knows this: Carroll wasn’t the father figure White imagined. Carroll was a coach.
White says Carroll should have cut him in person. He imagines the conversation: “LenDale, I love you, son. This is what’s wrong with you, though, as a player right now.”
In an email, Carroll says that: “Unfortunately, the timing and circumstances surrounding LenDale’s release didn’t afford me the opportunity to speak with him in person — something I always try to do. I am sorry he feels hurt by the situation and truly wish him well.”
White never played in another NFL game.
The next time White was in the public eye it was because he was involved in a dispute at the Coliseum after a USC game in 2014. Reporters took video.
White was trying to get to USC’s locker room, but he was stopped by four police officers and two security guards. He stopped, looking resigned. He was being kicked out of the stadium. He shook hands with the police officers, but he pointed at someone farther down the tunnel and started yelling before walking out of the stadium. He believes Pat Haden, then USC’s athletic director, had him removed.
White, USC said, had been aggressive on the sideline during the game and was yelling at players and coaches near USC’s bench. Reports surfaced indicating Haden believed White wasn’t supporting the program.
White took it as if he were being accused of treason. He says he loves USC without reservation, but felt Haden treated him as if he were still some poor kid instead of a former Trojan great. (Haden did not respond to a phone call seeking comment.)
What White really needed was help. When White moved back to Denver, his depression spiked. That fourth-and-two had blotted out his brilliance. He fixated on returning to the NFL, even though it was years after he’d been cut. People stopped him in the grocery store and asked when he was coming back. He worked out with his best friend with the Titans, running back Chris Johnson. And when White wasn’t with Johnson, he worked out near home, with high school players.
White’s mother noticed him changing. White is bright and gentle, a pleasure to spend time with. But he turned sour. He stopped grooming himself. He’d snap, grumble at his nieces and nephews.
“Mothers know,” Anita White Taylor says. “Everything was getting to him. Everything. And I do mean everything, from the sun shining in his face in the morning to the sun going down in the evening. Everything got to him. He was just mad at the world.”
Taylor had wanted him to return to football. Then when he visited one day, she watched him try to get up from the couch. His big toe was jacked up. His shoulder was in obvious pain. He limped. It was like an old person, she says, trying to work out all the kinks.
“It just seemed like two diesel trucks colliding together, and he’s finally feeling all the pain now,” Taylor says.
The mental pain was worse. Taylor sat him down and talked about depression. She’d gone through bouts, too, she told him. She asked him to see someone. She saw a commercial about the brain injury chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, on television. She begged him to get checked out. She asked him: Why don’t you find something else to devote your life to?
“He told me, ‘Mom, football is all I know,’” Taylor says. “‘That’s all I know.’”
He thought about killing himself. He didn’t know if he’d be good at anything else.
“I don’t wanna be that guy to drive to a … stadium and blow my brains out,” he says. “I don’t want to be that guy. But bro, sometimes, there’s, again, that frustration of football and the fact that people are able to hold that over you.”
A few years ago, White’s USC buddies formed a group texting thread, which has grown to about 30 former teammates. Chris McFoy, a former USC receiver, says the men use it to check in on each other, “just like we’re still in the locker room or still playing together.”
Lots of them, having reached the highest highs, were going through football withdrawal of their own.
“It kind of leaves you with a void,” Keith Rivers, a former USC linebacker, says.
Many days, the group chat kept White afloat. The teammates and friends he thought he let down picked him up. They checked in constantly. Snoop Dogg called whenever he was in Denver. Johnson hosted White at his house. Young called weekly. White’s USC teammates called him, suggesting new ventures, new goals.
“If it wasn’t for some of that group chat talk some of the days, I don’t know how I would get through it,” White says.
White wasn’t sure if his depression was because of fourth-and-two or the NFL or CTE, or something else.
He just wondered: Without football, what value did he have?
White puts the blunt down on the table. He knows people think he’s a stoner, but he’s done his research. He explains that a particular type of marijuana has been part of his recovery.
White broke his dependence on pain pills with products made with cannabidiol, a less psychoactive chemical in cannabis. He says it has helped his anxiety, soothed his pain.
White thinks it can help other people like him. Doing so has become his mission. He bought into a farm that sells marijuana to dispensaries called High Country Ranch.
His attitude has improved, according to his family and friends. Taylor began to see something different in her son around July. He smiled more. He played with his nieces and nephews. McFoy says White again is “the guy that cracks jokes, tells the truth, is brutally honest, love him or hate him.”
The Los Angeles Times interviewed 30 players from USC’s 2006 Rose Bowl team. Many of them think Bush should also have been on the field on fourth-and-two, at least as a decoy. White agrees.
Just about all of them say, given a do-over, they wouldn’t change anything else. They’d give the ball to White.
White just wants to find a place where he’s not defined by one yard.
“I just want to live, man,” he says, “and be at peace.”