It’s 2 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon and Tre’Davious White just walked into the ADPRO Sports Training Center after practicing outside in the chilly air of Orchard Park. He’s in the middle of his week preparing for the toughest test of his season, and maybe even his young career to this point - to cover Cleveland Browns wide receiver, playmaker, commercial-starring, one-handed catch-grabbing, and, oh by the way, former college teammate Odell Beckham, Jr..
But on this day, like many others, it’s another former LSU Tiger who White will almost definitely see a message from as soon as he walks across the field house and into the locker room and checks his phone.
“I’ll probably have 60 unread messages from the guys and him,” White says.
The "him" White’s referring to is former NFL cornerback Ryan Clark, who played 13 years for the New York Giants, Washington Redskins, and Pittsburgh Steelers. While the two former Tigers are 16 years apart in age and never played on the same college team, they’re part of a large, constant group text with other players they work out with over the summer. They all keep tabs on and help and inspire each other on a daily basis. That’s what true friendships are about, and one White and Clark have formed since the Bills cornerback was heading into his junior season in Baton Rouge.
“He came to the building and was working out with Jamal [Adams],” White explained when asked how the relationship began, referring to his former teammate and the current New York Jets safety. “I needed some work, so I just jumped in. The relationship started from there and it’s been strong ever since. I owe him a lot for the success I’m having because of the way he trained me even before the draft, before the senior bowl, and then obviously after the draft going into camp. I’ve been training with him for the last 4-5 years. It’s been good.”
But those relationships have to be a two-way street, especially when it comes to highly competitive athletes. Egos can get in the way. Philosophies can clash. It takes certain people to be able to make it work. For Clark, none of that was an issue when it came to White, and he knew it right away.
“The first time I see him is when he and Rashard Robinson were two freshman starting corners,” Clark told me about White when reached by phone for this story. “I’d always been really good friends with Corey Raymond, who is the defensive back coach at LSU. So I'd just start asking about these kids, and I'm wondering, ‘who are these two kids who are about 160 pounds that are starting at DBU? (DBU is an acronym used by LSU faithful for “defensive backs university” because of all the secondary talent the school has produced over the years).
“He kind of gave me some backstory on Tre'Davious and what type of player he was, and then I started talking to Tre, and he's telling me he was the starting quarterback on his high school team and he never had a winning record.”
When I heard Clark tell me that, I couldn’t believe it. But sure enough, White attended Green Oaks High School in Shreveport. In his sophomore, junior, and senior seasons, the team’s records were 4-6, 3-6, and 2-8, respectively.
“This guy was a high school All-American and he never played on a team that won,” Clark said. “So just listening to different things about his upbringing and all those different ways he got to school and the fact that this is where he wanted to be, I think we just kind of developed a bond with this and I just took to him. I wanted to help him and I wanted to be a part of his journey. And so I've been around probably since his second or third year at LSU until now.”
The Bills made White the 27th overall pick in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Now in his third NFL season, he was voted AFC Defensive Player of the Week for the first time after the Bills beat the Dolphins at home in October. In that game, White picked off Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick near the Bills' goal line, stopping a threat to put Miami up by two scores. He then forced a fumble deep in Miami territory, leading to a Bills touchdown and eventual a 31-21 win.
He credits his film study for being able to make the plays, and he credits Clark in a big way for helping him learn how to get better at his craft while in the film room.
“Everything he did in his 13-year career he poured into us,” White said. “I owe him a lot of credit for that because he showed me what to watch. I watched it, but didn’t know what to watch. He helped me learn how to watch film and what to look at.”
White says he’ll spend “hours and hours” in his basement watching for tells on teams and wideouts he’ll face, taking notes.
“My film study sets me up for success towards at the end of the game because I study the formations and pretty much know what the guys are going to do, and that gives me a good insight on what’s coming,” he said.
Clark may have helped instill that film-study grind into White, but it hasn’t stopped there. Despite all he does on ESPN and having a wife and three children, the 40-year-old actually takes the time every single week to review the coach’s “All-22” film of the game White just played, takes notes of every snap, critiques his play and gives him a synopsis of it all. And he does that for the other players he’s close with, too.
