By Chris Emma–
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. (CBS) — Those gut-wrenching moments of last summer remain fresh of mind for Bears receiver Kevin White as he first walked inside the familiar white lines Thursday.
Last training camp, White was outside the lines — working through light running with trainers, getting treatment on that injured shin and fighting for that fading hope that he could play. With each passing day, the optimism faded until it was gone. White would miss his entire rookie season after surgery to repair a stress fracture in his left shin.
Expectations for the seventh overall pick of 2015 turned into the stress of trying to get healthy, then the grueling disappointment of missing out. White is back to the site of where that struggle first started, in Bourbonnais, where he’s now healthy and ready to produce.
When White took to the field at Olivet Nazarene for the first day of training camp, he was overjoyed.
“All smiles,” White said. “I was so excited. Kind of like a kid in the candy store.”
Working back from the injury brought a long process that’s still ongoing. After the shin surgery in August came the rehabilitation, then playing catch-up. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler took charge of that, inviting White down to Nashville for training and many times to his Chicago-area home.
Cutler wanted to have that on-field chemistry with White coming into this training camp, which meant first building a relationship off of it. There were dinners and nights of simply watching TV. Then came studying of the playbook and film, all of it fostering a quarterback-receiver connection.
“He’s ready to work,” Cutler said of White. “You couldn’t ask for a better attitude, a better guy. He feels extremely bad about not being able to contribute last year and not being on the field. That’s all he wants to do, is play football.”
You better believe White was raring to go on Thursday, and the Bears were happy to have their 24-year-old receiver begin work.
White was eager to get his first chance at training camp in what’s a de facto rookie season. The key is becoming comfortable enough in the playbook that his size and speed can take over. During OTAs and mini-camp, the 6-foot-3 White showed the rust of a player who missed a season of football. There were dropped passes and a general lack of trust in his mind and movement.
Finally, White has reached the last step of his comeback, which is finding his game speed.
“He’s so physically gifted, I think he’s going to make it up really, really quickly,” Cutler said. “It’s just a matter of him letting those athletic gifts come through.
“Once we hit a fast forward button and get to that point, he’s going to be something special.”
The Bears certainly believe White will be special, too. Ryan Pace used his first draft pick as general manager to take White out of West Virginia. The team envisioned him as the dynamic playmaker to line up opposite Alshon Jeffery, creating a formidable tandem at receiver.
As White missed the entire 2015 season, Jeffery missed seven games. On Thursday, they both lined up wide for the Bears and made their presence known. White used his top-flight speed to break away from Lamarr Houston then Jerrell Freeman in a scrimmage. Jeffery used his length to go up and get the football.
“We just go out there and play,” said Jeffery, “and let our game do the talking.”
Upon first sight of the field, White’s mind raced back to last summer. He then spent practices doing light running on the sidelines, trying to disguise the limp and convince himself that he was fine.
White went out Thursday and looked like a man on a mission. The stress of his comeback was finally gone. A long, lost season was finally in the past.
“This year,” he said, “I’m just out there having fun.”