For Russell White, the opening game in the World League against the Scottish Claymores at White Hart Lane represents a chance to silence those who question his commitment to gridiron.
Four years ago, the Oakland 25-year-old was one of the highest- profile figures in collegiate American Football, an exceptionally talented running back who established himself as the most successful rusher in the University of California's history. NFL teams coveted him, and he was the subject of numerous attractive offers to curtail his academic studies and enlist as a professional football player.
He turned down all advances, electing to complete his degree in social welfare. And, through the network of NFL scouting departments, word spread that perhaps Russell White was not really as interested in playing as he should be.
He was still selected by the Los Angeles Rams in the third round of the 1993 college draft, but they also chose another running back, Jerome Bettis. While Bettis was an immediate sensation, White was limited to just five games as a kick-off returner. At the end of the season, the Rams dispensed with him and, apart from joining the Green Bay Packers for pre-season training last year, he has not played since.
White is convinced that remaining at college had an unfair impact on his athletic prospects. "I could have left and made a lot of money," he said. "But I decided it was more important to get my degree, and people knocked me for that. The way I look at it, money comes and goes, but my degree will stay with me for the rest of my life."
Ironically, White had just been offered a job in child development when the World League made a move. "They gave me the opportunity to play again, and when I heard the welfare job would be kept open, I decided to try this football thing one more time."
Bobby Hammond, the Monarchs' head coach, is delighted. Last year the Monarchs had difficulty moving the ball on the ground, struggling to four wins from ten games as a consequence. Hammond has since rebuilt his offensive line, which boasts four players allocated from NFL teams, to open holes for his running backs.
In addition to White, Hammond can call on other quality runners, such as Tony Vinson, on loan from the Atlanta Falcons, Gaston Green, a former first-round draft choice of the Rams, and Profail Greer, only 5ft 8in but devastatingly quick.
Hammond acknowledges the importance of the running game, and expects a lot of White, the team's first-round draft choice. "We needed a quality running back, big time," he said. "We got pushed around last year, and I didn't want that to happen again. Russell brings experience and versatility."
What he does not bring is an extrovert personality. Mention that his shirt bears the number 1, for example, and he is embarrassed. "I had nothing to do with this, it was a team decision," he said. "I'm a laid-back person, not a rah-rah guy. All I want is to fit into the thing as a spark plug or a fan belt. I don't want to be the whole engine."
He is not the first running back to arrive in Britain with a questionable reputation. In 1987, the Rams played the Denver Broncos in the American Bowl at Wembley. Charles White, a player with a history of personal problems, was the unexpected star of the Rams' 28-27 win. The following season, he led the NFL with 1,374 rushing yards.
Russell White is his nephew, and is well aware of the parallel. However, he remains sanguine about the prospects of a return to the NFL. "What will happen will happen," he said. "Right now, I'm looking forward to playing again. I just want to go out there and have some fun."Reuse content