Bob Stoops found himself in Tuttle, Oklahoma, on Dec. 1, 1998.
He drove to the quiet town 30 miles west of Norman to see Jason White a few hours after leaving his introduction as Oklahoma’s new head football coach in front of Evans Hall.
The high school senior was expected to become a Miami Hurricane, but he was open to hearing what the ex-Florida defensive coordinator had to say after he took the initiative to call White so quickly after the formal ceremony welcoming him to Norman.
“Pardon my appearance,” White recalls Stoops saying upon arriving at his parents’ home. “I’ve been in the same clothes for three days.”
It was a key moment in White’s recruitment and in the rebirth of Oklahoma football.
Stoops inherited a program absent a winning record in five seasons, but in the infancy of his eventually prosperous tenure, he convinced the future winner of college football’s paramount individual honor: the Heisman Trophy.
“He was so confident and he made you believe what his plan was,” White said. “By him doing that and being so confident, I think his urgency to call me, I decided, ‘Hey, I’ll take my last trip over to OU and see what it’s about.’”
The next weekend, White made the short drive to Norman.
“I knew about (Oklahoma’s) tradition, but to experience it as a recruit and walk those halls, it’s impressive,” White said. “I kept thinking, ‘Man, Steve Owens played on this field’ or ‘Billy Sims ran on this field’ or ‘He changed in this locker room.’ Just things like that, that you’re a part of this great history. And, so after that trip, I remember just thinking to myself, ‘Here’s an opportunity to be a part of a huge change at the University of Oklahoma.’
“So, I decided to go there instead.”
White saw enough in the once-fabled program for the 6-foot-2 quarterback to change his mind, so he could join a program where his name would eventually become synonymous with Owens and Sims as college football royalty.
• • •
White sat out most of his freshman season as a backup to Josh Heupel, and then redshirted his second year on campus when Oklahoma earned its seventh national championship.
After Heupel graduated, Nate Hybl beat White for the starting job in 2001, but a midseason injury to Hybl opened the door for White to play.
The redshirt sophomore led Oklahoma to three wins before suffering an anterior cruciate ligament tear in his left knee early in the second quarter against then-No. 3 Nebraska that ended his season. The following year, White beat Hybl for the starting job in fall practice before suffering the same injury to the opposite knee in OU’s second game vs. Alabama.
White returned for spring practices in 2003, but the pain became too much for him to handle.
“My knees were hurting so bad that it was almost like it wasn’t worth it,” White said. “I would go to practice and then the next day it was just so hard to get around, get out and about.”
So, one day that spring, White entered then-Oklahoma offensive coordinator Chuck Long’s office with plans to quit.
“Jason,” White remembers Long saying, “when’s our next game?”
White didn’t know what he meant, so Long repeated the question.
White replied Oklahoma had its upcoming spring scrimmage, but Long wanted to know when Oklahoma’s next real game was.
“Well, September,” White said.
Long then asked the rising junior one more thing.
“It’s April,” he said. “So, why are you in such a hurry?”
Those words were everything White needed to hear. That spring, the Sooners eased him back into the position. The starting job was open again, and White was eventually thankful Long talked him out of the career-ending decision.
If not, White would’ve never become Oklahoma’s fourth Heisman Trophy winner.
“For a guy to have overcome what he did, work the way he had to rehabilitate,” Stoops said. “Not only to play again, but to be the best player in college football?
“That’s unheard of.”
• • •
White returned to the Cotton Bowl two years after taking his first meaningful snaps of his college career on Oct. 11, 2003.
White, coming off two major knee surgeries, embarrassed the Longhorns, throwing for 290 yards on 17-of-21 completions and four touchdowns, leading top-ranked Oklahoma to a 65-13 win over No. 11 Texas.
Kenny Mossman, Oklahoma’s director of athletics media relations at the time, was walking with then-Tulsa World columnist Dave Sittler after the Sooners finished their postgame interviews session. And as the two walked back to the Cotton Bowl press box, Sittler asked a question that froze the Sooners media relations director.
“Have you decided what you’re going to do with Jason White’s Heisman campaign yet?” Mossman recalls Sittler saying.
White didn’t have a Heisman moment, but the way he led No. 1 Oklahoma to a dominant victory over Texas on a big stage gave Mossman and OU’s media relations staff a legitimate Heisman contender to promote.
“Heck, I was just trying to make it through practice,” White said.
