Tuttle, Okla. (pop. 4,300), is not exactly a concrete jungle, but it seemed that way at times to the town's most famous native son, Jason White. The Oklahoma senior quarterback was seven when his father, Ron, who owns a concrete company, began bringing him along when he laid driveways and sidewalks or poured foundations for houses. Jason was too young to be of much help, but Ron wanted his son to get used to the idea of going to work. As Jason grew older, he stopped playing in the sand and started shoveling it, laying the bottom layer for the concrete, and hauling sacks of cement in wheelbarrows. Summer vacation for young Jason meant getting to the job site at 7 a.m. for a 12-hour day in the Oklahoma heat. "My back would be so sore at the end of the day, it was horrible," White says. "I can't say I liked it much, but I saw that it was what my dad did, so I figured it was the right thing to do."
He also saw that it was a way to make money. His father paid him an hourly wage, and by the time Jason was 14, he'd saved enough to buy a battered pickup. Though he was too young to drive, Jason worked on it every day for a year, overhauling the engine and sprucing up the body. When he was finished, the truck was in such good shape that he sold it for a profit.
It's little wonder, then, that when White suffered a devastating knee injury in each of the past two seasons, the one thing that didn't scare him was the amount of work he was told it would take to come back. He understands better than most about the rewards that can come from hard labor, and he's finally getting the chance to enjoy them. After a combined 12 months of rehabilitating torn anterior cruciate ligaments in both knees, White has rebuilt his career as well, leading the Sooners to the No. 1 ranking and propelling himself into the thick of the Heisman Trophy race.
"There are so many guys who would have given up and decided that their career just wasn't meant to be," says Oklahoma offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Chuck Long. "But Jason is a very tough-minded young man. There's something about that small-town, working-class background that has made him a no-nonsense, unflappable guy. His attitude is, I don't care how hard the job is, just tell me what has to be done, and I'll do it."
Now that White has two healthy knees again, he's making football look easy. He has 36 touchdown passes against just six interceptions, and he has completed 65% of his passes. More important, both for the Sooners' title hopes and for his Heisman chances, his play has improved steadily as the season has progressed. In Oklahoma's 77-0 demolition of Texas A&M on Nov. 8, White completed 16 of 18 passes and threw for five touchdowns in just one half of work, and last Saturday, in a 41-3 defeat of Baylor, he tossed four more TD passes, three of them in the first quarter, as the Sooners raised their record to 11-0. His passer rating, 174-4, leads the nation and would be good enough for seventh-best alltime over a full season. ( Oklahoma plays at Texas Tech this weekend, then finishes with the Big 12 championship game on Dec. 6.) Those are Heisman-caliber numbers, though White needs to work on his campaign speech. "Basically I just throw the ball to whoever's open, and on this team, someone always is," he says. "If I were playing for any other team in the country, I don't think I'd be in this position."
The Sooners' offense is overflowing with talent, which creates the only question about White's Heisman worthiness: Is he truly an outstanding quarterback or merely a good one who's fortunate to have a fleet of Maserati-fast receivers and backs at his disposal? White's wideout weapons include Mark Clayton, who has 1,159 receiving yards and 14 touchdown catches, as well as Brandon Jones and Jejuan Rankins, who have 13 TDs between them. All three are adept at turning medium-length passes into long gainers, which has benefited White's statistics. But White's accuracy helps make it possible for his receivers to roll up yards after the catch. "He hits you in stride so you can catch it and keep moving," Clayton says. "We have a great system and a lot of talent, but it wouldn't be the same without Jason." Oklahoma's opponents agree. "Don't sell that young man short," says Texas coach Mack Brown. "He can throw the deep ball with the best of them. They have a lot of talented players, and the quarterback is one of them."
White might never have been a Sooner if Oklahoma hadn't hired Bob Stoops as head coach just before White made his recruiting visit in early 1999. Stoops's aggressiveness and enthusiasm helped persuade White, who was leaning strongly toward Miami, to come to Norman. That was probably for the best, because, as he worked on a plate of barbecued ribs and chicken last week, answering questions with just a hint of a twang, he came across as so endearingly Oklahoma-bred that it was hard to picture him anywhere near South Beach. White, who still travels the 30 miles from Norman back to Tuttle every Sunday to have dinner with his parents, Ron and Sue, is everything you'd expect a small-town product to be. He's disarmingly honest. ("My favorite class? I don't really have one, to tell you the truth. I hate class.") He's allergic to hype. ("I'm sure my dad would enjoy going to New York [for the Heisman ceremony]. But then he likes any trip. He considers it a vacation when he goes to Texas for parts.") He's unfailingly humble. ("I'm a decent cook. I did some stuff on the grill one time and it didn't kill me, so I kept doing it.")
His gentle humor and laid-back demeanor have made him a favorite with teammates, although White knows that his calm can be disconcerting at first. "Probably every teammate I've ever had has looked at me before a game and said, 'That dude ain't ready to play,' " he says. "I'm not a guy who gets real fired up and makes a big speech in the locker room. I just focus on what I'm supposed to do and try to go out and do it."
It's the same way he approached his concrete work for his father, a job that ended when he was 15 and his summer schedule of lifting bags of cement by day and lifting weights for football at night began to wear him out. "I told him that if he wanted to work toward getting a scholarship, then he wouldn't have to work for me," Ron says. "It didn't take him long to say yes to that deal."
Stardom was expected of White when he enrolled at Oklahoma in 1999. He appeared briefly in two games as a redshirt freshman in 2000 and began his sophomore year as the second-string quarterback, but he was so impressive in relief of starter Nate Hybl that he took over the job in the seventh game of the season, against Baylor. In the second quarter of the next game, against Nebraska, as he rolled out and threw on the run, his left knee buckled. His ACL had snapped. Six months of rehabilitation followed, a process that was by turns painful and tedious. "You do things that seem like they're not doing you any good," White says. "Things like heel slides, where you stretch your leg out straight [while sitting on a bench] and then slide your heel up until your knee is bent up to your chest. I did hundreds and hundreds of those. The rehab was about four hours a day, every day, and the whole time you're wondering if your knee will ever be the same."