TAMPA — Funny, the bonds that keep us together.
It’s not proximity. It’s been almost 10 years since they have lived in the same state, let alone the same town. It’s not birthdays, either. The Big is in his 40s now, and his Little is still a month shy of 24.
It’s not color, background, blood or vocation. If you were to muse about this relationship back in 2007, there would have been no reason to expect it would continue to carry on today.
Except, maybe, for the books they shared. And the games of HORSE. The afternoons in the park, or the pizza at Minsky’s in Kansas City. In retrospect, the ties that bind are the ones you don’t always see.
For Little Brother Rachaad White, that means having someone to lean on.
And for Big Brother John Waller, that means seeing the world through another’s eyes.
You know White as the running back who has clawed his way up the depth chart for the Buccaneers in this, his rookie season. He’ll be the one wearing the specially designed cleats to shine attention on Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay on Monday night in the NFL’s annual My Cause My Cleats campaign.
It seems a lifetime ago that Rachaad was an 8 year old who couldn’t sit still on the couch while waiting for Waller to show up at the family home off Euclid Avenue in a dicey part of Kansas City. His three older brothers had all been matched with Bigs, and Rachaad was finally old enough for a mentor of his own.
“I still remember it, clear as day,” Waller said this week. “His brothers were all cleaning the house and he was sitting, waiting with a huge grin on his face. I connected with his mom immediately because I could just tell she was a leader. She was stern, but kind at the same time. It was noticeable how much her sons respected her because of the order she kept in the house.
“There was just an immediate connection with the whole family, and it felt so natural.”
From that humble beginning something remarkable has occurred. White and Waller have developed a bond that has transcended time, distance and changing lives.
Rochelle Woods was a single mother of four young sons, working two jobs and putting herself through college when she reached out to Big Brothers Big Sisters seeking male role models for her boys.
She had family nearby and her kids were well-behaved, but she worried about the influence of the neighborhood. At one point she had to forbid Rachaad from playing basketball in the streets because he had guns pulled on him a couple of times when the games got too rowdy.
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Woods, who would go on to get a master’s degree and is a social worker in Las Vegas today, had to navigate through weekends without electricity or days without hot water.
“I had a great network of family and friends that I called my village,” Woods said. “There were people who would check on them if I was working or was at school but, for the most part, they were responsible young men. I taught them to do their own laundry, taught them how to cook.”
And that’s where Big Brothers could step in to help. The program asked mentors to spend at least a couple of hours a week with the children, but that was never an issue for White and Waller. They fell into an easy routine of the library, swimming or just afternoons getting sandwiches at Jimmy John’s.
Rachaad visited Waller’s family and developed a bond with his older sister, Annie, too. For more than three years they talked, laughed and drove around Kansas City while the rest of the world was put on hold. Bro-skis, they called each other.
Around the time Rachaad turned 12, Waller had an opportunity to move to Chicago but that was not the end of their story. They would email and FaceTime, and Annie would continue to check in on Rachaad. When he was a little older, Rachaad visited Waller and his fiancé in Chicago, where they went to a Cubs game at Wrigley Field.
The relationship had these tangible and immediate benefits for Rachaad, but it also had longer lasting effects on his outlook.
“Everybody needs somebody to lean on,” White said. “To have my Big and to see a different perspective on values and life — even down moments in your life where you have somebody to help you get through it — it changed things for me. It had a huge impact on my life. It’s made me want to go out and give back to the community and start my own foundation to help people.”
The road to the NFL hasn’t always been easy for White. He wasn’t heavily recruited out of high school, spent a redshirt year at Division II Nebraska-Kearney, two years living in squalor while at a junior college in California and finally got a chance to shine at Arizona State.
Waller, who has since moved to the Twin Cities and co-founded the Humble Nut Butter company, now serves as unofficial business manager for White. He helped him find an agent and financial planner before the NFL draft, and now screens a lot of the opportunities that come White’s way.
And if it seems that Waller has been the giver in this relationship, then you haven’t seen the entire picture. Waller talks about the gamble that White took on himself when he gave up a scholarship at Nebraska-Kearney because he thought the JUCO route would be the better path to the NFL.
“I get emotional talking and thinking about him. Just the level of joy he has brought and the effect he’s had on every single member of my family,” Waller said. “He has taught me so much.
“We live different lives but there’s a lot of similarities. He had to make a bet on himself when he transferred from Nebraska-Kearney to move halfway across the country. He believed in himself and made it work. And, you know, I left the corporate sector and started my own company from scratch. There are a lot of similarities between business and sports and I’ve been able to channel Rachaad at times, if that makes sense.
“The guy never complained about any of the adversities in his life. He could have been bitter, he could have been resentful and angry. And he’s not like that by any stretch.”
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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