Kevin White paused for a split second. He spent the last hour on a Zoom call from his car in Southern California detailing the unraveling of his NFL career.
He had some things he needed to get off his chest, needed to let the city of Chicago know. More than anything, he wanted a chance to explain everything that happened after he became the seventh overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.
“So that’s kind of, like, the story,” White said. “Unfortunate events happen to a good person, talented player.”
There’s so, so much more to White’s story than those two sentences, though. And he really wanted to tell it.
2015: The Stress Fracture
White first felt something during OTAs, only a few weeks after he was drafted. He, head coach John Fox, general manager Ryan Pace and the Bears’ medical staff spent the next three months trying to avoid surgery on what turned out to be a stress fracture in his leg.
Could White have played in 2015 if he had the surgery earlier? Probably. But that’s far too simplistic a way to look at what happened.
“At the time, it was like, who the hell is getting surgery for the first option? I didn’t want that, they didn’t want that," White said. “… Whoever says oh they should’ve got surgery, it’s like, come on. No one wants that. No one wants that. Not the first option. But when we resorted to the last option that’s what we had to do.
"I was scared, crying, like, I didn't know what to do.”
As the Bears tried to get White healthy without surgery — which is not the primary treatment option for a stress fracture anyway — it led to a perception Fox was being not only vague, but dishonest in press conferences. Fox kept referring to White as “day-to-day” even in the midst of a seven-week absence from practice.
Those early interactions didn’t help Fox ingratiate himself with folks outside Halas Hall — media, fans, etc. But it did help build trust between player and coach.
"I agree with how they handled it,” White said. “I think it was professional. I don’t think they were lying. I think they didn’t let the full story out until we knew for sure how it was going to play out. I think that’s the way you’re supposed to handle things but everyone’s going to have a different opinion.”
2016: The Ankle Sprain and Fractured Fibula
All too often we fall into a trap when thinking about injuries in football: This guy will be back in three weeks, this guy needs four to five months, this guy is out for the year. And then we forget about that player until he’s getting close to a return.
“It’s an everyday battle,” White said, “mentally and physically.”
White had to fight that battle three times.
The first one was tough, but White got through it. He felt he might’ve been able to play had the Bears made the playoffs in 2015. All while rehabbing, White was focused on getting on the field so he could actually start his NFL career.
In 2016, It took a little while for him to get going. By the third week of the season — when he had six catches for 62 yards against the Cowboys — White looked like he turned a corner.
“That’s when it was like, it’s go time,” White said. “I’m gonna take off from here. I even prepared different, the swag was different in practice. It was just different. It was like, okay, I’m ready. Pace, Fox, everyone is just like, it’s time. This is what we drafted you for.”
A week later, White suffered a severe high ankle sprain and a fractured fibula after catching a pass from Brian Hoyer. He went on injured reserve, ending his season. Again.
It left White feeling robbed by more bad luck.
“For it to happen, it was like there’s no freaking way,” White said. “There’s no way. There’s no way. And that was the killer, where it was like — I was on the rise where I felt good, the whole organization knew it, practice I was preparing well, and it was just unfortunate. Again.”
2017: The Fractured Scapula
2017 had to be the prove-it year for White. The Bears would decide whether or not to pick up his fifth-year option after the season; a good year might’ve landed him a second contract. But the mental and physical toll from those two previous injuries was significant.
White didn’t do anything notable that preseason except sounding upset with Zach Azzanni, his third wide receivers coach in three years.
But he was healthy to begin the season. He only made it to the fourth quarter of Week 1 before another injury.
White fractured his shoulder blade when he was hit, awkwardly, on a slant. Per Football Outsiders’ injury database, it was only the seventh scapula injury suffered by an NFL player in the last 10 seasons. It’s an injury more commonly seen in car accidents, not football games.
White blamed the rare injury on his issues finding properly fitting shoulder pads. He said he finally found pads that worked, but wasn’t able to get them until after Week 1.
“Those shoulder pads that I had, I didn’t like them,” White said. “And that’s just kind of what happened. No one’s fault, I just wish I had the correct shoulder pads.
“… If we’d have been able to tackle the shoulder pads before Sunday’s game, I highly doubt that would’ve happened.”
