MAMA BEAR AND THE JUCO THAT WAS JUST RIGHT
Tammy White, mother of Bear's first-round pick, WR Kevin White, is protective and intuitive.
The mother of four boys and two girls, she is determined to keep her pack safe. In fact, three times she packed up her family and relocated to safer neighborhoods. From Plainfield, N.J. (too much crime) to Allentown, Pa. (too much violence) to Macungie, Pa. (just right).
Each move took Tammy White further from her job in Somerset, NJ. Her commute increasing to as much as three hours each way, depending on the weather and traffic.
"That's the sacrifice I was willing to make for my family," explains Tammy, "and I did it for 15 years."
In Allentown, the White's were in a safe neighborhood. Still, Tammy could feel "activity" moving in. The Morning Call told stories of gang violence, drugs, theft, homicide.
"I told my husband, Kevin, 'It's time to go,'" Tammy remembers. "In my mind I have four sons. They could be walking to the store, walking to school, playing ball at the park - anything could happen. I didn't want my kids to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. I know all about that. I didn't want to carry the weight of worry on my shoulders like that."
Besides the potential danger, Tammy also started to research the quality of education her kids were receiving in Allentown.
"I started to look at my kids' curriculum - the scoring, the graduation rates, the SAT/ACT scores. I went on the internet and saw that there were schools scoring higher. I read the sports pages in other towns; I looked at the crime. Then I got in my car and started to drive by some of those neighborhoods that I had read about."
One day, the kids came home from school and the house was boxed up. The pictures were off the walls. She didn't know exactly where they were going- but she knew it was time. As it turned out, her son Ka'Raun had been spending time in Macungie with a family friend and thought the quiet neighborhood and easy pace was exactly what mom was looking for. Macungie proved to be the perfect refuge. In Macungie, Kevin and Tammy White worked together to install the values they shared for hard work, commitment and accountability. Through action, they showed their six children the meaning of sacrifice and discipline. Through words, they preached the importance of education and priority. Still, at the end of the day, a parent's good example and sound advice won't get the work done. That task is up to the child.
Early in his junior year of high school, it was clear that Kevin's grades at Emmaus High School weren't measuring up. An All-Lehigh Valley Selection, White was getting D-l notice, but his grades barricaded any offers. For Kevin, this grim reality compromised his dream of being a D-l athlete. For Tammy, it blurred her vision of seeing all six of her children earn a college degree.
"What is my vision for my kids going to college? My hard work, my sacrifice. My husband's hard work, his sacrifice. We always made sure our kids were focused, dedicated. We always reminded them that schooling came before anything. Education is number one, sports are secondary. Work comes before play. That's something we started preaching since they were very young. That's what made this chapter of our lives most difficult. What more could we have done to make Kevin understand how important grades are?"
Signing day had come and gone. Though he did not have any offers, he did have an invite to play in the East-West All Star game. Kevin saw the game as an opportunity to showcase his talents and focused his priorities on performance. That spring, he began to train at FASST Performance in Easton, Pa. FASST is owned byJason Brader, an All-American at Muhlenberg College and a product of Lackawanna Junior College.
Lackawanna, located in Scranton, Pa. has become a JUCO powerhouse. 2015 marks head coach Mark Duda's 21st season at Lackawanna (141-73, three undefeated seasons, nine bowl games, and four National Football Conference championships).
Under Duda's leadership, Lackawanna has become a nationally recognized program with a reputation for delivering quality players (and quality people) to D-l, D-ll and D-lll programs. Since Mark Duda took over the realm in 1993, 315 players have earned D-l scholarships and 15 have signed with NFL teams.
Lackawanna products stick together. Similar to the military, they are bound by their shared experience. An experience of personal growth and physical challenge. When Brader called his former coach about Kevin White - he already knew he was special.
"When a former player calls about a kid, we know to take a look," Duda elaborates. "Former players would never recommend guys to us who aren't good people, because they know what would happen - we'd ship them out. And, they have to be good athletically, as well. When Jason called me about Kevin, I immediately sent out WR coach Charles Grande to work him out."
The White's graciously accepted Coach Duda's invitation to visit Lackawanna. They toured the facility, met the coaches, spoke with the academic advisor and then sat down with Coach Duda.
"It was like we connected at the door," remembers Tammy. "He sat down, explained the dos, the don'ts and we made a family decision."
Looking back on their visit hits a nerve with Coach Duda.
"What concerns me most is that so many of these kids who don't get the grades in high school, who miss out on signing day, don't know the path. They don't know what avenue they can take to continue, and neither do their families. Even parents like Tammy and Kevin White who do the research, who are an active part of the kids' lives, didn't know about the junior college option until we called them. That has to change."
