Maybe Momma needs to come down here.
Fear of Failure, and Mother, Motivated Falcons’ Star Receiver
By RAY GLIER
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Five games into the 2006 season, Joenethia White answered the phone at her home in James Island, S.C., and heard the shamed voice of her son, Roddy.
“I’m about to be the third receiver,” he said. “I lost my starting position.”
A first-round draft pick by the Atlanta Falcons in 2005, White seemed to know the routes to the nightclubs and bars better than he knew the routes he was supposed to run in practices and in games. Tired of his act, the Falcons benched him.
“Well, then,” she said. “I need to pack up and move down there and take care of you like you’re a baby again.”
It was White’s wake-up call, so to speak. He did not want his mother stomping into town.
“No, no, don’t do that, I got this,” he said.
With the help of the former Atlanta receivers coach Paul Petrino, a new work ethic and his mother’s threat, White drastically turned his career around. He went from 30 catches in 2006 to 83 catches in 2007. He became the first receiver in Falcons history to have three consecutive seasons of at least 80 catches and 1,100 yards (from 2007 to 2009).
This season, White, 29, leads the N.F.L. in receptions with 70, and is on pace to easily pass his career high, 88, as the Falcons (7-2) sit atop the N.F.C. A two-time Pro Bowl player, White has climbed out of the rookie trap he fell into after he was drafted out of Alabama-Birmingham as the 27th pick over all pick in 2005. With money for the first time, he strayed to the nightclubs and bars in Buckhead and the west side of Atlanta.
“Too many bars, too many women,” his mother said.
Frequently, White said, his nights would end at 4 a.m. Instead of going home and risk missing morning meetings, White would drive to the Falcons’ facility and sleep in the players’ lounge. When he woke up, he would sit in a steam bath to rid his body of the toxins from the night out.
After struggling in his first two seasons, White was ridiculed for dropped passes and labeled as a bust-in-progress.
“It kind of scared me, especially my second year when I didn’t start anymore,” he said. “I needed to get my act together because they might cut me.
“I was mentally out of football at that point. Every day, I showed up at the facility and just walked around, basically didn’t want to do anything. I was just here.”
Then the Falcons fired Coach Jim Mora and hired Bobby Petrino, who brought in his brother, Paul, as the receivers coach.
“Bobby and Paul, they was like, ‘You’re going to be the guy, don’t worry about what other people say,’ ” White said. “ ‘We’re starting over, so you’ve got to get yourself ready.’ ”
In the first minicamp in May 2007, Bobby Petrino yelled for the starters to get on the field. White stayed where he was. Paul Petrino said: “What are you doing? Get in there.”
White said he was relieved.
“I was back where I wanted to be,” he said. “He got on my butt every day. He said you need to outwork everybody. I tried to win every drill.”
Paul Petrino said that when he first worked with White, he was rolling into his routes and not planting his foot and making firm cuts. His routes were not precise, so if the quarterback threw an accurate pass, White was out of position to make the catch.
“He dropped passes, and they said he had bad hands, but that wasn’t the case,” said Petrino, who is now the offensive coordinator at Illinois. “He was just not in the right position to catch the pass. He worked hard to correct his footwork.”
White, a two-time state wrestling champion in high school, learned how to better use his powerful hands to get a release off the line of scrimmage from the bump-and-run tactics of cornerbacks. The Falcons started throwing more balls to White in practice, building his confidence.
Petrino, who had come to the Falcons from the University of Louisville, also treated White like a college player. He stayed in touch with White, even after hours, and if he heard White was out carousing, Petrino would send a simple text message, “Get your butt home.”
Darrell Hackney, White’s best friend and his U.A.B. quarterback, said White’s first two seasons were a struggle because of the change in lifestyle and the pressures of being a first-round pick.
“You know what they say, more money more problems, and that was that,” said Hackney, who lives in Atlanta. “Those first two years, there was a lot of pressure. When he dropped passes, it was eating at him. He’s figured it out now.
“There are times I try to call him now in the off-season to go have lunch and he’ll say, ‘Can’t do it, me and Matt Ryan are about to hit the field.’ ”
Pat Sullivan, White’s offensive coordinator at U.A.B. and now the coach at Samford University, took his team here on the way to a road game to have White speak to the players.
“I had heard about the first couple of years in Atlanta and how he had trouble getting on track,” said Sullivan, the 1971 Heisman Trophy winner at Auburn. “Now he has the bit in his mouth and wants to succeed. He has matured so much. The way he talked to our team and about priorities showed how far he has come the last couple of years.”
White has three children, who are 5, 4, and 1. His mother said that has calmed him down, but he also knows she is just four hours away and knows the way to Atlanta. She comes to most home games with White’s grandmother and great-grandmother, all three wearing White’s No. 84 jersey.
“I’m so proud of him,” Joenethia White said. She hesitated for a moment and then chuckled, “I knew he didn’t want me coming down there.”