Nyeem Wartman-White, plagued by injuries throughout his Penn State career, could have applied for a medical hardship waiver from the NCAA this year.
A graduate with a degree in telecommunications, surrounded in a linebacker room that will feature 10 players with two or more years of eligibility remaining this spring, the veteran linebacker thought better of it.
“I felt like my time was due. I signed up for a five-year scholarship,” he said. “I saw kids who were going to have bright futures in front of me. I just thought it wasn't worth it to stay. I want to see them shine, it's their time now. I'm old now. You have to move on at some point.”
Moving on is exactly what Wartman-White intends to do, his eyes now fixated on a possible future in the NFL.
Five months out from an ACL injury, one that sidelined him for the final 11 games of the Nittany Lions’ remarkable Rose Bowl season, those possibilities are simply more complicated that Wartman-White would have preferred.
Instead of solely concentrating on the next steps, the process of simultaneously rehabilitating his injured right knee has created an admitted sense of anxiety and the stress that comes with not being able to clearly identify the future. Instead of training for the future with confidence, doubts about future ability and sense of worth negated by injury nip like dogs at his heels.
“I'm pushing towards what I want, but doubt is behind me trying to get me. It's always a constant race every day,” he said. “It was just one of those things where you don't know what's ahead of you. You're driving through fog and you can't see anything. You don't know what's ahead of you, you don't know what's going to come out or if you just have a nice paved road the whole time.”
To understand as much requires a short detour through his robust injury history, though.
The first knee injury occurred on the opening kickoff of his second career game in September 2012, at Virginia, just weeks into his true freshman season as a Nittany Lion. His 2013 and 2014 seasons were mostly injury free and productive, playing 24 of Penn State’s 25 games with 20 combined starts. As a redshirt sophomore, Wartman-White’s 75 tackles were second on the team, capped by a career-high 11 made in Penn State’s Pinstripe Bowl win.
Rising into Mike Hull’s vacated middle linebacker role for the 2015 season, expectations grew as he was named preseason second-team all-Big Ten by Phil Steele. That excitement quickly dissipated, suffering an ACL tear in his left knee in the season-opener at Temple in the second quarter on routine special teams work.
Sent to the training room for the next 11 months, Wartman-White worked himself back into shape to start the 2016 season, earning a spot on the Butkus Award Preseason Watch List in the process. First making five tackles against Kent State, Wartman-White built to a game-high nine tackles against Pitt and a career-high 3.0 TFLs, leading into a week three tilt with Temple.
After a week of build up, it was not a vindicating return against the Owls.
Again Wartman-White suffered a non-contact injury in the first quarter, this time to his right knee. But as he revealed, even then he didn’t perceive his performances as matching the standard he’d once held for himself.
“I felt like that wasn't me completely. I felt like I could have played better. I could have been more healthy. I felt like physically, I wasn't 100 percent there,” he said, acknowledging the hesitation of playing without full confidence, suffering from bouts of pain and needing ice after games. “Each week I was getting better but unfortunately it came too soon when Temple came around.”
The situation has changed for him with this injury, he says.
Participating in the program’s pro day earlier this month, his road took on a smoother surface, at least temporarily. Having repaired his most recent injury with renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews at the Andrews Institute, Wartman-White competed in the entirety of the afternoon’s swath of linebacker drills as well as the bench press.
“I’m amazed by how far I came. Five months out? The stuff I did today, you couldn't pay me a million dollars to do it on my knee back then,” he said. “Five months later, you couldn't pay me a million dollars to do it. I'd think my knee would fall in half.”
Calling his participation a testament to his recovery, which Wartman-White says is now back to full strength in his left leg and is coming along in the right, the lessons of maturation and his career’s adversity are coming into focus.
“I learned how to take care of my body with training. I learned a lot of things about how to preserve your body. I became more knowledgable about my body and what I need to do to it,” said Wartman-White. “Last time, I ate a lot, I drank. This time, I didn't touch alcoholic drinks. Nothing. I stayed clean, ate clean, my body feels amazing. So partially it was me not coming back last year and it's probably partially me. I worked hard, I thought I did, but I didn't have the knowledge and this year I do.”
Armed with that knowledge, Wartman-White believes the NFL is an achievable goal and one he’s determined to reach, whether it’s in the immediacy of this offseason or next. Though it will require his absence from the training room, he said, a matter-of-fact acknowledgment that another injury in preparation would be a crushing blow to his progress, value remains in the player and person he has become.
“I know whoever decides to take me, they're probably looking at it like he's probably a high risk guy, red flags, but low expense because I'm assuming I would go late,” said Wartman-White. “But, whoever is taking me, I guarantee they're getting a steal. I have a mindset to this injury and the way I'm working. I just know that my ceiling has yet been reached. As long as I stay healthy, that ceiling is just going to still be there until my playing career is over.”