Roddy White was asleep in his Atlanta-area home on a hot afternoon last July. As he was catching a nap after a daylong charity golf tournament, his younger brother, Tyrone, startled him by opening the door to his room.
"Hey, your coach is here," Tyrone said.
"What coach?" the Atlanta Falcons' fourth-year wideout asked. "There can't be a coach here."
"There's a guy here who says he's your coach. And he's in the kitchen talking to Mama."
A few seconds later, Roddy walked in on a scene that ranked with his biggest nightmares: There was the Falcons' first-year receivers coach, Terry Robiskie, breaking bread with White's mother, Joenethia, and his grandmother and great-grandmother. Only one person in the room wasn't smiling.
"Who told you where I live?" White demanded of Robiskie, "and what are you doing in my house?"
Now that White is on his way to his first Pro Bowl selection – he leads the NFC with 1,085 receiving yards, a key reason the Falcons (8-4) are the league's most surprising playoff contender heading into Sunday's game at New Orleans – he can look back and laugh at the incident. At the time, however, there was nothing funny about the sight of his hard-nosed position coach holding court with the trio of concerned women in his kitchen.
The background: During his first two NFL seasons, White had developed a deserved reputation for paying too much attention to partying and not enough to football. He was on the verge of washing out before a breakout '07 campaign (83 catches, 1,202 yards, six TDs). Still, Robiskie, upon his arrival last February, felt the young receiver wasn't exhibiting enough focus.
The issue came to a head during offseason workouts, at which point Robiskie asked White to give him his mother's phone number. "No way," White told him.
So Robiskie, a few weeks later, found White's address and showed up unannounced.
Recalls White of Robiskie's visit: "He said to my mom, 'Give me your number, so when he's in the clubs I can call you – and you can call him and tell him to go home.' And she gave him her number! Ridiculous."
Robiskie's version? "Me and Roddy had a falling-out, so I went to his house. I talked to his mama, and she gave me permission to keep my foot up his ass."
Just as there is nothing subtle about Robiskie's coaching style, White's maturation into an elite receiver has been abrupt and emphatic.
"His route running has improved a lot, and [rookie quarterback] Matt Ryan is doing a good job getting him the football," Saints cornerback Jason David says of White, who last year put together Atlanta's first 1,000-yard receiving season since 1999. "He is a good wide receiver with a lot of speed, and when you match that with good route running it makes for a dangerous receiver."
Two years ago, White was a receiver dangerously close to blowing his opportunity. Drafted in the first round (27th overall) out of Alabama-Birmingham in April of '05, White caught just 29 passes as a rookie and lost his starting job early in his second season, which ended with 30 receptions and zero touchdowns.
White hit bottom on Nov. 26, 2006, when he suffered a nationally televised embarrassment that seemed to underscore his status as a conspicuous flop. With the Falcons still fighting for the NFC South title and trailing by eight points in the fourth quarter of a prime-time showdown with the Saints at the Georgia Dome, White flashed open on the left sideline and prepared to catch a long pass from Michael Vick at the New Orleans 5-yard line.
"I made a move down the left sideline, and the defender fell down," White recalled last Saturday night while sitting at a table just off the expansive lobby of the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego (the Falcons defeated the Chargers, 22-16, the following afternoon). "It was one of the easiest catches I could ever make, and it went right through my hands.
"It was definitely the lowest moment of my life. I just dropped to my knees and thought, 'Why does this have to happen to me?' "
Shortly thereafter, Falcons owner Arthur Blank was interviewed on the sideline. Blank took a shot at his team's underachieving wideouts, with White obviously one of the prime offenders. Then-coach Jim Mora summoned the receiver to his office and told him that he was disappointed in his lack of dedication, that he felt White was letting his teammates down.
"At that point," White says, "I thought my days in the NFL were over."
Looking back, White realizes his immaturity was to blame. He came into the NFL believing his considerable athletic ability – his combination of deceptive speed, strength and body control makes him a deep threat/possession hybrid reminiscent of Terrell Owens – would allow him to thrive, no matter how little work he put into perfecting his craft.
"My approach coming in was wrong," White says. "I was an athletic guy who could run and jump, and I thought that's all you needed to be good in the NFL. I saw Randy Moss and Terrell Owens go up and make plays, and I figured I could just do that, too, without working at it."
Once White's alleged workday ended, he was all about two things: socializing and eating.
"My first year, I watched no film, other than what I had to watch at the facility," White recalls. "I was just content to be in the NFL – and I was partying it up, living the kind of lifestyle off the field that I should've been living on the field.
