Oct. 14 - In the dorm of destitution, Jason White was No. 3 on the pity list. At the top of the list was roommate Michael Thompson, the one-time rising star cornerback for Oklahoma who was battling back from a horrific car accident that left him with a broken leg, a broken jaw, two broken ankles, bruised lungs and nearly dead on a barren country road.
ROOMMATE NO. 2 WAS Dan Cody, the Sooners’ one-time star defensive end whose life had gone from battling 300-pound offensive tackles on the field to fighting the frightening enormity of clinical depression.
Then there was White, the one-time future star at quarterback recovering from a measly ACL surgery on each knee, operations in which they open your knee like a helpless frog in a high school biology experiment, then say, good luck, kid. Ten months of rehab for each knee; nearly two years of lonely, soul-searching nights and monotonous, isolated days. Still . . .
“How was I supposed to feel sorry for myself?” White says.
To know Jason White is to know he wouldn’t have, anyway — no matter the circumstances. So when he took a helmet to the chin from Texas defensive tackle Marcus Tubbs last weekend, when he was split open and bleeding and staggering to his feet in the middle of yet another Sooners blowout in the Red River Rivalry, when no one would’ve blinked had he sat for the remainder of the game, he shook it off and led OU to its zillionth touchdown in what has become a one-sided series.
It’s just the way he’s wired. His dad busted his hump for years pouring cement in the tiny town of Tuttle, Okla., where young Jason spent many days doing the same thing. There is no questioning why; you just do it because, frankly, life is tough, and the lessons learned from the highs and lows eventually will pay off. Who could’ve imagined the lows would include suffering the worst injury in sports on each knee, one right after the other healed, both occurring without contact and away from plays?
So, don’t read so much into Jason White’s subdued, sensible tone after he threw for 290 yards and four touchdowns and missed just four of 21 pass attempts in a 65-13 rout of Texas. Two years of painful purgatory have left him with a perspective few can grasp. That’s why he avoids conversations about a Heisman Trophy race he has suddenly seized control of. And it’s why folks say his play has him — hushed tones, please — closing in on Josh Heupel status. In 2000, the last time OU won it all, Heupel became a folk hero with his gutty, determined play as the Sooners’ star quarterback.
If this season finishes the way it could — with a win at the Sugar Bowl in January — they’ll canonize White in Norman.
This story begins, fittingly, two years ago in the creaky old Cotton Bowl against the hated Longhorns. A year after OU did the unthinkable and scored 63 points against Texas, the Sooners were fighting against turning momentum and losing grip of a close game before White replaced Nate Hybl and steadied the ship in a 14-3 victory. Three weeks later at Nebraska, after the player many schools recruited as a safety had won the starting quarterback job, two years of second-guessing and second chances began. White was rolling out and throwing on the run; one awkward step later, his left knee snapped like one of those fried Twinkies at the Texas State Fair.
The normal recovery time for an ACL injury is nine to 12 months; many take longer. Any player at any level will tell you the toughest part of competition is not competing at all. It’s hours of painful rehab with no tangible reward, just the hope that things will get better while your teammates celebrate yet another big win.
By the time fall 2002 rolled around, White was completely healthy and again had won the job from Hybl. The season began with a laugher over Tulsa, followed by a big nonconference game against Alabama. White’s season was over before the first quarter ran out. Another ACL injury, this time to the right knee.
“I never really thought, ‘Why me?’ ” White says. “It was more like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ ”
InsertArt(2041146)It’s understandable, then, that there were more than a few skeptics when White returned this fall. Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops declared all summer that this could be his best team yet, which is sort of like saying this Beatles song is better than that one. The only question mark, it seemed, was White — specifically, his knees.
But here we are in October, with White playing better than anyone in the country and the top-ranked Sooners as close to unbeatable as any team can be in this season of upsets.
Through six games, White has thrown for 1,762 yards, 20 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He has hit 69.0 percent of his passes, and with him at the helm, the offense simply doesn’t misfire. The Sooners have scored 52 or more points in their last four games; against Texas, it could’ve been 80. Is there such a thing as a 10-run rule in the Big 12? Stoops actually showed mercy on the Shorties in the second half, with White throwing just four times before leaving early in the fourth quarter.
In Stoops’ five seasons in Norman, OU has been known mostly for its nasty, game-wrecking defenses. His coaching history is defense; his attitude is defense. But this season’s team is all about the offense, which is playing so well it’s overshadowing a unit that can be tossed into the argument about the best Sooners defense ever. More than anything, this team is all about White, whose inspirational comeback and nearly flawless play has coaches and players at a loss for suitable praise.
“One knee injury, maybe,” says offensive tackle Wes Sims. “But two knee injuries? I don’t know if I could do that. I mean, that’s asking a lot.”
Here’s the scary part: With just 10 career starts under his belt, White still is getting better. He is playing so well that he has forced OU to rethink its short and controlled passing philosophy. The Sooners’ scheme includes five to seven deep throws a game because he throws the deep ball so well. White has stretched the field for an offense with the most underrated receiving corps in the country, led by Mark Clayton — who looks more like, well, Mark Clayton with every game.
The offense is playing so well, coordinator Chuck Long has had to scale back in practice for fear of overusing White’s arm. In 2000, Heupel threw so much in practice and took so many hits in games that his left (throwing) elbow was the size of a grapefruit by the end of the regular season. He had no zip on the ball by late November and later led OU past Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game and Florida State in the national title game on will alone.
Think about that. For two years, Jason White’s knees were the coaching staff’s biggest concern. Suddenly, it’s his right arm.
Maybe that will win him a couple sympathy points with his former roommates.
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