It took two lost seasons, during which White caught just 59 passes for 952 yards and started fewer than half the Falcons' games, before he found the road to discovery. Among those whom White credits with showing him the way are Paul Petrino, his position coach in 2007; Terry Robiskie, his receivers coach since '08; Brian Finneran, the 12-year Falcons veteran wideout; and even Vick, who was imprisoned just before White's breakout year and is now a Philadelphia Eagle, but whom White still considers a close friend and mentor.
Yet for White, one teacher stands out from the rest.
The evening of Sept. 25, 2006, was an emotional one in New Orleans. On that Monday night the Saints played their first home game in the Superdome since Hurricane Katrina hit the city a year earlier. It was an emotional night for Joe Horn too. New Orleans had made him. A wide receiver, Horn played two seasons at Mississippi's Itawamba Community College, washed dishes and worked in a furniture store for a year, hooked on with the Memphis Mad Dogs of the CFL, then spent four years as a reserve with the Chiefs before joining the Saints as a 28-year-old free agent in 2000. With New Orleans, Horn had four 1,200-yard seasons, made four Pro Bowls and millions of dollars, and became a hero. After Katrina, he was heavily involved in the community as it embarked on its long rebuilding process, but the fact was that by that triumphant night in 2006, Horn was 34 and thinking about his future. And he had the strange inkling that pretty soon it would take him over to the opposing sideline, where stood an underachieving wideout who'd had all the early-career advantages Horn had not.
"I went over to Roddy White," recalls Horn, "and the first thing I said to him was, 'This is going to be my last year here. I'm quite sure they're going to get rid of my ass. But I'm coming straight to Atlanta, and we're going to fix your problems.'"
Two months later, when the Saints played the Falcons for the second time that season, Horn felt even more certain about his destiny as he watched a wide-open White drop a perfectly thrown fourth-quarter bomb from Vick. "He had the hands, he had the size, he had the strength and the speed," Horn says. "It was the attitude. I knew I had to bring the dog out of Roddy White."
As Horn expected, the Saints released him after the season, and he signed with the Falcons in March 2007. There was no doubt as to which of Horn's new teammates he would phone first. "He was like, 'Hey, my man, you gotta come down here,'" says White. " 'We've got to get together, we've got to start talking, we've got to find ways to get better.' I'm like, 'This is March!'"
Soon, Roddy White was a Joe Horn disciple. "He was the player I wanted to be all along, and he was telling me how to do it," White says. "Once he started talking, all I wanted to do was listen to him."
Lesson One: Physical talent is not enough, not nearly, in the NFL. The only way to avoid those mortifying drops, Horn told White, was to catch more balls than anyone else. Soon Horn and White were snatching 100 balls each from a JUGS machine before every practice—and 100 more after every practice. On road trips Horn would knock on White's hotel room door at 7 a.m., to be sure they'd be the first in the locker room. "I'm preparing you," Horn told White. "When the rest of the guys are walking in with their suits and ties, you're already ready."
The mornings when White would fall asleep during special teams meetings after long nights spent deploying his considerable financial resources at clubs across Atlanta? Over, along with the long nights. "I told him, 'Baby boy, when you're done with the NFL those same strip clubs will be there, and those same bottles of Dom Pérignon and Cristal will be in them,'" says Horn. "'Where's your legacy going to lie, Roddy White? Staying out until four o'clock in the morning ain't going to do anything for you.' It started to sink in."
"Buckhead, the West Side, the East Side, everywhere," White says, listing the neighborhoods he tried to drain of vodka and cranberry juice, pre-Horn. "If not every day, then every other day. Drinking. It's tough to do that and then come in and prepare to play football."