"There were times I'd be in the club all night, then go straight from the club to the facility. That was kind of like my lifestyle. We'd have a morning meeting, and I couldn't even stay awake."
White's diet, he says, "was terrible. I gained a bunch of weight. I would go to McDonald's, and I could eat four double cheeseburgers."
Sometimes, while sitting at a restaurant, White would hear snippets of conversation from adjacent tables that he knew were directed at him. "All of a sudden," White says, "you'd hear someone say, 'Dropping a ball' or 'He ain't no good … we need to trade him.' I knew what they were talking about, and I knew which way things were headed. I wondered, are [the Falcons] ever gonna give me another chance?"
White got one from what now seems an unlikely source: Bobby Petrino, who replaced the fired Mora as coach but lasted just 13 games before bolting for Arkansas. Petrino's abrupt and seemingly disingenuous exit still enrages his former players – when Falcons players learn of a Razorbacks defeat, White says, "We all cheer and say, 'Yeah!' " – but he did express faith in White early on and ultimately reinstalled him as a starter.
Another key was the team's acquisition of veteran wideout Joe Horn, who lasted just one season in Atlanta but managed to help effect an attitude adjustment. "He was a great teammate," White says of Horn, "and he instilled a lot of lessons in me, including the idea that I could be a leader. He told me, 'You're talented. You've got everything you need to be a star in this league. But you can't just come to work every day – you've got to come to work and work every day."
The lesson was hammered home by the demise of Vick, White's close friend, whose stunning fall from grace culminated in a 23-month federal prison sentence for his role in a dogfighting conspiracy. Last December, White was fined $10,000 by the NFL after flashing a "Free Mike Vick" T-shirt under his uniform following a touchdown catch on Monday Night Football. He says he has had several telephone conversations with Vick – White says the imprisoned passer speaks frequently with the team's senior director of player development, Kevin Winston, who then passes the phone to others at the team's facility.
"We talked about a month ago," White says. "He was like, 'Man, you're ballin'. Keep doing what you're doing.' I think he's learned his lesson. He can't wait to get out of there, and he can't wait till somebody gives him an opportunity to play again. People make bad decisions in life, but I know the real Mike Vick and in my heart he's always going to be a good guy."
With all of that said, White has no complaints about Ryan, the brilliant rookie who quickly locked in on him as his No. 1 target. "He's a hard worker," Ryan says of White, "and he's made some huge plays for us."
Says Ryan's backup, Chris Redman, who started the final four games of last season: "Roddy's a stud. He's become a real leader in the huddle. He doesn't just want to catch the ball – he wants to catch it and score. The guy's a beast."
White has been proving it on a weekly basis, but he swears he isn't satisfied. The kid who grew up watching films of Jerry Rice continues to push himself; he was particularly upset after a potential touchdown pass bounced off his hands late in the Falcons' 24-20 defeat to Denver last month, though it certainly wasn't an egregious drop.
"Everybody in the NFL gets [his] chance to live in that moment where you win or lose the game," White says. "The elite guys are the ones who make the plays like that so their team can win, and I want to be one of those guys."
If he ever starts to waver, he knows at least two people who will let him know about it: Robiskie and his new-found confidante.
"His mama and I have an understanding," Robiskie says. "He has some bad habits he's got to get rid of, but we're working on it."
Joenethia White, says Roddy, "is my master motivator. Believe me, she's like Joe Horn: She'll tell me straight up how she feels. If I have a terrible game, she makes it no better – I'll call and she'll say, 'You should've caught that ball. You need to make that play.' Even this year, when things are going well, we'll talk afterward and she'll say, 'We can do better.' "
And if she feels her son isn't getting the message?
There's a position coach who'll be happy to deliver it – and he knows where White lives.
TAKE IT TO THE ATM
It's time for the Left Coast to show some heart: Niners will scare the Jets in San Francisco; Seahawks will shock the Pats in Seattle. … Kurt Warner will lay the wood to his former team as the Cardinals KO the Rams to clinch their first division title since the aftermath of the Thrilla In Manila (call it the Fiesta in the Desert). … After Sunday, when he leads the Falcons to a crucial road victory over the Saints, Matt Ryan will be a more viable MVP candidate than Drew Brees.
PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …
Toronto, where I thoroughly enjoyed my previous visit, right down to the Ricky Williams Argonauts jersey that is still an essential part of my son's wardrobe. After spending every Canadian dollar I can get my hands on at Toronto's finest establishments, I'll be at the Rogers Centre Sunday to watch Williams and the Dolphins take on the Bills.
LIES, LIES, LIES
1. The Raiders have a lot of heart (and discipline).
3. Four years after he groveled his way to Pasadena, Texas coach Mack Brown has nothing but sympathy over his team's likely BCS title game snub from this highly evolved columnist.
