The Green Bay Packers obviously did not play in Super Bowl LI, and there were no Wisconsin natives on either team’s roster. In fact, there was only one player in the game with any kind of local connection.
But, boy, did he make his presence felt.
Patriots running back James White, who played four seasons for the Badgers from 2010-13, was the unheralded hero and unofficial (non-Tom Brady) most valuable player in New England’s incredible 34-28 comeback win over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. White, the 2010 Big Ten Freshman of the year and three-time conference champion at Wisconsin, set Super Bowl records for most catches (14), most total points (20) and most receiving yards by a running back (110). He scored three touchdowns – the most by a player other than a quarterback in the big game in 20 years – including the final two, and also had a crucial two-point conversion in the fourth quarter.
His 1-yard touchdown run with less than a minute to play in regulation (with the two-point conversion) tied the game and forced overtime, while his 2-yard scoring run on the first possession in overtime won it all, capping New England’s historic comeback.
It was the fifth Super Bowl title for Brady and head coach Bill Belichick together, and it was White’s second championship – he was on the Patriots’ Super Bowl XLIX team two years ago as a rookie, but was inactive and did not play in the game.
Passed over for the Super Bowl MVP award in favor of Brady, who threw for 466 yards and two touchdowns, White finished with a game-high 139 yards from scrimmage. Teammate and fellow running back LeGarrette Blount said White should have been named MVP, and even Brady agreed. Since the highest honor White earned at Wisconsin was Second-Team All-Big Ten in 2013, he’s probably used to success without recognition.
Though the 5-foot-10, 205-pound White wasn’t a complete unknown heading into the game – especially among Badgers fans – it was hard to imagine him making such a Super Bowl impact. He played a season-low 12 snaps in the Divisional Round playoff win over the Texans and then totaled just eight yards on four touches in the AFC Championship Game victory over the Steelers.
But after celebrating his 25th birthday on Feb. 3, White got 71 snaps against Atlanta, made a lot out of them and came through when he was needed most.
Who's that guy having the game of his life in the Super Bowl?
That's James White.
...he went to Wisconsin. 😉#SB51 || #OnWisconsin pic.twitter.com/OKopatGNVK — Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) February 6, 2017
The humble, hardworking White doesn’t have Blount’s power and doesn’t get his carries, nor does he have Dion Lewis’ speed and big-play ability. Largely a third-down back who split playing time with the other two, White’s best work comes in pass protection and route running, subtle nuances not always seen and appreciated. But after his epic Super Bowl performance, everyone took notice, and the Patriots were effusive in their praise of the University of Wisconsin product.
"He came through huge for us," said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels told ESPN. "What can you say about James? He’s so dependable."
Blount added, "It’s not up to him, when and how much he plays, but I know that when he is in there, and when he has a chance to make a play, he always does it for us. On the biggest stage you can be on, he made all the plays we needed him to make."
And Brady was positively gushing. "He's just everything you want in a teammate and a football player," the quarterback said. "Dependable. Consistent. Durable. The best attitude, brings it every day, and we just kept going to him. I think that speaks for itself."
Afterward, the blue-collar Badger was modestly straightforward in describing his winning touchdown run. "It was a toss play. I just had to run through one guy and get the ball into the end zone," White said. "I saw a crease. The game is on the line, just got to find a way in."
Eventually, he admitted this was all pretty cool.
"It’s really surreal," he said. "I was just living in the moment."
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.