White said he gets 16 different scouting reports on himself every year, which usually get to him on Tuesday or Wednesday.
“He tells me what I did wrong, what I did right,” White said of Clark.
Clark said he does it not only because he wants to help, but because it was the best way for him to personally play the game and get to where he needed to go.
“I made sure I was able to anticipate. I made sure I understood the game and I had a feel for it,” said Clark, who collected eight interceptions in three years at LSU, then another 16 picks in the NFL. “I’ll just watch a game and I'll send him notes. He's getting to the point where he doesn't really need as much anymore, but watching film was really heavy. His first year, second year. It was heavy in college. I love the small technique changes that you can make to allow your game to get to another place. I love the fact that you can be somewhere one Sunday, watch it, correct it, and be better the next Sunday. Tre’Davious is extremely intelligent. He wants to be great, and I think the other part of it is - he might not admit it - he wants to be recognized as a great. I think it's all fine and dandy for the little community in Buffalo to know how good he is and for his coaches to respect him and know what that is. But I believe we all play this game because we want our peers to recognize it as well, and I believe he's on a quest to do that. And so when when a guy has that type of focus, when you tell him you have your eyes in a certain place or your footwork needs to change or you need to use your hands or locate the ball this way, they take to it a little better because they're not above critique. He wanted to be critiqued. He wanted to continue to grow, and that helped me be able to just give him a little bit from the field study aspects of different things.”
Putting that kind of trust and faith in someone, and setting your own ego aside, isn’t easy for a lot of players, but White gives no hesitation when asked about it, even saying that the guys Clark works with “trust him with their careers.” He knows Clark isn’t doing it for his own fame or any other selfish reason. They’ve known each other now for about five years, and White says the Ryan Clark we all see on TV is the same Ryan Clark he sees off of it.
“He’s been authentic since I met him,” he said.
For Clark, that trust comes from the common bond the two forged through the hard work it took for each to get to the highest level of football.
“People think about the fact or pretty much never talk about the fact that I was undrafted,” Clark said of how he entered the league in 2002. “Or that I was cut, or that I worked at LSU during my football career when I didn't have a job. So there were all of these things that kind of shaped who I was and the end result, or the destination, didn't necessarily make me forget about the journey. So I have no ego. You know, I don't look at myself as one of these talented, entitled humans. I had to work for it, had to be blessed to do it. So I know when I'm around someone like Tre’Davious that that kid is more talented than I ever was. So I was never going to treat him like I'd accomplished anything other than just being lucky, and I think he was the same with me. He understood it was gonna be work, but I’ve always felt that he respected what I accomplished and the way I accomplished it. So I think we more so formed a bond over hard work and understanding that we were never given anything.”
From not given anything to maybe, finally, starting to get the recognition he deserves, as much as White - or any player - wants those accolades to come right away, it often doesn’t happen like that, especially in a small market like Buffalo. However, Clark laid out the path for it to happen.
“What happens is a lot of times in a place like [Buffalo], you have to be recognized as a unit,” he said. “The defense has to play really well, and when the defense plays well as a whole, now the outside world will try to look into that defense, ‘Ok? Why are they playing so well?’ When it was Lorenzo Alexander, who had double-digit sacks on a solid defense, ‘Ok, let's recognize Lorenzo. Same with Micah [Hyde], and I think it's getting that way with Tre’Davious. It’s crazy, that with him even being a first rounder, his name isn’t one of those names. It’s not a Jalen Ramsey, it’s not a Stephon Gilmore. Jalen kind of had that name coming out. A guy like Vernon Hargreaves, who had that name, hasn’t lived up to it, so we don't speak of him anymore. And so I think what's really cool is Tre’Davious has had to build this. He had four interceptions his rookie year, but he still didn't get that recognition. If he was playing for the Giants, he would have. If he was playing for the Steelers, the Patriots, he would have, but that's just part of it. So he has to build his own legacy there.”
White now seems well on his way to building his legacy. The Bills have the No. 3 ranked overall defense and No. 3 ranked pass defense in the NFL. The foundation is in place both personally and as a team. The awards are starting to come, and all that will keep happening and getting stronger as the Bills’ record does the same.