FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- When the Atlanta Falcons finished practice on a recent Thursday afternoon, that didn't mean their wide receivers were done for the day. They trotted to the middle of the field and formed a tight circle -- four men standing within a few feet of each other -- and batted a football back and forth in what seemed like a version of "hot potato." It wasn't a coincidence that Roddy White, the team's three-time Pro Bowler, beamed as the ball caromed off various hands at a rapid-fire pace. He has grown to understand exactly what such playful drills could mean to his success on Sundays.
White also knew something else: His younger teammates needed to see him doing these things. The players competing against him that afternoon, including first-round pick Julio Jones and speedy slot receiver Harry Douglas, didn't know how often White blew off such extra work just a few years ago.
There are probably plenty of people who can't grasp how far White has come in seven NFL seasons. He doesn't garner the same recognition as other All-Pro receivers, namely Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald and Houston's Andre Johnson. Even in Atlanta, White is treated less as a solo talent and more as a critical component of a star-studded offense that includes quarterback Matt Ryan, running back Michael Turner and tight end Tony Gonzalez. Now that the Falcons are facing their most anticipated regular-season game in recent memory -- former Falcons star quarterback Michael Vick returns to town Sunday night with the Philadelphia Eagles -- White is likely to fall deeper into the shadows.
Although Vick's return to Atlanta is this week's hot storyline, a less noticeable twist is what happened after his imprisonment left the Falcons in chaos four years ago: White became a star. Since 2007, White ranks third in the NFL in both receptions (385) and receiving yards (5,187). In 2010, he led the league with 115 receptions while adding a career-high 1,389 yards.
"When you look at Roddy now, you have to consider him among the gold standard of receivers," said Minnesota Vikings receivers coach George Stewart, who coached White in Atlanta 2005-06. "He's right up there with the Larry Fitzgeralds, Andre Johnsons and DeSean Jacksons when you talk about the great playmakers at that position."
"When you have success in this league for one year, you're really lucky," White said. "The consistency is what allows you to take your game through the roof. That's why I feel like the bigger the game is, the bigger I need to play."
Up to the challenge
White, 29, tends to thrive when facing the toughest challenges. Though the Falcons opened this season with a 30-12 loss to Chicago -- White caught eight passes for 61 yards -- he was at his best against top opponents in 2010. White had 13 receptions against Pittsburgh last season and 12 more against the Baltimore Ravens. When he faced talented Cincinnati cornerback Leon Hall, he produced 11 receptions, 201 yards and two touchdowns. Overall, there were only two games last season in which White failed to catch at least five passes.
Despite the struggles against Chicago, White should be more dangerous this year. Gonzalez, Jones and Douglas should especially help him avoid facing the same constant double coverage he has seen for years.
"We have a lot of ways to attack," White said. "Julio is so good that you really can't defend him one-on-one. And if you do that, we have a bunch of other guys who can make plays. So you'll have to pick your poison. The question [for other teams] will be: 'How do you want to die?'"
Whatever continued success White enjoys on the field won't be determined merely by favorable matchups. It also will have plenty to do with an attitude he has been honing over the past four seasons. Those who know White best rave about his intangibles ("His competitiveness and passion is what separates him from other receivers," said Falcons head coach Mike Smith) and his athletic ability ("He was a two-time state wrestling champ in high school, so he's more physical at the line of scrimmage than people realize," said Vikings receiver and former Falcons teammate Michael Jenkins). Those same people also understand how much White has grown over the past four years.
This is the player who, after making the Pro Bowl for the first time in 2008, told his mother that he never thought he'd reach that level. When Joenethia White asked why her son harbored such doubts, Roddy said, "I never thought I was this good."
White also vividly remembers how much he feared his career ending in Atlanta after the Falcons fired head coach Jim Mora following the 2006 season. White had been so disappointing that former Falcons receiver Joe Horn begged management not to release him.
These days, people talk about the Roddy White who spent part of his offseason training with Fitzgerald in Arizona. They talk about a player who relentlessly studies DVDs of other star receivers from around the league so he can steal some of their moves. They also allude to the fact that White doesn't leave a practice field without catching extra balls. They can see that he really gets it now.
What's more, White wants to be a role model as well. "I think Roddy woke up one day and realized that he had become the oldest guy in the [receivers] room," Falcons receivers coach Terry Robiskie said. "It was time for him to be a leader."