He did quite a bit more, lifting the Sooners to three top-25 wins over Texas, Missouri and Oklahoma State by scores of 65-13, 34-13 and 52-9, respectively. He tossed five touchdown passes in a 77-0 massacre of Texas A&M that season. And White threw a school-record 40 touchdown passes that season, a mark surpassed five years later by Sam Bradford with 50 and matched by Baker Mayfield’s 40 in 2016.
He was also four yards short of breaking Heupel’s single-season school-record 3,850 passing yards, which was later surpassed by Bradford, Landry Jones and Mayfield.
“He showed a lot of signs in both (2001 and 2002) before he got hurt of being a guy that could be a great quarterback,” Stoops said. “You don’t know what you have in a Heisman guy until you got midway through that season (in 2003). Once he stayed healthy and really started to see the game and throw it like he can, he was just incredible.”
• • •
White couldn’t believe he won a Heisman, and neither could an airport employee the Oklahoma quarterback encountered when he departed New York following the 2003 ceremony.
The employee thought the Oklahoma contingent flying home was lying when they declared the large case with them contained the coveted bronze trophy. So, the group opened the case to the skeptical employee to reveal the award White won over Pittsburgh wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning and Michigan running back Chris Perry.
Oklahoma QB Jason White
Pitt WR Larry Fitzgerald
Ole Miss QB Eli Manning
Michigan RB Chris Perry
Future NFL quarterbacks Matt Leinart of USC, Ben Roethlisberger of Miami (Ohio) and Philip Rivers of North Carolina State also received Heisman votes that season.
White had one more game to play following his trip to New York — the 2004 Sugar Bowl vs. LSU — but the Sooners would go on to lose 21-14 to the Tigers.
“(2003) was kind of a magical season,” White said of a team that featured the likes of Mark Clayton, Renaldo Works, Tommie Harris, Derrick Strait and Teddy Lehman.
“That was the scout team from the 2000 national championship team. We all played on the scout team that year, and so, to get our time out there and be the starting group, that was special to us. That year was special. I mean, we went out and played well every game except for two.”
White admits the Sooners’ 2003 run was tarnished some by the losses to LSU for the national championship and the stunning 35-7 loss to Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game.
He had one more season ahead of him, however.
In 2004, the duo of White and freshman running back Adrian Peterson looked unstoppable for a Sooners team that rolled to a 12-1 record before walking into a buzzsaw in the 2005 Orange Bowl vs. USC.
White threw for 3,205 yards, 35 touchdowns and completed a career-best 65.4 percent of his passes as a senior, while Peterson ran for a school-record 1,925 rushing yards on 339 carries and 15 touchdowns.
Both were invited to the 2004 Heisman Trophy presentation, giving Mossman’s team a more difficult task. Similar to Mayfield and Dede Westbrook’s dual Heisman campaign in 2016, Oklahoma never promoted one over the other.
White, who’d already won a Heisman, lobbied for Peterson, the same way Mayfield did for Westbrook. But both fell short with Peterson and White finishing second and third, respectively, behind the 2004 winner Leinart. The Sooners duo beat out USC sophomore running back Reggie Bush, however, who placed fifth that season and went to New York with his Trojan teammate.
“It was really cool to be up there with your teammate,” White said. “Especially a guy you kind of had to coach along the way (as a freshman).”
Peterson eventually went on to become the No. 7 overall pick in the NFL Draft three years later. White, on the other hand, went undrafted and signed with the Tennessee Titans before deciding to retire before the start of the 2005 season because of his knees.
White, now 37, has ventured into local businesses since his football career ended. He is the face of Air Comfort Solutions, a local heating, plumbing and air conditioning provider. He was also recently featured in a Nissan commercial with 2007 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow.
The Tuttle native lives in his sports-crazed hometown again, where one of the main roads is named “Jason White Boulevard” for the city that used to shut down on Friday nights to watch him torch opposing defenses and tune in to see him will Oklahoma to consecutive national title game appearances, a Big 12 championship and a 24-3 record in his final two seasons of college football.
Never did he think, however, he’d be on stage in New York on Dec. 13, 2003, accepting college football’s most prestigious individual honor months after he debated giving up the sport forever.
“Still to this day, when I won it, they announced my name, I remember sitting there in shock,” White said. “I knew I had a good chance maybe to win it. I never thought that I’d be the one to get my name called.”