WORLD'S SIMPLEST POOL
Now four-for-four and looking for more, rap impresario Luther Campbell is following up his successful Dolphins-over-Rams pick by picking on the bottom-feeders from St. Louis once again. "I've gotta take the Cardinals to win big," Campbell says. "They're going after that division title, and they're gonna get it at home. But here's what makes me mad: Now that they're finally winning, one of the main people who taught them how to win – my man Edgerrin James – isn't even playing. That's [expletive]. The running game has been struggling the last few games, and they need to put EJ back in to try to give it a spark. But [coach Ken] Whisenhunt is too stubborn. Come on, Coach – when you're wrong, you're wrong."
MY BUDDY'S ANNOYING FANTASY ADVENTURE
"Dude, let's face it," my buddy Malibu said Thursday as he drove south to San Diego to watch his beloved Chargers face the Raiders. "You're the Marty Schottenheimer of fantasy football." Ouch – I spend years reluctantly providing fantasy advice on a weekly basis, get laughed out of the room for insisting he draft Adrian Peterson in the second round as a rookie and give him two seasons' worth of "Gameface" notoriety, and this is the thanks I get? Then again, Malibu does have a point. Last year, after compiling the Sex, Drugs and Fantasy Football league's second-highest regular season point total, his team, Beat The Gypsy, suffered an inglorious first-round playoff defeat to Cleveland Steamers.
This time, however, it's going to be different. Though Malibu's team, Hand of Doom (8-5), missed out on a first-round bye after losing to second-place Gravity Rebels last weekend – big days by Donovan McNabb, Peyton Hillis and Eddie Royal did him in – his playoff matchup with (you guessed it) Cleveland Steamers looks favorable. For one thing, Steamers' current incarnation (Jason Campbell, Marion Barber, DeAngelo Williams, Larry Fitzgerald, Jericho Cotchery, Roy Williams, Chad Pennington) is eminently beatable. Hand of Doom is trotting out its big guns (Drew Brees, LaDainian Tomlinson, Marques Colston, Matt Ryan) while making some key roster tweaks: Getting rid of Carolina's defense (at home vs. Tampa Bay) in favor of Indy's (at home vs. Cincinnati); inserting Steve Breaston into the lineup for the struggling Chris Chambers; and claiming Falcons rookie wideout Harry Douglas on waivers for what Malibu and I anticipate will be a semifinal showdown with one of the top seeds next weekend. "You'd better know what the hell you're doing," Malibu warned. I assured him that Tim Hightower, Breaston and Neil Rackers would all come up big for the Cardinals on Sunday, as would Devin Hester for the Bears.
I had a far less contentious conversation with UCSB women's basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb, whose dramatic comeback last weekend put her in position to make the playoffs with a favorable outcome in this weekend's regular-season finale. "I thought we were done after Thanksgiving," Gottlieb said, alluding to the 60-2 deficit faced by Gaucho Madness against McLovin (Chris Johnson, Rob Bironas, Dallas defense) following last Thursday's games. But Gottlieb rallied thanks to Aaron Rodgers, Bernard Berrian, newly acquired Justin Fargas and Tony Gonzalez while McLovin's Brett Favre, Randy Moss, Marvin Harrison, Jericho Cotchery, Vernon Davis and Maurice Jones-Drew struggled, ultimately pulling out a 91-82 victory. That pulled Gaucho Madness (6-7) into a five-way tie for sixth place – but technically in ninth based on total points, which would leave her out of the playoffs. She has two possible paths to the postseason: Win this weekend's head-to-head matchup with 6-7 Tiggers (Drew Brees, Thomas Jones, Brian Westbrook, Donald Driver, Santonio Holmes) or outscore eighth-place Brooklyn's Finest (also 6-7, and ahead of Gaucho Madness by a single point) if both teams are defeated.
Buoyed by last week's lineup changes, Gottlieb and I are feeling feisty again: We're subbing Gus Frerotte (at Lions) for Rodgers (at home vs. Texans); benching Braylon Edwards (at Titans) for Breaston and Ted Ginn Jr. (vs. Bills at Toronto); claiming the Cardinals' defense; and banking on Willie Parker's return to health against the Cowboys. "My 'projected points' total just dropped by 20," Gottlieb said after making the changes. "But I feel good about it. It's just like when I shake up the starting lineup by putting in a kid who busts her ass in practice. Sometimes you've just got to go on 'feel.' " I told her to feel secure that Frerotte, a former Lions player, might put up bigger numbers in a dome than Rodgers does on the frozen tundra; that Berrian would stay hot; and that Ginn (huge game against the Bills last time) and Breaston were better bets this week than Edwards, who seemed to give up on that last Ken Dorsey pass against the Colts.
OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE
Given its decision not to accept an invitation to face fellow undefeated team Boise State in the Humanitarian Bowl, should we consider putting a "No" in front of a certain Indiana University's name?
LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …
My former Sports Illustrated colleague Paul Zimmerman, who is laid up in a New Jersey hospital after suffering a pair of strokes. In a world of frivolous hyperbole, I'm worried that any effort to describe Z's impact on pro football and journalism will be dismissed as an exaggeration – but my friend Peter King is absolutely correct when he calls Zim the best football writer of our time. Beyond the unparalleled knowledge of the game and appreciation for its finer points, and beyond even the dogged reporting style and feature-writing flair, Z set the bar impossibly high in terms of access – the most important element of all. During my first year on the NFL beat, I tried to cover the San Francisco 49ers like Deion Sanders in his prime, but I was up against some very stiff local competition and typically ended up feeling like a crisp piece of toast. Then, after picking up an SI a few days after the Niners' 55-10 Super Bowl XXIV victory over the Broncos, I realized there was a whole other level of burnt: Dr. Z had been spent hours after the game in Joe Montana's hotel room, watching as the quarterback analyzed replays of his best throws. That game story was one of many, many Z classics, and I'm praying there'll be many more. (As a side note, I could have used Z – who faithfully pulls out his stopwatch, times national anthems and puts their respective lengths in historical perspective – before last Sunday's Falcons-Chargers game at Qualcomm Stadium, as a singer named Robby Hopper proceeded to draw out The Star-Spangled Banner to what seemed like Stairway To Heavenesque lengths. Trust me – his lovely wife, Linda, will read this to him, and he will be gratified it was mentioned.)
I'm also sending out thoughts, prayers and psychic Irish Coffees from Molly's to one of my dearest friends in the business, the great Mark Cannizaro of the New York Post, who's across the river in a New York City hospital. In addition to being an extremely accomplished and tireless NFL and golf writer, Cannizaro is a tremendously generous and genial man who spreads good energy wherever he roams. Nearly five years ago, he and I spent a day during Super Bowl week in Texas saying goodbye to a friend, former NFL lineman James Parrish, and that experience reminded us of life's fragility. Many of us would like nothing more than to hang with Mark in Tampa in a couple of months, and I know he will fight harder than most of us can imagine to make that happen.
THIS WEEK'S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE
After star forward Ryan Anderson decided to turn pro after his sophomore season, the Bears' basketball roster looked a little thin – but, blessedly, Cal now has a great coach capable of milking every ounce out of his talent pool. The Bears, with 24 points from point guard Jerome Randle and 23 from shooting guard Patrick Christopher, improved to 6-1 under Mike Montgomery with a 77-67 victory over DePaul at Haas Pavilion Wednesday night. Cal has road tests at Missouri (Sunday) and Utah (Wednesday) before returning home to face Nevada. Haas will also be busy this weekend as the Bears' eighth-ranked women's volleyball team hosts an NCAA regional, beginning with Friday night's match against Siena. Oh, and Cal will host a farewell party for Washington coach Tyrone Willingham at noon Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Thanks for the memories, Ty. (And the seven consecutive Big Game nightmares? Not so much …)
YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK
ROLLIN' WITH THE ROYALS
Reading shrugged off an early deficit and rolled to a 3-1 victory over Coventry City at Madejski Stadium on Monday night, moving to within four points of second-place Birmingham in the Football League Championship table. A Noel Hunt header, a Kalifa Cisse sidefoot from 12 yards after a nice move and Hunt's stab off a tackle in front of the goal provided the scoring for the Royals, who play at Barnsley Saturday before returning home to face Blackpool three days later.
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
"Great article. You hit the nail on the head. Phil Savage makes me sick. I want nothing more than for him to pack his bags along with [Romeo] Crennel, who I've never cared for as a head coach. I love my Browns, and always will, but the management of this organization is a bigger embarrassment than our 4-8 record. The only thing I'm looking forward to in the post season is watching the Steelers get spanked in the playoffs. Spoken like a true Clevelander …"
I hear you. But the way Mike Tomlin's team is looking, I'm afraid you may have a rough January.
