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Tearing It Up

Sooner quarterback White is sharp in return from two knee injuries

September 17, 2003|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

When the left knee buckled, his first question was, "Why now?"

When the right knee blew out, it was, "Why me?"

Jason White entered Oklahoma as one of the brightest quarterback prospects on the Sooner horizon. With that defense and the talent around him, White's career figured to be Wide Open Spaces.

In 2001, as a redshirt sophomore, White came off the bench against Texas in the Red River Shootout and tortured the Longhorns with his athletic moves and timely scrambles in a 14-3 victory at the Cotton Bowl.

"I just remember thinking that this was awesome," White said this week of his first real taste of college football.

Then came his extended stay at the Voodoo Lounge.

Against Nebraska later that year, in White's second career start, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on a play in which he was not hit. White immediately blamed the injury on artificial turf and began the long rehabilitation process after season-ending injury.

But then it happened again, last year, in his second start, at home, against Alabama. On real grass, the kind cows eat.

Without getting touched, White tore his right ACL and was lost for the season.

Two seasons, two knees, in his second start both years, and all the doctors could do was scratch their heads.

"I had questions," White said, "wondering why it happened. They said it was just a freak deal. There is nothing genetically wrong with my knees or anything. They just really can't figure out why, especially since I didn't get hit on either one of them. But they say that's how a lot of people tear their ACLs, just on cuts. I tried to find answers everywhere, the only answer I came up with was that it was just a freak deal."

When White, who turned 23 in June, fought back this summer to win the starting quarterback job from two sophomores, there was an understandable sense of anxiety among Sooner fans who were not ready to pin their national-title hopes on a quarterback with pins for knees.

But White, to date, has exceeded every imaginable expectation. His 845 passing yards in three Oklahoma victories this season are nearly equal to his career total of 862 yards entering the season.

White has completed 64% of his passes with nine touchdowns and one interception.

It is understood that two wins have come against non-BCS schools, North Texas and Fresno State, but the other was a victory at Alabama in which White completed 21 of 35 passes for 259 yards and two touchdowns.

As he leads the nation's No. 1 team against UCLA this weekend in Norman, White is looking to make the improbable trek from Downtown Rehab Club to Downtown Athletic Club.

Oklahoma Coach Bob Stoops, not one to make public pronouncements, is touting White as a Heisman Trophy candidate.

"It's been a joy watching him," Stoops said this week. "Just for his own personal ability to play, just for his own psyche. But it's also a joy to watch him play because of how well he's moving our team. He is playing at a great level right now."

White had so many obstacles to overcome he could have run steeplechase.

The toughest was the team's Sept. 6 game in Tuscaloosa, the second start of his senior year.

White wouldn't have had blood in his veins if he didn't wonder whether he would be jinxed again by another season-ending injury -- the dreaded ACL three-peat?

The excitement of winning that game for White was exceeded only by his thrill in surviving it.

"I thought about it," White said of the hex-factor. "Thinking it was two starts the last two years that's the games I got hurt in. I thought about it, but I realized I had nothing to lose. If I'm going to get hurt, I'm going to get hurt. But I was relieved after that game. I came out with all my limbs and I wasn't limping."

Stoops said he never doubted White would play again, although maybe not at this level.

"I just believed our doctors, not just ours, but medicine today," he said. "The way doctors are able to repair knees and rehab techniques that they use. You see it in the NFL, you see it in college. They're really good at what they do."

White could go down again, of course, at any time, but Stoops doesn't spend much time pondering the possibilities.

"I'm not much of a guy who sits around and worries," Stoops said. "He looked good all through spring. He looked good in the summer. He goes through our conditioning exercises through the winter and summer, he goes through a lot. If he's doing all that, then he ought to be able to play. And he has."

White, in fact, might be a better overall player on two scarred knees than he was on two good ones.

At 6 feet 3 and 220 pounds, he used to be known as a runner as much as a thrower.

Before his injury in 2001, against Kansas, he became only the 10th Oklahoma quarterback to pass and run for more than 100 yards in a game.

But in the nearly two full seasons he has sat out because of injury, much of that time spent strengthening his knees, White has become a much more polished passer. His touch on deep passes has improved and he has become a more cerebral player.

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