A JUCO's job is to make player's eligible for a scholarship and Lackawanna takes that seriously. That means a 2.5 GPA, 60 credit hours and 48 transferable credits to meet NCAA requirements. To get there, Duda implemented the Football Athletic Learning Community.
FALC coordinator, Rick Barone, is on staff to make sure every player is doing what they are supposed to do academically. All Falcon players go to class together. Classes are mandatory. If a player misses a class, he misses the game.
This was all music to Tammy White's ears. She could see the parallel lines leading to future success for her son. Academically and athletically, they were back on track.
In order to rest a minor shoulder injury sustained in the East-West game and to revamp his study habits, Kevin redshirted his first year.
"Many of our first-year players redshirt, " explains the proven head coach. "We want to give them the time they need to adjust academically and to grow emotionally. Winning championships is wonderful, losing kids because of grades is not. I don't care how good they are for us or how much we may need them right now. If they are not ready academically, they are not playing."
Heading into his second year with an able body and an academic foundation in place, Kevin came to camp prepared for a breakout season when the rug was pulled from under him. He was not eligible. His financial aid forms were not turned in on time. There was nothing they could do. It is a mistake that continues to haunt Tammy White to this day.
"That was our responsibility as parents," she says with conviction. "I carried a lot of weight during that time. I carried the burden of guilt. It wasn't that I thought that he would go left field or get involved in anything negative- that's not him. I was beside myself because I knew that football was his passion and I felt that I took it from him."
While his parents took ownership of their error, Kevin took control of his ways. And Mark Duda regards this time as Kevin's epiphany.
"I believe thatthis time at home gave Kevin clarity. It made him realize what he needed to do. I think he found out what the real world was like and said, 'You know what? I don't want to be this guy, I want to be a college athlete.'"
Comforting for the White's was watching Kevin prepare for his return to Lackawanna. Together, they found the resources to pay for his classes at the community college, keeping him up to speed with NCAA requirements. Kevin dove into those classes and worked out incestuously at FASST. When he returned to Lackawanna in the spring, he was bigger, faster, and more focused than he had ever been.
"He came back and cherished every practice, every rep, every class," remembers his coach. "He came back a man and it made all the difference in the world in his performance on and off the field."
Completing the 2012 season with 36 receptions and six touchdowns, the wide receiver caught the attention of Hawaii, Bowling Green, Texas Tech and West Virginia. White elected to join coach Dana Holgorsen and became a Mountaineer. For Tammy, sitting next to her husband and her family in the stands of WVU, it was hard not to get emotional.
"Knowing he had worked so hard and finally got to the level he was trying to get to, and although he went through a lot of trials and tribulations, he was determined. He stayed focused and he did it."
That determination would translate to 109 receptions and 10 touchdowns his senior year at WVU. That focus would lead him to a 4.35 40 at the 2015 NFL combine and make him the No. 7 pick overallin the 2015 NFL draft.
Kevin White is a proud advocate of a proven program. To many he is a JUCO success story. To Mark Duda, they are all success stories.
"If a guy leaves here and goes D-l, D-ll or D-lll and gets a solid education, that's a success to me," says Duda. "Each year, I have lawyers, teachers, coaches, pro players coming back to see me. Guys with high character, guys with manners."
For Tammy White, it is all about the high character and the education.
"Sure you can go out and play ball, but what are you going to do when that ends?"
The fact that his two younger brothers Ka'Raun (current WVU WR) and Kyzir (top JUCO safety in the nation, WVU commit) are both Lackawanna products is testament to the faith the White family has in the Lackawanna formula. If you follow Kevin White, you will see #Lacklife #savagelife, both references to Lackawanna. In fact, Kevin plans to use his NFL platform to promote JUCO programs everywhere.
With his NFL debut postponed due to a stress fracture that requires surgery, all that know him and all who have coached him know the Bear's first pick will come back stronger. He has proven that obstacles empower him and setbacks offer perspective to help him reach his greatest potential.
For Tammy and Kevin White, he offers a great example to his younger siblings who have watched him handle adversity time and time again. With his success, he has validated all of their preaching and justified all of their moves.
"I think there were times when they questioned me," admits Tammy. " Times that they were even angry because they had to leave their schools, their friends. But in the end, with the first five earning degrees in higher education and (daughter) Kiyae on her way to receiving a basketball scholarship- it's all turning out just right."
To view this article on the NFL Player Engagement site please visit: https://www.nflplayerengagement.com/wri/pearls-pigskin/articles/mama-bear-and-the-juco-that-was-just-right/
Cynthia Zordich is an NFL Engagement contributing author. She is the wife of former NFL Player and University of Michigan Coach Michael Zordich and the mother of free agent FB Michael Zordich (PSU '12), former UB Quarterback Alex Zordich ('13) and recent Penn State graduate Aidan Zordich (Advertising '14). www.cynthiazordich.com