PLUS: Six more newsmakers for the 2010 season
To understand how the Atlanta Falcons' Roddy White went from an NFL nobody to the league's most prolific receiver—the league leader in catches (106) and receiving yards (1,284), and the offensive focal point for a 12--2 Falcons team that's on track to win home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs—it's best to begin with a different sport, in a different state, and with a key moment that occurred nearly a decade ago. That moment, in February 2001, taught White a lesson it would take him years to unlearn, until he was set to be thrown onto the mountainous scrap heap of first-round receiver busts.
The sport was wrestling; the state was South Carolina, where White grew up and attended James Island High; and the moment came during the Class AAAA championship match, when White, then a senior, used his newfound athletic gifts to pin his opponent, a fearsome boy who naturally outweighed White by some 20 pounds, with a move few schoolboy wrestlers could have pulled off.
White called the move the Shanaz. It's pronounced like Lamaze, and White's opponent, his much larger opponent, was left breathing like a mother in labor after White used it to win his second consecutive state title. It's not pronounced like amaze, although that's what White did to the thousands in attendance at the Carolina Coliseum in Columbia that February day.
As White jumped celebratory circles around his bewildered opponent, no one was more astonished at what he'd just done, at what his body was now capable of doing, than White himself. For much of his adolescence his friends called him Sonic, because he was small and fast like the Sega hedgehog. As a high school freshman White had wrestled at 112 pounds—"a tiny little thing," recalls Albert Spalviero, now in his 12th year as the coach at James Island—but he dreamed of the day when he'd be as big as his uncle, Len Champaign, and his cousins, Carlos and Rell Champaign, state wrestling champions all. Gradually, White grew: He wrestled at 130 as a sophomore and at 152 as a junior in 1999--2000. That season he won his first state title.
Then, in the summer before his senior year, Roddy White's body simply exploded, as if he'd been nibbled by a radioactive arachnid. Suddenly he was 6 feet, 175, and his body could do whatever he wanted it to do. White could run the 40, he says, in 4.3 seconds. The boy who two years earlier was too small for varsity football was now too much for South Carolinian defensive backs to handle: He set school single-season records with 62 catches, 1,342 yards and 17 touchdowns. But his participation in the football All-Star circuit that year meant he missed much of the 2000--01 wrestling season. By the time White joined the team about four weeks before states, Spalviero already had another wrestler at 171 pounds, and White had no inclination to endure the baby oil rubdowns and sweat workouts to make weight. Anyway, he knew he'd need that bulk for football, which by then he realized was his future.
So that day in 2001 White found himself on the mat with the best 189-pounder in the state, a beast of a boy who had been training all season long and who had cut at least 10 pounds of water and fat to slip in under the weight class's limit. The boy took his starting position, on all fours, with White crouched to his right. The opponent began to rise to his feet, and White let him do so. Then, about halfway up, White whipped his opponent into a cradle position like an overgrown infant and rolled him over until his shoulders were digging into the foam. This was the Shanaz. "He pretty much cut through everybody," recalls Spalviero. "He could just do things, you know?"
White had discovered that he could do things no one else in South Carolina could—not the Champaigns, not anybody—and he came to believe he'd be able to do those things no matter what he ate, what he drank, how much he slept, how little he did to prepare. "He was a great kid, but he was difficult for a coach," says Spalviero. "You would want to get a little bit more out of him. They say some guys are gamers when the lights come on Friday nights, and he was like that. When the lights were on, he was born to do it. I think he's learned now that there's a lot more to it."
Back then, and in the four years after White wrestled his last match, he had little reason to think that. At Alabama-Birmingham, where he played college football after low SATs threw schools like South Carolina and Clemson off his trail, he ranked second all time in catches (163), receiving yards (3,112) and touchdowns (26), and as a senior in 2004 he led the nation with 1,452 receiving yards. The following April the Falcons, looking for an impact receiver to pair with Pro Bowl quarterback Michael Vick, made White the 27th overall pick in the draft and handed him a five-year, $7.35 million contract.
"That," White says, "is where the bump came into the road. Being young and not knowing any better, I thought I was the only kid out there that was big and fast and strong and could do it all. But all of a sudden there are other guys out there that are just like you. I was like, I'm finally here and I'm ready to strut my stuff. Go out there and show the world. But it took a whole lot of learning for me to discover how to do that."