But it did, and White had to bear the responsibility for playing with shoulder pads that didn’t fit tightly to his body. Back to injured reserve he went, left to make sense of why he was staring down his third season-ending injury in three years.
“I think I would be able… I would be okay with the injuries if it was like, I knew I was BS’ing,” White said. “If I knew I was partying and getting drunk and smoking weed — like I don’t even smoke weed. If I was doing that I’m, okay, I deserve it. I deserve it. I see why the injuries happen.”
White added: “I got dealt bust cards and can’t cry about it, complain about it,” White said. “But it is kind of a punch in the stomach where it’s like I got all the talent in the world, done it the right way, like why, God? What am I doing wrong? What do you want me to see out of being hurt year after year after year?”
2018: Business or Circumstance?
The Bears couldn’t plan for White to be a starter. Not after three injuries, even if Pace and first-year coach Matt Nagy saw them as White did — the results of bad luck.
So the Bears guaranteed nearly $40 million to sign Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel in free agency. Anthony Miller was picked in the second round of the draft. White was still on the roster but played only one receiver position (the X, where Gabriel was ahead of him on the depth chart). He also didn’t play special teams.
That meant while White was healthy, he was an odd man out as soon as players arrived at Halas Hall in April.
When I asked White what went wrong in 2018, he sort of bristled at the notion I was looking for the answer to be about him. Instead, he repeated this word seven times: “Business.”
White felt like he was playing the best football of his career in 2018. It started with a good showing in a mid-April minicamp and continued into OTAs that spring. Nagy wanted White to stack practices; White did that. Coaches and teammates did what they could to build up White’s confidence and keep him engaged, even though he didn’t have a clear path to playing.
Early on, it worked.
“Prince (Amukamara) was like, ‘Man, Kev, I don’t know what got into you but you’re different, White said. “‘Totally different.’”
White, though, mostly shined in non-padded spring practices. Those don’t mean anything to coaches, but the real test for a player comes when the pads go on in training camp and preseason games.
“When the game comes, he’s got to make plays,” Nagy said that year. “When you do that, his confidence will slowly get better and better. The physical tools, forget about it. He’s got all that. It’s just a matter of him mentally, right now, seeing it happen and stacking them play by play in each practice."
Nagy, ominously, also mentioned drops and mental errors multiple times when answering questions about White during 2018’s offseason. Even though White felt he was practicing well, and at least during OTAs that was readily apparent, it seemed clear the Bears’ coaching staff needed to see a lot from White to trust him.
So when White dropped a pass in the Bears’ first preseason game of 2018 against the Cincinnati Bengals, it couldn’t have helped engender much trust in him from his new coaches. Before that game, Nagy said he was looking for White to — among other things — not have any drops.
White said the drop happened because he tried to duck away from a hit on the shoulder blade he broke a year prior, and said he was “good” after that. But a drop is a drop when you're fighting for playing time.
White scored his only touchdown with the Bears a few weeks later on a well-executed stop-and-go route against the Kansas City Chiefs at Soldier Field. But that White was even playing in that preseason game — the first one in which Nagy benched almost all of his starters — wasn’t exactly an encouraging sign for how the Bears viewed him.
When the regular season began, 40 of White’s first 70 snaps — covering the first five games of the year — were running plays. While White held supreme confidence in his abilities and how he was practicing, it didn’t appear to be shared by the Bears’ coaching staff.
“I would go on scout team and go against the first team just to show, like, you wanna see it again? I’ll show it again,” White said. “So I didn’t see anything coming from it so I would kind of shut down sometimes. Like, man, y’all got it. I don’t know what else you can do. I’m preparing like I’m about to go out there and get 10 (catches) for 100 (yards).
“And then I get to the game and it’s on the bench. Nothing. Nothing.”
Part of that was “business,” sure. The Bears guaranteed Gabriel a lot of money. But a much larger part of it was how well Gabriel played. His hands were sticky, his routes were clean, and his coaches and quarterbacks trusted him.
Gabriel played 830 snaps that year (77 percent), more than any other wide receiver and second only to Trey Burton among running backs/receivers/tight ends. He was targeted 93 times, second only to Robinson's 94. His only two drops came in a cold, rainy game against the New York Giants.
Gabriel wouldn’t have been used so much if he isn’t doing something right. A lot right.
