LAURINBURG, N.C. — The top-rated running back in America picks his choice of the big-time schools each year. Five-star gem Zamir White from North Carolina will certainly do that in 2018.
The nation’s No. 3 overall prospect would be welcome anywhere, but UGA, Alabama and LSU are part of an elite group of suitors. UGA was in great shape under the previous staff, but it sounds like Alabama is another big contender for his services.
But the unforgettable stuff is not where he’s going. Not yet.
White hails from a community that ranks at the bottom in the stats no town wants. Every student at Scotland High School is eligible for a free or reduced lunch.
That’s what happens when the area’s unemployment rate was cited at 14.6% by USA Today in 2013. That was nearly double the national rate. Just 14 percent of those residents attained a college degree. That fits the profile of the poorest county in North Carolina.
Yet when White was born into that community, his odds improved. His mother, Shanee White, carried him when she was 14 years old. When her doctors learned her child weighed just one pound six months into her term, she was advised to abort.
At such a young age, those words were impressionable. Her grandmother’s wisdom finally swayed her to carry it out.
“My grandmother was like, ‘If he takes one breath, he is coming into this world,’ so she wouldn’t let them terminate my pregnancy,” Shanee White said.
His grandmother Nancy White was right. White gained approximately seven pounds before he reached full term. When he took that breath, there were no signs of what was to come.
“But I knew he was going to be sick,” Shanee White said. “He had a cleft lip and a cleft palate. He had two cysts on his umbilical cord and his kidneys were leaking. Then they put tubes in his ears for his hearing.”
White’s temperature started dropping and he lost some of that weight. He was given 10 days to live. At about the same time, his father was incarcerated for a four-year term. His father went to prison again for another seven years later in his life. Those type of odds can break the heart.
That split in his upper lip created a wider opening into his nose, and the split in the roof of his mouth left a gap between his nose and mouth. The CDC states only 2,600 babies in the U.S. each year are born with a cleft palate. Another study notes that 1 or 2 out of every 1,000 babies born in the developed world have a cleft lip and a cleft palate.
He went through a series of surgeries. The last one came when he was seven.
“He stayed in the hospital in Chapel Hill the first three months after he was born,” Shanee White said. “I’m really just happy he’s here. It is not all this football stuff.”
White immediately took to football when he was seven. He still needs one more surgery and he’s supposed to schedule that when he stops growing. It does not seem like he will elect to correct the alignment of his jawbone.
“I want to make the most of my life having come through what I have,” White said, who targeted next summer to likely make a commitment.
The next mythical back from North Carolina
The kid who overcame all that adversity is now a high school back who draws comparisons to former UGA star Todd Gurley.
“You have to know how precious those beginnings were for Zamir to see why he works so hard,” Scotland County coach Richard Bailey said. “He wants to take advantages of all this opportunity to just live that God has given him. He now wants to make the most of life. You see that.”
Those are things worth remembering, even more than the 45 touchdowns he scored last season, or the fact he’s piled up at least 100 yards in every varsity game. The nearly 6-foot-1, 210-pounder who has never been caught from behind also pointed out the scars on his lip, hip, kidneys and stomach.
“They said I’d be small,” White said. “I was told I’d probably be about 5-feet-2 inches tall and wouldn’t weigh more than 120 pounds. Think of that. That’s a blessing right there.”
His mother corrected those elements. He wasn’t supposed to be that small. She understood why Zamir felt that way. She has not discussed his ordeals with him in detail. But he believed those things to be true and used that as motivation.
The five-star back ran the 100 meters in 10.5 seconds this spring. That’s a nod to his mother.
“She was a track star, too,” White said. “I think she could run the 100 in 11-something seconds, too.”
Shanee White is just shy of a master’s degree in criminal justice and works as a corrections officer in a state prison. Zamir’s isn’t the only success story at work in his home.
“We have to juggle a lot because I have to be at work at 5:45 every morning,” she said. “So Zamir gets up and gets his 8-year-old sister ready and takes her to school on his way to school. Then he has practice and all these schools and all these girls after him. He handles it all well. I don’t really have much to worry about with him. He’s a really good kid.”
Her son has opted to take German as his foreign language at Scotland County High. He can also thank the care and advice of his great aunt and a great uncle. They seem more like grandparents compared to the advice offered from the typical aunt and uncle.
