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James White, Ryan Groy, Badgers football vs. Minnesota

Wisconsin Badgers running back James White (20) celebrates his 34-yard touchdown run in the 1st quarter with Wisconsin Badgers offensive linesman Ryan Groy (79). The University of Wisconsin Badger hosted the the University of Minnesota Gophers at Camp Randall Stadium Saturday October 20, 2012. Steve Apps-State Journal.

When running back James White left Florida for the University of Wisconsin two years ago, his parents hoped to make it to a couple football games.

Then came word that White, a promising freshman, was expected to play in his first year.

So, Tyrone and Lisa White made a quick decision to be there for the first three games of the season.

They had a good reason to miss the fourth game against Austin Peay, since James was being honored at his high school, St. Thomas Aquinas, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

All James did in that game was rush for 145 yards and score four touchdowns. At that point, it was decided the parents would do whatever they could not to miss another one of their son's games.

"After that, I was convinced," Lisa said. "I was like, 'We're going to every game. We have nothing else to do, he's the last child. What are we doing? We might as well go.' "

Despite the financial hardship involved and the work headaches of leaving on Fridays for games, Tyrone and Lisa have missed only two games since then, against Iowa and Purdue in 2010, when James was slowed by a sprained knee.

They will be in the stands Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium, too, for Homecoming when the Badgers (6-2 overall, 3-1 Big Ten) face Michigan State (4-4, 1-3).

"You look at a lot of the kids that are from Florida who don't have the support," Lisa said. "It's good to have somebody there. We try to be there for him. We were there for Little League until now, so we've always been there."

It extends beyond the immediate family, too, since James' two grandmothers also try to come to games when they can. Willamary Willis, 75, who is Lisa's mom, is well known in the section because she prays on a rosary during games.

"Most of the fans that sit in the same area, they know her and ask, 'Where is grandma with the rosary? We need her,'" Tyrone said.

Tyrone has a brother, Craig White, who played football at Minnesota, earning letters in 1982 and '83.

"One of the biggest complaints when he finished was no one ever came to watch his games," Tyrone said. "But my parents had seven kids, so it makes a big difference."

James has a brother, Tyrone Jr., who is nearly four years older and recently graduated from Central Florida.

'Firm foundation' at home

Tyrone Sr. has worked as a Miami-Dade police officer for more than 28 years. He is currently a captain in the sheriff's department. Lisa works as a probation officer.

So, it must have been nearly impossible for the two boys to get away with anything, right?

"Oh, please," Lisa said good-naturedly. "They still get away with things. You just try and give them a firm foundation and talk to them about the things we see every day and hope they don't turn out like that. You've got to keep them grounded."

When it came down to laying down the law at home, James said his parents were firm but fair.

"They're very down to earth," James said. "They're not too strict, but they know when to put their foot down."

James credited his older brother with leading the way. "I learned from my brother," he said. "He set a good example and I followed that."

Tyrone Sr. played football at Missouri Valley, an NAIA program, then transferred to Florida A&M, where he played for one year. He was a wide receiver and tight end.

He also helped coach the Optimist youth football team James played on while growing up.

The White house was the gathering place for all of James' friends. His parents had several teammates stay over on Friday nights to make sure they made it to the games on Saturdays.

Even back then, James was one of several talented backs on the team. One of his best friends was another running back who split time with him while staying at his house most weekends.

It continued that way in high school, where James is quick to say he wasn't the fastest or most talented player on a prep powerhouse that went 29-1 over two years and was ranked the No. 1 prep team in the nation in 2008.

As a freshman, James was one of four or five talented backs, many of them off his youth team.

"You figure, somebody is going to left out of the mix," Tyrone said. "(James) had thought about going somewhere else. I said, 'No, you're not going anywhere else. This is part of competition and competition is part of life. You have to work through it and things work out.' And they did."

James ultimately worked his way up to be one of the top two backs, sharing time with Giovani Bernard. The two became inseparable friends and Bernard even lived with the Whites for some time after his dad lost his job.

While Bernard got most of the national attention before signing with North Carolina, it didn't affect his friendship with James. It would turn out to be ideal training for what James would go through with the Badgers.

Fast start at UW

James rushed for 1,052 yards as a true freshman, the fourth-most by a UW freshman. His average of 6.74 yards per carry just missed the single-season school record (minimum 100 attempts) of 6.75 set by Troy King in 1982.

UW coach Bret Bielema was convinced he had a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender on his team.

"I really thought, when James came on and did what he did during his freshman year ... (he was) my first Heisman Trophy candidate," Bielema said.

Bielema was off by just a little. The Heisman candidate turned out to be Montee Ball, who emerged to become a Heisman finalist as a junior last season. That pushed White, again, to the background and limited his opportunities.

He rushed for 713 yards and averaged 5.1 yards as a sophomore, never publicly complaining or making excuses about his reduced role.

"We talk about being humble and taking advantage of the opportunities that are presented to you," Tyrone said. "Sometimes you're going to run into situations where you may think you deserve the opportunity to play and it doesn't happen. But when your number is called, you have to be ready."

The friendship between Ball and James White started to blossom last season.

"He wasn't getting a lot of carries, so I wanted to make sure our friendship was still OK," Ball said. "I made sure to keep talking to him and still being there for him, because it was a rough time for him."

They got so close, they moved in together for the first time this season. They are also enjoying their best combined season after White took the lead two years ago and Ball surged to the forefront last season. Together, they averaged 356 rushing yards the last two games and became the only Football Bowl Subdivision teammates to both rush for 150-plus yards in the same game, against Minnesota last week.

Ball leads with 982 rushing yards, a 5-yard average and 13 touchdowns. White has rushed for 470, a 6.9 average and seven TDs overall.

"James, as you can see, he has stepped up his game a lot," Ball said. "He's most definitely putting the fire under me."

Among the wrinkles the coaches have used to get White more involved is lining him up as a slot receiver, as well as putting him at quarterback in a Wildcat formation that made its debut last week. White did a similar thing in high school in a formation called "Wild-White."

Lisa White had to do a double-take sitting in the stands when she saw James lined up behind center. He mentioned the formation to his dad a few weeks earlier, but when Tyrone didn't see it, he thought it had been mothballed.

Tyrone and Lisa were just happy they were there to witness it, as they have almost everything else in their son's college career. James doesn't take it for granted, either, that he has been able to share so much with his parents despite going to a school nearly 1,500 miles away.

James' pregame ritual is to locate his parents after he runs onto the field. When he reaches the sideline, he gets on his knees and says a prayer, then he's ready to play football.

"It's very fulfilling to have loving parents," James said. "I know they're always going to be there for me and I know they're always watching over me."