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tara sullivan

A memorable Patriots game is put into perspective by James White’s grief

Patriots players huddled before Sunday's game.
Patriots players huddled before Sunday's game.Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

The Patriots' last-second loss Sunday night in Seattle was one of those games to remember, two NFL heavyweights going blow for big-time blow all the way to the very last play. Officially, it goes down as a minus on the Patriots' record, but anyone watching knows it was a plus for their confidence, competing as they did with one of the NFL’s best teams.

Yet the true measure of what that game said about the Patriots — and even more, about the strength of the NFL brotherhood at large — had little to do with the final score. This was a night for James White to feel the embrace of his football brethren. As the news spread that White’s father, Tyrone, had been killed in an auto accident back home in Florida, and that his mother, Lisa, was in critical condition, NFL Nation responded.

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With White out of the game as he processed the unthinkable, the real-time reactions of those who played in his stead reminded us all that the games we watch are just that, games.

Not life.

As Matthew Slater put it, so blunt yet so eloquent all at once, “I don’t really think James White cares whether or not we won or lost this game today.”

Why would he?

When the dust settles on this strangest of NFL seasons, history will first remember the shadow of COVID-19, a national death toll in the hundreds of thousands that has done more than enough to temper our perspective on sport versus life.

But those types of lessons are not limited to the pandemic. They visit regularly, often with startling shock. Bill Belichick, along with sons Steve and Brian who serve on his coaching staff, felt it last week when his mother, Jeannette, died. But if her amazing 98 years on earth softened that loss, for White, there is no making sense of a 59-year-old man being taken so tragically.

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“It’s tough,” Slater said. "It’s hard to really put into words.

"We all have mothers and fathers, and to lose your mother or father is something that’s never easy, and for a tragedy like that to hit the way that it did, it hit us all. We were playing with heavy hearts. It puts things in perspective.

"Football is a job for us. It’s what we do to provide for ourselves and our families. But there are things in life so much bigger than the game, and today was a reminder of that. Life is such a fragile thing.

“I don’t think we even processed it yet. It’s something that takes time.”

Time can never replace what White has lost. By all accounts, he was raised by exceptional people to become an exceptional man. Beloved by his teammates, always smiling, always engaging, generous with his friendship, his time, and his blessings, charitable, kind, and smart.

Matthew Slater (18) and James White (28) have been teammates for several years.
Matthew Slater (18) and James White (28) have been teammates for several years.Steven Senne/Associated Press

In other words, raised well.

“There are very few that I’ve played this game with that have the character that James has,” Slater said. "He’s just a wonderful human being. He’s so consistent in who he is and things he stands for and how he carries himself, and I think you attribute that to the way he was raised.

"He’s such a breath of fresh air. Athletes can be flash and loud. He’s a quiet gentleman who’s a humble person and who loves being around this team.

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“He serves us in so many ways, and we’re so fortunate to have a guy like that. I look at James White and I say to myself, 'That’s a guy who’s doing it the right way.’ He means a great deal to our team. It’s hard for me to put into words, but he means so very much.”

White’s normally reserved voice spoke so loudly in the aftermath of protests over George Floyd’s death, when he spoke specifically of the lessons his father, a police captain, taught him.

“My dad always taught me that even though he’s a cop, when his uniform is off he’s just a Black man in society,” White said in June. "The same thing that happened to George Floyd can happen to me, happen to my dad, or any person of color.

"It doesn’t matter how much money you make or what job you have, if somebody feels the need, that they are more important or that they have more power than you and try to make a statement or whatever they’re doing, they can take somebody’s life.

‘"I look at James White and I say to myself, 'That’s a guy who’s doing it the right way.’ He means a great deal to our team. It’s hard for me to put into words, but he means so very much.”’

Matthew Slater on James White

"My dad always made me aware of what I should do when I get pulled over and things of that nature and how to treat cops. I see both sides and I’ve heard a lot of stories from my dad from that perspective, so it helped shape me growing up.”

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So did all those hours Tyrone put in coaching football. So did the loving gesture the Whites made while James was in high school, when his friend Giovani Bernard needed help. The Whites opened their home to James’s teammate and fellow star running back at powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas, welcoming him as their own, so much that White describes Bernard as a brother to this day.

“His family did so much for me,” Bernard told the Providence Journal in 2015, when the two best friends played each other for the first time in the NFL. “And my family understands the extent that [the White] family went through for us and for me.

"No matter how many times you say thank you or do this or do that for them, it doesn’t go up to the point to how much they helped me out. Their family means a lot to me.”

Now, the NFL family will step in to help White. We saw it Sunday night.

It was Russell Wilson talking past his five-touchdown performance to open his postgame thoughts with love for White, a former teammate at Wisconsin.

“My heart’s heavy,” Wilson said. “One of the nicest guys, teammates, hardest workers, one of the best people I know, had a tough one, losing his dad, not sure about his mom. My heart’s been heavy all day thinking about him.

"Obviously the game was the game. This year has been a tough year as a whole, a lot of people we know going through so much. James, I’m praying for you man, if you can hear me.”

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It was Tom Brady taking to Twitter on the day of his first win as a Buc, sharing his love for White, a former teammate in New England.

“So heartbroken to hear the news of the tragedy of my great friend and forever teammate,” wrote Brady. “There are few people that come into your life that do EVERYTHING the right way. James is one of them. Kind, gentle, loving, fiercely competitive and hardworking. His parents raised an amazing son. And we are all grieving with James as he is going through this difficult time. Love you my friend.”

It was Devin McCourty racing through the end zone with his first pick-6 of the year and staring straight into the camera, declaring his love for White, his fellow Patriots captain.

“Two-eight, we love you bro,” McCourty hollered.

It was Belichick, his coach, saying simply of his beloved player, “Of course our hearts go out to him.”

How could they not?


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.