“They play an important role in his life,” Bailey said. “You can tell that. His uncle will come to every practice and be there for him in a good way. Not the way some coaches feel about a relative being at every practice. He’s a really good guy.”
White credits them for more than just showing up at practice.
“They basically are my grandparents,” Zamir White said. “They have been great at making sure I stay humble, focus on grades and keep my grades up and do what I do best on the field.”
The newborn who was given less than 10 days to live also acquired the nickname of a Greek god shortly after reaching high school.
“I never would have thought up any of this,” his mother said. “I never would have even dreamt any of it.”
Nick Saban calls White one of those “and guys”
White earned the nickname “Zeus” in high school for his exploits, but there have been more hyped athletes to enter the Scotland program.
“When I first heard he had that nickname ‘Zeus’ I kind of laughed at it,” Bailey said. “I told him he better be pretty darned good with a nickname like that. Well, good thing he is.”
The impoverished town somehow has a new Jumbotron on its field. The crowds swell up to 13,000 for a rivalry game. White can be found signing autographs up to 30 minutes afterward.
Bailey shared a Nick Saban story that describes why White is so coveted. Saban told Bailey Alabama looks for “and guys” at running back. White surged some 66 yards for a score the very first time he touched the ball as a freshman.
“It was ‘45 Dive’ and I was nervous when they called it,” White said. “The linebacker came up the right sideline. I had to make him miss.”
Yet the Crimson Tide wants more. White described his favorite play in high school and it wasn’t one of his 61 touchdowns through his sophomore season. It was a block.
“You should have heard him whooping and hollering after that,” Bailey said. “He was way more jacked up about that than any touchdown he scored that game.”
White powered up 405 pounds the first time he tried a max squat when he was a freshman. That lower body strength is the source of his power and skill. When he cuts and makes moves in the open field, he can do so without slowing down.
Saban wants his running backs to be even more than that.
“Being a football coach myself, I liked hearing his message from a guy of his stature about the importance of getting ‘and guys’ and not ‘but guys’ for his team,” Bailey said.
When Saban first said that, Bailey didn’t know what he meant.
“Coach Saban said at some point all these backs have a lot of talent,” Bailey said. “Especially the ones that Alabama recruits. But a lot of them come with the ‘but he doesn’t work hard in the weight room’ or ‘but his grades aren’t right’ or ‘but there’s this character issue’ with guys. But Zamir is an ‘and guy.’ Zamir is a great player and he’s wonderful with kids and scores touchdowns and is the last guy to finish in the weight room and has all these offers and loves to practice and is a community guy and a team leader.”
Bailey said White is “drunk” on competing. He bites his lip through the high-tempo periods he wants to see in his practices. It is nigh-impossible because White takes each carry 30 yards downfield. He’d rather White just carry it 10 yards so the team could get more reps.
He’ll live with that work ethic because it sets a championship standard for his entire program. The biggest moment among his spring tour? The 16-year-old White said it was meeting Saban.
“Seeing him growing up and then you shake his hand,” White said. “That was something.”
White also met LSU star back Leonard Fournette in the past year.
“That was also just crazy,” White said.
Another Todd Gurley? Really?
Those Gurley comparisons are deep water for a young back. Yet White hails from the same state. He’s also been hyped as another Gurley since his 1,200-yard freshman season.
Bailey has an unexpected opinion about that. Perhaps that’s because he knows what the young man is made of after he watched White dash for 8.3 yards per carry and 43 total touchdowns in 2015.
His coach offered up an apples-to-apples comparison having also coached Gurley when he was a senior at an all-star event.
“To be honest he is very Todd Gurley-ish,” Bailey said. “He’s a tall guy. A little over six feet tall. I coached Todd in the Shrine Bowl and physically Zamir looks like Todd did as a senior. The only thing is he’s just a sophomore. I don’t know what Zamir is going to look like two years from now. But very similar players. Very similar people.”
He added another player parallel.
“To me, and now this is two very good backs, but to me, he is a cross between Todd (Gurley) and (2016 NFL Draft No. 4 overall pick) Ezekiel Elliott. Very similar body types and body frames and similar type of athlete. Todd could throw and kick it. He could do it all. That’s Zamir. He’s a very good athlete. He can run with power. He catches the ball well and blocks. He can cut but then he’s got breakaway speed. Now, he’s not as fast as Todd was when he was a high school senior yet but he’s still just in the spring of his sophomore year.”
