James White admits a return to the NFL seemed inconceivable at times after he went down with a season-ending hip injury last year.
By the third game of the 2021 season, the running back was one of the Patriots' most productive offensive players and showed early chemistry with rookie quarterback Mac Jones. But any hopes White had for the rest of the season changed when he was carted off the field during the second quarter of a Week 3 loss to the New Orleans Saints.
The hip subluxation was not ideal for a running back in a contract year who is approaching the age of 30. In the months that followed, he wondered if that would be it for him.
"At times, you definitely think about it because there was a point for three or four months where I couldn't even put on my own shoes and socks," White said.
"It's like you can't imagine being able to run and move around and things of that nature. So it was kind of hard picturing myself being back on a football field at first, but I think the more and more rehab I did, the better I felt, and you start to kind of build that confidence back again. Everybody's been doing a great job of being patient and doing everything he can to help me feel better. So it's all been working for me."
His mentality is admirable with all he's has been through in the last two years.
To that point in his career, he'd played in at least 14 regular-season games since his full-time debut with New England in 2015. This was a new challenge. Enduring surgery, rehab and the emotions that came with it during a global pandemic were difficult enough – even before considering the 2020 car accident that killed his father, Tyrone White, and left his mother, Lisa, in critical condition a season earlier.
"It definitely wasn't a position I've ever been in my entire life," White said.
"I've never sat out of football for that long so it definitely gave me time to reflect on everything. I got to spend more time with my wife, my kids, things of that nature. So that was a blessing for me. Being around them definitely helped me kind of keep my mind off what I was going through and then made the process a little bit easier for me.
"Even my teammates, them being there for me, checking up on me after the injury. Even after my dad passed away, just everybody working as a whole to keep me sane."
White's son, Xzavier, turned one just days after Tyrone's death in 2020. Not long after his injury in 2021, his daughter was born. He's cherished being able to watch them grow so closely with the unanticipated time off.
"I can't be down all the time when they're happy, smiling, having a good time," White said. "So their spirits uplift my spirit."
Along with having a new appreciation for everything his wife, Diana, deals with on a daily basis while taking care of them, the kids have been a blessing for White. The toddlers have brought joy to the entire family during a difficult time -- especially their grandmother.
According to White, his mother is doing a lot better after the accident. Lisa is back into some semblance of her normal routine and recently spent five days visiting her son and his family.
"She's doing great," White said. "Seeing her with a smile on her face, moving around, getting her around her grandkids and them getting her tired -- It's always good to have her around."
If anything has come out of the last two years, it's perspective.
"I'm just enjoying each and every day I have to be on this earth," White said. "Nobody knows when their time is up so I'm just loving on people that I need to love on. Being there for my friends and family each and every day. Letting them know that I'm there for them, because you never know if the next day if somebody is not going to be there. So, for me, my perspective on life definitely changed a lot."
With that outlook, White was able to overcome his initial anxiety that his football days might be done, and says coach Bill Belichick made it clear the three-time Super Bowl champion and career Patriot would be welcome back in New England.
White reportedly received interest from the Las Vegas Raiders, now led by former Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, but heard what he needed to hear from Belichick, the man who selected him in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL Draft.
"It was pretty simple for me coming off an injury as a running back -- it's not the greatest situation to be in," White said. "But from the beginning, Bill wanted me back, and I think that was a simple choice for me. They still have confidence in me and I think I have the ability to still go out there and play at a high level. So that's all I need to hear from them.
"It means a lot because they could easily just write me off and move on and that's an understandable thing from my point of view. I understand how the business works. For me, it's definitely exciting to see that they still think I have a lot of good football left in me so I got to go out there and push myself right now to feel as best as possible, so whenever I step out on the football field, I'm productive and can help my team win football games."
White has worked closely with the Patriots training staff in his rehab, as well as renowned physical therapist David Reavy. Thanks to the new techniques and exercises he's learned, he jokes his right hip is now looser than the left one he didn't hurt.
"My hips were always tight prior to this so it was kind of funny, because when they checked my hips, my injured hip is more flexible than my other hip," White said. "But it's been awesome to kind of focus on those, especially because my hips had been so tight previously, so I think that definitely helped me out in the long run."
The training staff wasn't the only members of the organization he had close contact with.
While he was injured and away from the team, White's teammates say he found ways to contribute, keeping close contact with Damien Harris and the rest of the backfield.
"It was awesome," White said of watching guys like Brandon Bolden, Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson step up the rest of last season.
"Those are extremely talented players. Damien, going on his fourth year, he's gotten better and better each and every year. And Rhamondre, you know, coming in his rookie year and starting slow but each and every week he got better and better taking the coaching and working hard. And you can see he's going be a special player as well. So, I'm excited to get back with those guys. We have a talented backfield and we're going to help push this team to be as best as possible."
For White, that entails picking up where he left off with Mac Jones.
Through the first two games of the quarterback's rookie season, White had 12 receptions, serving as Jones' security blanket as he got acclimated to the NFL. The veteran back is proud of how his young teammate held his own through the rest of the season without him.
"He had a great rookie year. He pushed himself," White said of Jones. "It's not easy being a rookie quarterback and starting all 17 games. It's a challenge, but he welcomed it with open arms. Even the Buffalo Bills game, I think he threw it one time. Everybody thinks that's so easy, but it's stressful to kind of take that backseat and not be able to do what you do to show your talents. But he's the ultimate competitor. I'm excited to back out there with them and we could push each other to help this team."
White will have help from his fellow captains.
New England also re-signed Matthew Slater and Devin McCourty, bringing back a strong veteran core to help uphold team values. White is glad to see them coming back as well, crediting them for setting that tone in the locker room.
Between those three players returning in free agency and the NFL dropping COVID-19 protocols, White looks forward to a season that feels a little more normal than the last two.
It all starts with him getting back on the field.
"I never feel like I have anything to prove to anybody, it's more of what I need to prove to myself," White said.
"First and foremost is me just getting back and feeling the best I can possibly be so whenever I step out on that football field I'm 100% and ready to go and ready to compete at a high level for entire stretch of the season."