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Devin White came from a small town with a big dream

After losing his stepbrother in a car accident in 2011, the driver of that vehicle became his lifelong mentor

TAMPA — At the moment the NFL was about to reveal his future, Devin White put his head in his hands, closed his eyes and peered into the past.

The Raiders had just selected Clemson defensive tackle Clelin Ferrell with the No. 4 pick. Tampa Bay was on the clock.

White had brought a graduation picture of his stepbrother, J’Marco Jewel Greenard, whom everyone called J.J., to the green room at the draft in Nashville.

“Right after the Raiders pick when in, I just put my head down and I like closed my eyes and I was like, ‘I’m about to go to your team,’’’ White said Friday after his introductory media conference at One Buc Place.

“I was just talking to him in my head. I picked my head up, sat back in my chair and the phone was ringing.’’

It was the Bucs.

Rising from a remote place

There’s no easy way to get to Cotton Valley, La., White’s hometown. To be honest, there’s no easy way to get out, either.

There is no full traffic light, just a single blinking yellow caution light.

“And in (nearby) Cullen you got zero,’’ White said. “Not even a caution light.’’

Cotton Valley used to be a vibrant country town just a few miles from the Arkansas state line. That was before the International Paper Company moved out in 1979 and the population fell to below 1,000 and the average household income plummeted to poverty level.

Sports were the biggest outlet for kids growing up there. When he was 7-years-old, White played football for the Cullen Saints with kids who were 9 and 10 years old. “We played a whole season and did not win one game. I scored all the touchdowns. I was a running back,’’ he said.

But the football league folded and for the next three years, White poured all his talent into basketball.

That’s where Shaun Houston first noticed White. A former football player for Northwestern State in Natchitoches, La., Houston wanted to resurrect the youth football program and walked into the gym in Cotton Valley to find his first recruits.

“I’m watching the older boys play and I see this one guy who’s chiseled,’’ Houston said. “He goes up for a rebound, and I thought he was going to dunk the ball. I asked, “Who is that guy?’’ I’m thinking they tell me he’s a high school sophomore. They said, “That’s Devin White. He’s in fourth grade. He’s 10.’’

White was already 5-foot-11. Houston waited to talk to him but his pitch fell short. “He said, ‘Look, you seem like a nice guy, but I’m a basketball player,’’’ Houston said.

He knew George Shaw, 63, who raised horses on a 160-acre farm. He would invite his neighbors in Cotton Valley to trail ride parties, with horses and barbecue. As fate would have it, Shaw’s grandson, Xavious, used to bring White.

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A future in football

X-man, as they called him, was playing football. So Shaw convinced White he would have to join if he wanted him to take him on the next trail ride following the youth league game on Saturday afternoons.

After watching one drill, Houston knew White’s future was in football.

“I told his mom, your son thinks he’s a basketball player,’’ Houston said. “But I’m telling you, I’ve been around football my whole life, I’ve never seen a 10-year old hit like that with that technique. If your son keeps his head on straight, he’ll go to any school he wants and he’ll be a pro.’’

White played running back, quarterback and linebacker. He was unstoppable. Houston’s team didn’t lose a game, winning by 45 and 50 points. Houston had to show White’s birth certificate to opposing coaches to prove he was only 10 years old.

Word spread through northern Louisiana quickly. J.J., who was six years older, was a pretty good player in his own right.

“He was a running back, number 22,’’ White said. “I never forget sitting in the stands watching him play. He always said he wanted to fight for the country. Enrolled in the Army. Man he just wanted to take care of the family which is what I wanted to do.’’

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A scholarship offer at 14

Everyone’s life changed on June 11, 2011. J.J. was riding in a van and returning from a church trip to Texas when the left rear tire had a blowout. The van flipped five times and nearly everyone was ejected from the vehicle, including J.J., who died instantly.

Houston was driving the van.

Everyone else but J.J. survived.

“I got a call saying my mom and my stepdad had to go to Texas because my brother was hurt,’’ White said. “He had been in a wreck. But that’s like, all right, that’s cool. Because he had been in many wrecks before. He wrecked a dirt bike and tore something up and he got hit by a four-wheeler and was back home on crutches and that’s all I knew as a kid. If he gets hurt, he’s coming home. But just this one time, he didn’t come home. I really didn’t know how to accept it.’’

Houston, of course, was devastated.

“The way I feel spiritually, it’s a responsibility of mine to make sure Devin and all of JJ siblings are taken care of the rest of their lives.’’

A year later, it was Houston who convinced White to attend the LSU football camp, where he ran a 4.45 40-yard dash and was offered a football scholarship by head coach Les Miles on the spot. White was 14.

White played varsity as a freshman at North Webster High in Springhill, which had consolidated with Cotton Valley. The town came alive on Friday nights to watch White play. As a running back, he rushed for more than 5,000 yards and scored 81 touchdowns. As a linebacker, he was a tackling machine.

MONICA HERNDON | Times The Tampa Bay Buccaneers introduced their 2019 NFL Draft first-round pick, linebacker Devin White on April 26, 2019 at the Advent Health Training Center in Tampa, Florida. White, who played at LSU, was the 5th pick.

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Bringing J.J. with them

By the time White arrived at LSU, was a budding superstar. Houston continued to be by his side, sending inspirational text messages and driving around the country (he hates to fly) to watch his games. White switched to linebacker full-time with the Tigers and was named captain as a sophomore. Last season, White won the Outland Trophy as the nation’s top linebacker and figured to be a top five pick in the draft.

White kept J.J.’s memory alive. Before games, he would write his name on his cleats. And on Thursday at the hotel in Nashville while dressing for the draft, he handed his stepfather the picture of J.J. from his graduation he had sneaked out of the house.

“I said, ‘Make sure this gets in the green room,’’’ White said. “I saw the look in his eye. It kind of hit him, man you didn’t forget. It was like bringing my brother with us.

“Every day, I wish he could be here right now witnessing this in a physical form. But man, I can’t change anything. I’m just thankful he’s just a part of my life.’’

J.J.’s favorite team was the Buccaneers. It’s not totally clear why, but he used to wear the No. 20 jersey of cornerback Ronde Barber.

Just before the Bucs announced their pick, White said a prayer and talked to God and J.J.

His phone lit up. It was a call from an 813 area code.

With the fifth overall pick, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected White.

“I was like, man, it was just meant to be,’’ White said.

When he arrived to the Bucs’ AdventHeath Training Center Friday, White walked past a statue of Barber and several Bucs Super Bowl teammates.

White is hoping to find that jersey when he returns to Louisiana. “I need to get it framed,’’ White said. “Maybe get it signed and put it on his grave. That would be really neat.’’

Contact Rick Stroud at Follow @NFLStroud