The previous staff at UGA felt the same way. Thomas Brown, the former running backs coach, made a lot of inroads with White and his family because he was a constant presence in Laurinburg. Brown, like Bailey, already saw something very special.
“Thomas Brown said, ‘Coach, he would be the No. 1 running back on our chart right now if he was a senior,” Bailey said. “He said we would take Zamir over the guys (in 2016) we are taking now. That’s as he is right now as a sophomore compared to all the seniors who will graduate this year.”
White said that was “up there” when Brown told him that. Where does UGA rank now?
“They are still up there,” White said. “But everyone right now is all equal.”
When he visited UGA last month, he left knowing that new coach Kirby Smart was a “great guy.” He said running backs coach Dell McGee made sure he knew he could come in and really help the team. According to his mother, UGA still sends White more mail than any other program.
Schools and more schools
White told DawgNation last fall UGA led Tennessee in the race for his decision “by a lot.” That’s no longer the case. Check out White’s Facebook page. His trips to Alabama are all over his timeline.
There’s a picture of him with Saban including several others at the Alabama facility. Bailey said Alabama is also recruiting White harder than any other school right now. They call him about White almost every day.
White does not cite any leaders. But listen to him and he’s got a top shelf of offers. That’s UGA, Alabama, Clemson, Florida State, LSU, North Carolina, North Carolina State and Ohio State.
Bailey points out White “still really likes Georgia” and he also made a trip to UGA along a spring circuit that included stops at Alabama, Florida State and LSU.
“I just want to find the right feel where I know I fit in with that program,” White said. “When I have that, then I will decide.”
White will work to enroll early in January of 2018. Don’t look for him to move more than five-to-10 hours away from his Carolina roots. Oregon, his dream school growing up, is too far.
UGA is less than five hours away. A one-way trip to Tuscaloosa to play for Saban and the Crimson Tide would be right at eight hours. White felt Ohio State and Virginia were two other schools he needs to visit.
His mother has already been to Alabama, Georgia and the North Carolina schools. White went to Alabama in early April and returned with the mother for A-Day on April 16.
“All of these schools look great to me but I am going to let him pick his own school,” she said. “I want that to be his decision.”
The real Zamir
White is a sharp dresser. He was decked out in blue at a recent prom. His daily school attire would fit the stuff he’d need to wear on a job interview. That’s in contrast to when he was younger, and shy. Those close to him feel maybe that’s because of the scar below his nose left behind from those surgeries.
Athletics strengthened his confidence. He now looks strangers in the eye. He’s also a shoe groupie. He owns more than 30 pairs of shoes. That’s a way recruiters can establish a bond.
“Got to be there when the new (Air) Jordans come out,” White said. “I will camp out for them and all that. I’m used to waiting for five or six hours for when they come out.”
He is one of those “yes, sir” and “no, sir” kids. That’s evident in the first 20 seconds of meeting him. He feels carrying himself the right way reflects positively on his family.
“Just want people to know you can be a good kid with all this pressure and still get great grades and be nice to people,” White said.
He’s also not a college football guy, and doesn’t watch a lot of football on TV. When Bailey told him “UT” was at school one day on a visit, he didn’t know what team that was.
White said the best day of his life was when he was 6 or 7 years old. He saw a Scotland County High standout go off on a Friday night.
“The guy was a straight beast,” White said. “His name was Tony McRae. Just a great football player. Meeting him that day was the best day of my life. I was crying when I met that guy.”
There are now long lines of boys who wish to meet him. He signed his first waves of autographs after games last fall. He had to get used to it so he practiced his script during the school day.
“I think of that now and remember when I was that little kid,” White said. “I will never forget what it was like to be that kid on that field meeting that great player.”
Bailey said White is already regarded as a “superhero” around Laurinburg. He’s already reading to the elementary students.
When asked how he regards his lot in life, White’s reply sounded just like a running back.
“It was just stuff I had to get past or get through,” he said. “I just try to be strong to get past what I need to so I can reach my goals.”
What motivates him now?
“Just to be able to help out my family out,” White said. “Just to get a future free education. You can’t beat that.”
That sounds like an understatement. Except when the nation’s best running back — who was once given 10 days to live — says that as he runs out of one of the poorest towns in North Carolina.
Jeff Sentell covers UGA football and UGA recruiting for AJC.com and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter for the latest on who’s on their way to play Between the Hedges. Unless otherwise indicated, player rankings and ratings are from the 247Sports Composite.