Time to grow up
It seemed that White would naturally ascend to a leadership position in Atlanta given how his career evolved. He was usually the tiniest player in pee wee football back in James Island, S.C., a kid who often asked Joenethia, "How can I make the NFL if I'm this small?" His mother's response: "If God didn't give you size, then use another gift." White eventually did grow, going from 5-foot-4 as a high school sophomore to 6 feet and 210 pounds as a record-setting receiver at Alabama-Birmingham.
But everything changed for White once the Falcons made him the 27th overall pick in the 2005 draft. Suddenly the kid who had to fight for respect was acting like he was entitled to it. It wasn't uncommon for him to spend many nights partying on the Atlanta club scene and then show up for practice on two hours of sleep. When he wasn't dropping passes, he was running bad routes that led to interceptions.
"I thought my athletic ability was enough," White said. "I had gotten so used to getting by with it that I didn't think I had to study film or understand coverage. Half the time I was just guessing about what was going on."
White caught only 59 passes during his first two seasons, but his struggles off the field were even more startling. During the 2006 season, Joenethia checked in with Roddy's financial advisors after hearing rumors that his hard-partying ways were bankrupting him. When she was told that her son -- who had signed a $7 million contract a year earlier -- was almost broke, she raced to Atlanta. Along with stealing nearly all of his credit cards as White slept one night, Joenethia sat Roddy down for a serious heart-to-heart.
Her message: Grow up. "When Roddy got to the NFL, we bumped heads a lot," Joenethia said. "He thought he'd made it, and I'd tell him that money didn't mean anything if he wasn't doing right. When he'd say, 'How do you know?' I said it's because he was better than that. He needed to stop partying, stop hanging out with the wrong people and start focusing."
Still, the message didn't settle in quickly. When the Falcons lost a critical game to the New Orleans Saints late in 2006, White broke free for what should have been an easy touchdown pass but watched the ball slip through his fingers. He was benched later that season, a punishment that also let him know how quickly his career was self-destructing. The most painful part was the realization that, as his mother said, he could have been doing better.
In many ways, the partying was a means of escape. "I tried to find other ways to deal with things, because football wasn't going good," White said. "I came in with so much promise but I also felt like I wasn't getting a fair opportunity. I'd drop one pass and the fans would start booing but that would be the only pass I'd see all day. I felt like I needed the ball more and [the coaches] felt like I wasn't working hard enough."
White's career finally turned around in 2007, when Vick went to federal prison on a dog-fighting conviction. Not only did White find support from new head coach Bobby Petrino, but he also got valuable guidance from Horn, who had signed with the team earlier that year. During their first practice together, Horn and White caught nearly 200 balls off a Jugs machine -- and that was before practice. Horn also became so close to White off the field -- whether having dinner or studying game plans in hotel rooms -- that Horn said the two were like brothers.
During one conversation, Horn pointedly talked to White about goals and the importance of understanding that "you're taking food out of your mouth every time you don't make a play in this league."
Said Horn: "I asked him to tell me what mattered to him. He said his family -- his mother, his brother, his kids [White has three children]. I said that if those things really mattered, then he had to ball out in practice so he could have fun on Sundays. He needed to show that with his play."
"Joe kept telling me that I needed to step up because I was going to be the guy," White said. "I thought, 'Take over? They're going to get rid of me if I don't turn things around.'"
Setting an example
White ultimately applied all the lessons he learned heading into his third season. Finally able to operate in an offense that would feature the passing game instead of Vick's improvisational skills, White had 83 receptions for 1,202 yards and six touchdowns. He was so impressive that Vick once called him from jail and said "You're balling." White's response: "I have to do that because you're not here anymore."
"That year was big for me because I saw that I could be a good player," White said. "I was still making plays even though we had three different quarterbacks that season. The longer that year went on, the more my confidence grew."
White hasn't looked anything less than dominant since that season. He made his first Pro Bowl appearance the next season -- after the team hired Smith as coach and used a first-round pick on Ryan -- and suddenly he had even more swagger.
"I really think Roddy was just happy to be in the NFL when I got there," Robiskie said. "Now he's learned how to play hard on every play. He understands you can't have 70 plays in a game and only play 60 of those."
White's main focus now is maintaining that consistency, while setting an example for his teammates. Douglas said he especially values White's presence because "you can tell that he doesn't mind helping the other guys get better."
Added Jenkins: "You could see the difference in him as the years passed. He runs harder, catches extra balls and he goes the extra mile. We worked out together this offseason and he was in great shape."
Robiskie also believes all those Pro Bowl nominations have helped White see that "he really does belong at that level." White agreed.
"It definitely did make a difference," he said. "You hear about those players for so long but once you get over there, you see that there really isn't a secret to how they got there. They've been doing the same things I try to do now. They just keep working at it."
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.