"So-o-o-o … did Savage put a door ding in your Kia, or what? What was it he said that every other GM wouldn't agree with? Let's see, the GM is responsible for personnel decisions like drafting and free agency. Got a problem with that, Silver? Then it's the coaching staff's responsibility to manage the game decisions. What's not digestible about that? Your venomous comments are totally out of line. It's clear that you don't like the man, but it's equally clear that it's not for the reasons you gave. You can't be that ignorant … can you? Anyway, I know a good body and fender guy who can get that ding taken care of …"
Is the Kia thing supposed to be an insult? For your information, I drive an ice-cream truck – but that's beside the point. My point is that, just as Peyton Manning was vilified for saying publicly "I'm trying to be a good teammate here" when questioned about his offensive line following that disappointing '05 playoff defeat to the Steelers, Savage should expect to get criticized by me and others for going on the radio and essentially telling listeners, "Don't blame me – it's the coach's fault."
"Thank you for writing your article on the San Diego Chargers, Michael. If only A.J. Smith himself would read it, he (doubtfully) would understand that his ego was the demise of the team and that hiring Norv Turner was one of the dumbest moves a winning team could endure. The rest, as they say, is history and we as a fan base, as well as the players themselves, have to suffer."
Oh, trust me, he read it – just as he's reading this right now. I'm told he keeps a dossier on writers who are critical. Welcome to the club.
"Every year, idiots like you cry and complain about the Lions' Thanksgiving Day Tradition (It's not an NFL tradition, [expletive] brain). The details of the argument change, sure, but it's always there. Some years, the complaint is that every team should get a chance. Now, it's that the Lions are terrible. Basically, you're a [expletive]. It's because of people like you [devoid of talent and earning money for it], that our country is in the shape it's in. You have no original thought and vomit useless paragraph after useless paragraph about nothing. Have a great day …"
I will have a great day … a great Thanksgiving Day, provided I don't have to watch the Lions. Thank you.
"Michael, your article on [Anquan] Boldin was superb like always. Don't listen to all these critics; they only bad mouth your articles because they wish they had the position you hold to write stories on professional sports players. To my question though: Do you think Boldin will get a new deal from Arizona? I remember him saying awhile back that he wouldn't do a deal with the Cardinals now. My next question is, who do you think is the better receiver down in the desert?"
Thompson Falls, Mont.
I think Boldin is the better receiver, though Fitzgerald is pretty excellent himself. And because I can't see the Cardinals giving Boldin as much as they gave Fitzgerald, I think the odds are that he'll eventually end up playing elsewhere. But I hope I'm wrong.
"I find that you are the best sports writer ever [at least for Pro Football] and every time I use Yahoo!, I search for your newest column [truly love your work]. However, in the last two weeks, Yahoo! has changed its homepage format … and I hate it [not as user friendly as before … and I am saying this as a Yahoo! fan since inception!] This has forced me to use a different homepage … and hence finding myself reading other sports writer's work … which isn't nearly as good as yours, but more convenient for me to find on a limited schedule as a stay-at-home mom! Alas … I will miss you greatly! Keep up the great work!"
Hey Natalie, first of all, thank you, and may I comment that you have exceptionally good taste. Secondly, please give the Y! a chance to grow on you. And if you (and/or the rest of you) want to make sure you don't miss any of my articles, here's the link to my archive.
"Why is it that even though the Falcons are playing so well now, they still get absolutely no coverage on the likes of ESPN and the other sports networks? I mean the Bengals and the Lions get more coverage, and I think it's stupid. I want to see an article on Roddy White going from zero or bust, to hero. From looking like a volleyball player, always slapping the ball away, to playing like a Pro Bowl wide receiver. That would be awesome for me as a long-suffering Falcons fan. I just want someone who I think can write a good article about them give some props to my favorite team!"
LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK
Many of you probably know that legendary rocker Neil Young was born in Toronto (his family later moved to the small Ontario town of Omemee), but it's hardly common knowledge that his father was a Canadian sportswriter. I don't know how the late Scott Young would feel about the Bills' impending invasion into CFL country, but I'm pretty sure he'd at least get a chuckle out of this hypothetical cover of CSNY's "Helpless" by 90-year-old crooner/carpetbagger Ralph Wilson.
There is a city in Ontario
With five million pocketbooks to raid
I'm cryin' poor havin' to play in Buffalo
Go along with the charade
TV money up to my ears
Thirty-two slices of pie
Ralph Wilson Stadium fillin' up
Throwing smokescreens on their eyes
Helpless, helpless, helpless
Roger, can you hear me clear? (helpless, helpless, helpless)
Scroungin' bus fare for Rogers Centre now (helpless, helpless, helpless)
Sellin' ads for Molson Beer (helpless, helpless, helpless)
TV money up to the stars
Thirty-two slices of pie
Goin' straight over Niagara Falls
Pullin' wool over their eyes
Helpless, Helpless, Helpless …
- Terry Robiskie