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Roddy White heads back to college to help UAB jump-start program

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Roddy White wanted no part it.

An odd job responsibility emerged 13 years ago inside Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium when the former Atlanta Falcons wide receiver was a junior at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. During a 2003 matchup with South Florida, White watched as his long-snapper, John Newton, suffered a broken leg running in coverage.

Then-UAB special teams coach Larry Crowe immediately ordered the 6-foot-2, 205-pound White to assume the long-snapping duties.

"I got on the sideline and said, 'Roddy, get a football and get over here and get a few snaps,'" Crowe recalled. “We were like, 'Just snap it and get down the field and make a tackle. We will figure out the blocking later.’”

White hesitated despite the dire circumstances.

"I mean, [Newton’s] bone literally was sticking out from his leg, and I was like, ‘He’s all right,’ and they were like, ‘Nah, Roddy, you’ve got to snap,’ and I was like: ‘No, he good. He’s going to get up,’” White said. “Then I see this stretcher come out and they took him to the hospital.”

The next time the Blazers had the ball, White prayed the offense would score so the punt unit wouldn’t have to take the field. It didn’t happen.

“And the guys from South Florida were looking at me and their coach was like, ‘Block it, block it,’ so the first time I snapped it, I got a 10-yard penalty for holding because I saw everybody in the gap, so I snapped it and tried to hold everybody," White said. “And I snapped it high, too. But I had better snaps that game. [UAB won, 22-19.]

“That’s college memories, man.”

Moments like that are the reason White has such an affection for UAB. His experiences on and off the field are tales he’ll be able to share with family and friends.

The school asked White to return this past weekend for the first open practice since UAB had its football program shut down in December of 2014 and subsequently reinstated last June. White made good on his promise to attend despite being released by the Falcons last Wednesday.

It didn’t matter that he had tickets to the Duke-North Carolina basketball game to cheer on his beloved Blue Devils. It didn’t matter that he was vacationing in St. Martin with his girlfriend the day before he returned to Birmingham for a reunion dinner with his former college teammates and coaches.

White participated in the alumni flag-football game along with fellow Blazer and current Carolina Panthers reserve quarterback Joe Webb, who threw White a touchdown. After the game, White was swarmed by UAB fans young and old who understood the South Carolina native was the most recognizable figure in the program’s history.

“UAB gave me my first opportunity, man,” White said. “When I came in in 2011, they embraced me with opened arms. And I went out there, took it and just ran with it.

“I had offers from Clemson, South Carolina. But when I couldn’t pass the [SAT], those schools wanted me to go to a JUCO. I didn’t want to go the JUCO rout. UAB gave me a shot.”

Before leaving UAB, White helped propel the Blazers to their first and only bowl appearance -- a 59-40 loss to Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl, during which he caught six passes for 113 and a touchdown. White was then selected by the Falcons with the 27th overall in the 2005 NFL draft.

Since White was able to achieve NFL success out of the unheralded school, he had trouble understanding why they decided to eliminate football a decade later. White was one of many former players who voiced their displeasure with the university’s initial decision, which was attributed to financial issues.

“I was real mad because I felt like this program had been around for enough time,” White said of a program that started in 1991. “Not just that, but we made great steps. We’ve had good players that have come out of here and played in the NFL. We’ve had multiple first-round picks. I just felt like, ‘Why would you take that away?’

“You’re giving these guys an opportunity from a small Division I school to go out there and showcase their talent. That was the most frustrating part about it: Not giving the kids the opportunity. That really hit me to the heart when those kids were going into those meetings and talking to the president.”

Nick Haddad, a former UAB long-snapper and an Atlanta native, became nationally recognized for a photo showing him protesting the elimination of football with school president Ray Watts standing close by.

“I learned quickly how the politics went on with all this,” Haddad said. “The way it was handled, I just seemed like they didn’t want sports at UAB, and they wanted to angle toward Tuscaloosa. But I feel like after this past year, they realized the support is really here and that we need to have [football]. I think we all came together for a positive outcome, and we’ve been pretty happy with the way things are now going.”

Eventually, private contributions totaling $27 million led to Watts reinstating the program. UAB still has to sustain its financial situation, but the reinstatement was a solid first step.

“I was happy,” White said. “I was happy as hell, I’m not going to lie. I was proud. I was proud of the collective effort and the collective group of people in Birmingham and the community that wanted the program to be back.”

UAB coach Bill Clark knows there are challenges ahead as he tries to build on the current 67-player roster. The Blazers, members of Conference USA, can resume playing a regular schedule in 2017, making this coming season like a redshirt year for everyone.

“What we’ve done is we had to go out and say, ‘What was our message?’ And our message was, ‘Look, you’ve got a chance to go get your degree,’” Clark said. “A lot of these guys were maybe academic issues or coming off of injuries. Really, we were a really good fit for those guys. And in 2016, we’re going to make it as much game-like as we can.”

As Clark lines up recruits, he knows White being selected in the first round is a part of the pitch. He is the Falcons' all-time leading receiver and a four-time Pro Bowl pick. In 2004 at UAB, White had a record-breaking season with 71 receptions for a nation-leading 1,472 yards with 14 touchdowns.

“Roddy’s probably going to be mentioned in every breath you take in recruiting,” Clark said.

White met with Clark in Atlanta near the end of last season to discuss the direction of the program. And White himself is in the process of finishing his sociology degree through UAB’s online class program.

When asked if he plans to give a significant donation to the school, White smiled and said, “I’ve got to find a job first.”

Maybe that job hunt will take him back to Raymond James Stadium as a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where former Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is the head coach. Surely playing a home game with the Bucs would give White a flashback to his cameo as a long-snapper.

"That was crazy," White said. "I had a fun four years there."