BOSTON — For James White, the upcoming 2021 NFL season is all about starting fresh, both on and off the field.
It was just this past September that the veteran Patriots running back was blindsided hours before New England’s second game of the season with news of a horrific car crash in Florida that killed his father and critically injured his mother.
He returned to the field two weeks later but struggled statistically for the remainder a 2020 season that saw the usually dominant Patriots stumble to a 7-9 finish and miss the playoffs for the first time during White’s seven seasons with the team.
But after an admittedly odd free agency experience that had him wondering if he’d wear a New England jersey again, White is back after signing a one-year deal.
It’s given him the chance to resume his football career, but more importantly an opportunity to continue the process of moving past the pains he experienced in 2020.
“Free agency is really strange,” White said Tuesday. “Honestly, day to day everything kind of changes a little bit. Some days a team may have interest, other days they may not. … It’s a little different than you might ever imagine. It’s a lot of worrying what’s going to be next and where you’re going to be next.
“But obviously, the Patriots were in the mix the whole time and it’s good to be back. It’s good to be back with these guys and just find a way to improve. That starts now.”
Part of that journey concluded earlier this spring when he graduated from the University of Wisconsin, fulfilling a promise he made to his parents to obtain the college degree he put on hold when he entered the NFL draft in 2014.
It was news that brought joy to his mother, Lisa White, who continues to make progress in her recovery from the car crash.
“She definitely was excited and started clapping her hands, excited that I was actually doing it,” White recalled. “The pandemic was actually fortunate for me because [in] my last class I was able to take it online when typically I would have had to be on campus.
“Just happy that my wife and parents, they kept me motivated to finish it and [it’s] just good to finally be done.”
On the field, White joins a revamped group of running backs that also features returnees Damien Harris and Sony Michel, along with rookie Rhamondre Stevenson out of Oklahoma.
“Everybody has their own unique style, and I think that’s really cool,” White said. “Everybody knows we’re not going to play 100 percent of the snaps and we all just work together and have fun and make the most of opportunities. And I see a lot of capable guys and guys that are going to compete and have fun.”
White has been New England’s go-to pass catcher out of the backfield since 2015, but his 49 catches for 375 yards and one touchdown in 2020 were all his fewest since 2017.
But he said he’s prepared to prove his value to the franchise he’s helped win three Super Bowls.
“Everybody, when we get to the NFL we think we’re going to play for 20 years like [Tom Brady] and that’s kind of an unrealistic thing,” White said. “To be in the same place for eight years, that’s also not too common. Each year I have the opportunity to play I don’t take it for granted.”
Kyle Hightower, The Associated Press