And yes, that Gabriel signed a four-year, $26 million contract in the offseason didn’t hurt when it came down to playing time, either.
White, though, saw his lack of playing time through a much more political lens.
“Once I seen how it was played, I was like okay, I get it. I get it,” White said. “Because those players are getting paid under a new coach. Those players are getting paid 26 (million) or whatever the numbers was where it was like okay, Kevin’s getting paid four (million), this player’s getting paid seven (million) or whatever the case may be.
“But that was my initial — I’m the seventh pick, getting paid too, fair shot. It should be a fair shake.
“But I’m not saying it was never no drops or never an error. No, I’m not saying that. I’m saying, if you compare who I was competing with, I win all day.”
White did finally get an extended opportunity in October. It coincided with Robinson being limited and then inactive with a hamstring injury in Weeks 7 and 8 against the New England Patriots and New York Jets. White’s career highlight came then — the Hail Mary he caught one yard short of the end zone against the Patriots — and he played a then-season high 29 snaps against the Jets a week later.
Robinson was still inactive in Week 9. But so was White.
“Nagy talked to me,” White said. “And it was kind of like, Nagy, man, I’m done with y’all. It’s whatever. Y’all got it.”
Something happened between the lead-up to the Jets game and when the Bears’ plane touched down in Buffalo for Week 9. White didn’t have a drop against the Jets, but there could’ve been mental errors (a wheel route on which it looked like Trubisky overthrew him felt like a possible culprit). And mental errors are usually a one-way ticket to the bench.
But, clearly, the way White viewed himself didn’t sync with how the Bears viewed him. So he checked out.
"So that was kind of like ah man, y’all trippin’,” White said. “Y’all crazy. And then eventually it was like, well, why am I about to bust my ass every day in practice and I’m getting done like this?"
White has his own version of the events of 2018; the Bears’ actions while winning the NFC North that year don’t necessarily support them.
Nagy never really found a role for White in the Bears’ offense, outside of one Hail Mary and a bunch of early running plays. It stands to reason that if White were truly playing as well as he felt he was, he would’ve at least had a few plays designed to utilize his athletic frame and natural talent.
“Business” — the business of winning — would’ve dictated it.
2019: The Last Chances?
White’s final true opportunity came with the Arizona Cardinals. He signed there on an inexpensive one-year, prove-it contract, hoping to finally show the league what he could do. That he connected with Kliff Kingsbury — who coached against White while at Texas Tech — helped.
“Head coach, Big 12, he was the one that was dying for me to get there,” White said.
White felt like he got off to a good start in Arizona, playing well while learning Kingsbury’s wide receiver-oriented playbook. But then he got hurt in training camp. It was a grade 3 hamstring tear — the first soft tissue injury of his career.
“I’m under a microscope,” White said. “So every little thing is kind of like, here we go again. And like I said, I get it. I get it. It’s just unfortunate.”
With that injury, White didn’t even make it to cut-down day with the Cardinals. That does help prove the Bears right in how they handled his last year in Chicago — they didn't let a talented player go only to see him flourish somewhere else.
White had a tryout with the Detroit Lions in the fall that didn’t go anywhere. He wasn’t fully recovered from his hamstring injury at that point. He knew it and the Lions knew it.
“They were like, we want seventh pick Kevin White,” White said. “If we get you we want Kevin White. And I’m like, I can’t be that. I’m hurt.”
White hasn’t been on an NFL roster since August 2019. He hasn’t given up on his career, though, and hopes to get another shot at proving he can play. He still heeds his former coach’s advice — Fox will text reminders telling him to “stay ready so you don’t have to get ready.”
It might be easier if there were one person or one thing to assign blame for the unraveling of White’s NFL career. There’s not. Bad luck was followed by bad circumstance. Unfortunate, random things happen to people.
It means White has to live with never being able to give fans something to remember him by except the word “bust.”
MORE: How Kevin White lives with the "bust" label
Sure, he made more money in four years than most people will make in their lifetimes. But it’s the lack of that moment, or that season, or that one thing on the field that makes White feel cheated by football.
And that’s why White has so much to get off his chest.
“I want the thing that’s gonna last forever, like man, you remember Kevin White against Detroit when he did (that)?” White said. “Or a little kid that wants to play football that’s like man, I look up to Kevin White.”
Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Bears.